Rebecca Gettelman is a middle and high school teacher from the Midwest. She has been teaching for over ten years. In this blog post, she shares her passion for using journal writing as an important tool in her English Language Arts classroom.
Over the course of a year, my students answer somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred journal questions. Some are funny and some are deep, but all ask students to tell me what they think and/or feel. I have had countless positive stories about journal writing, but one student’s comment really stands out to me. At the end of every year I ask students to fill out a review of my class. This student said that he really liked the journal writing because, while it was a pain to do on any given day, it meant that someone really cared about what he thought and was actually listening to him.
Below are 7 of my best tips on how to implement an effective journal writing component to your English Language Arts program.
1. Make it fun and special. It is easy for your students to see journal writing as just one more thing to do. Help them see it as something other than the daily grind by including fun elements. Here are two ideas: Normally, I require written work be done in pencil or blue or black ink, but each year I buy a set of fun colored pens that the students use when they write their journal entries. I also ask the students bring in a special notebook (you might let them decorate and personalize it) that is kept in my classroom and used only for journal writing.
2. Use a variety of questions. Work to make sure that your questions cover a wide range. Some students give really insightful answers to those tough, deep questions, but others will respond best to more lighthearted questions.
Here are a couple examples of the questions I use in my class:
Something Fun: If you were going to change into an animal for one day each month what animal would you be and why?
Something Insightful: Who is the most honorable person you know? Explain.
Something Challenging/Self-Reflective: What is one strength or one weakness you have? Explain.
Something Creative: What shape best represents you? Explain.
Something Serious: What is the biggest problem our society faces today, and what can you do about it? Explain.
3. Journal regularly. The more often you journal, the more second-nature it will become. Students will begin to see it as a normal part of class and will also have plenty of opportunities to share when and if they need to. I have found that for me two to three times per week on average seems to work well.
4. Share your own responses. You are asking students to share a part of themselves with you. I have always found that students open up and think much more deeply if I set the example first. Remember, one goal of this type of journaling is to develop a relationship with each student, and relationship development is not a one-way street.
5. Don’t make the journals homework. Journals are not meant to be one more piece of homework. Enforce this. Keep the journals in the classroom, and don’t let students take them home. Don’t assign a prompt if there is not class time to complete it.
6. Make grading easy. One of the downsides of journaling is that it creates a lot of material to grade.
Here are a couple of suggestions to make grading go as smoothly and painlessly as possible.
I only grade for depth-of-thought, effort, and completeness. As long as I can read and understand the entry, I don’t grade for things like grammar and spelling.
Grade once a week or even once every couple of weeks. This gives/encourages students to go back and add a thought or two if something occurs to them days later.
7. Discuss confidentiality. Before I give out the first journal question of the year, I always have a discussion with my students about confidentiality. I explain to them that what they write in their journals will stay between us unless what they write causes me to be concerned about harm coming to themselves or someone else. It is important that students know that this trust also means when someone is in danger, I have to get help.
I hope you consider adding journal writing to your classes. It is truly one of the best tools I have ever used my classroom. It not only improves students’ thought formation and writing, gives students a creative outlet, and can cut down on wasted time, but it also helps you build relationships with individual students and provides them a safe avenue to talk to an adult.
Looking for ready to go journal questions? Rebecca has created a teaching resource of 125 Thought-Provoking Journal Questions/Journal Prompts. She can be reached for further advice on journaling through her blog or Teachers Pay Teachers store.