Journal Writing Every Day:
Teachers Say It Really Works!
One of the best things about daily journal writing is that it can take so many forms. Teachers can use journal writing to meet specific goals, or the purpose can be wide open. Some teachers check journal writing and work on polishing skills; others use journals as the one "uncorrected" form of writing that students produce. Some teachers provide prompts to help students begin their writing. Others leave decisions about the direction and flow of student journals up to the students. This week, Education World talked with teachers who use daily journal writing in their classrooms. Included: Writing motivators that work from teachers who use them!
"They have come such a long way in their writing," said teacher Laura Black.
Daily journal writing has helped Black's students at St. Mary Elementary School in Winchester, Massachusetts, progress to the point where "they answer questions in complete sentences, begin sentences with capital letters, and end sentences with periods."
"They are not afraid to take on any writing that may come their way," added Black, "because they have built up extreme confidence."
That's progress any teacher would be proud of -- and Laura Black teaches first grade! She credits her students' daily journal writing for their dramatic development.
Black is one of countless teachers who work journal writing into their daily lessons, often with unexpectedly profound results. Journal writing has proven a popular and valuable teaching tool across the grades and across the curriculum.
JOURNALS FOCUS STUDENTS AND BUILD SKILLS
Donalee Bowerman, a special-education teacher at Canajoharie Middle School, in Canajoharie, New York, starts each class with a journal writing activity. "It gives my students, who have great difficulty with written language, one time when spelling, punctuation, and grammar don't count," said Bowerman. "This lets them express themselves in writing without the pressure they typically have when doing assignments. It ensures they have one positive writing experience each day."
There's a funny thing about journal writing, though -- even when teachers don't check students' responses for spelling and grammar. "I have seen major growth in these children!" said Bowerman. "Many are now restating the questions and using complete sentences and punctuation. Those skills were definitely missing in September!"
"Daily journal writing also gets my students focused on language arts as soon as they walk in the classroom door," Bowerman added. "They know the routine is to get their journals out and start right in."
"They come in every day and immediately write in their journals for the first five minutes," junior-high English teacher Susie Scifres told Education World. "This really helps me get the class calm and ready to transition into that day's activities.
"I've noticed they write more fluently with less 'think' time as the year progresses," added Scifres. That makes sense to her! "I personally know that when I am journal writing on a regular basis, my academic writing tends to flow easier and be better."
At St. Joseph School in Waipahu, Hawaii, JoAnn Jacobs has used journal writing for a number of years. Journal writing has been a real help in developing oral language and speaking skills in her first graders, said Jacobs, adding, "I find it to be a very safe structure for beginning writers. A number of my students begin the school year using illustrations only or illustrations plus a few words. Throughout the year, illustrations are replaced by words, and those who began with a word or two are now writing a page."
"Kids love to write if they feel safe with it," agreed Sharon Powell, a teacher at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Over the years, Powell has used journals in grades 4 through 12. "Students feel more free to write if their ideas are not being judged and if they are not afraid they will be marked down for their mistakes. As the year goes by, I see improved thinking and improved writing just from this safe practice."
Students can look back at journals written earlier in the year or in previous years and see the tremendous progress they've made in spelling and writing, added Powell.
Alicia Merrifield uses journals with her eighth-grade reading students. "I often use what is called "Snapshot/Thoughtshot," she said. "I ask students to select the part they are reading at that very moment." Then Merrifield might prompt students' writing with questions such as What is the most important word or phrase in the section you're reading? Why? or What are you thinking about at this moment in the book?
"When reading something, many kids are not going to come out [in a classroom discussion] and say how they feel about what it is they are reading," said Merrifield. "In a journal, they know that it is theirs and that they can freely express themselves. I've learned a lot about my quieter kids through reading their journals."
JOURNALS HELP DEVELOP PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
Teacher Julie Kader's fourth-graders at Gibson Island Country School in Pasadena, Maryland, do journal writing every morning from the first day of school to the last. As with most teachers who use journals in the classroom, her students' journals are strictly confidential exercises between teacher and student. "Journal writing enables me to develop a personal relationship with each of my students," said Kader. "I respond to the journal entries every day, so we have sort of an ongoing dialogue.
"The journals provide so much growth in students' writing abilities and use of grammar mechanics while they don't even realize they're working on them," added Kader.
Confidentiality is key to the success of daily journal writing, agreed Robyn Brillman, a language arts teacher at Bennett Academy in Phoenix, Arizona. "I see a two-fold benefit to journal writing," she said. "It provides students an opportunity to improve writing skills and a chance to 'vent' in their writing. As long as the students know that what they write remains confidential, they will share with you amazing things."
"I think journal writing is one of the best ways around to get to know students," said Becky Duncan. She teaches both English and history at Washburn Rural Middle School in Topeka, Kansas. One of her favorite journal writing activities is constructed around her students' reading of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. She has students write about a favorite "Christmas past," about vacation plans for the "Christmas present," and about a "Christmas future."
Because Duncan uses journal writing with her English students, she told Education World, "I know more about my English students than I ever will about my history students. [In their journals] students have told me things about themselves, their families, and their lives that they never would have said out loud to me."
Cindy Creedon, a computer teacher at World Harvest Christian Academy in Pennsauken, New Jersey, uses journal writing as a means of opening communication between teacher and students. "This is the students' opportunity to talk to an adult with no fear of reprise," said Creedon. "If they have a problem, they can talk to me about it in total confidence.
"The journal is also a means of getting to know the students outside the school atmosphere -- their likes, dislikes, and dreams," added Creedon.
Kathy Thomson teaches at S. Bruce Smith School in Edmonton, Alberta. She uses journal writing with older students for novel studies and in math. "However," she told Education World, "the most striking rewards have been in math classes." At the end of each math unit, Thomson asks her students to respond to prompts such as 'The hardest concept to learn in this unit was _____ because _____.'
Thomson learns things from her students' journal responses that might never come up during class time. "The resulting responses help to make me a more careful teacher the next time," she added.
Kathy Thomson isn't the only teacher who uses journal writing in math class. Barbara Becker's special-needs students at John F. Kennedy High School in Tamuning, Guam (USA), use them too. Becker teaches a concept and then asks students to explain it in their own words (or drawings). Among the prompts she might use with her students:
"I feel that this is a great benefit to these particular students as it reinforces the learning and provides them with an opportunity to question their own understanding and that of others," said Becker. "I review the journals and ask the students to share their responses if they would like to. You would be surprised at the number of volunteers." Sue Jones uses journal writing with her students at the Colorado County Juvenile Facility in Eagle Lake, Texas. One of the exercises she has used is one she calls "Composition Catharsis."
"First, I explain the idea of 'catharsis' to the students," Jones said. "Then I tell them to choose one thing from the past that they regret -- something that can't be changed but that they still worry about.... When they finish writing, I give them the opportunity to rip it up into tiny pieces, symbolically purging the problem from their past, or they can turn it in for me to read."
"Many choose to turn in their writing," Jones added, "and I get comments expressing thanks for letting them do such an assignment."
MOTIVATING KIDS TO WRITE
Wendy Townsend teaches at Miami State High School in Queensland, Australia. She uses a five-minute journal writing exercise to start all her Year 8 and 11 English classes. "I give students a range of topics that they can do in any order," said Townsend. "I have a few generic lists, but I often put a special topic on the board that might be linked to some news event or the principal's address to an assembly...."
Teachers can also use journals to cater to individual differences and interests, added Townsend. If a child has a keen interest in surfing, she might provide special prompts for that child, such as Describe the best wave or Who is the better surfer, Mark Ochillupo or Kelly Slater? or If you could by any brand of surfboard, which would you buy? Townsend always looks for students to explain and support their responses in well-organized paragraphs. She checks her students' journals several times each term.
"I don't give the whole class a prompt," said Laura Black. "We do more of a conversation journal; I write something personal to each child and the child responds."
Black might ask simple questions of her first-graders to get them writing -- for example, What is your address and phone number? What did you eat for supper last night? or What is your favorite thing to do in school?
"Some may ask me what to write about," added Black. " I might put stickers in the journal and ask kids to tell me what the sticker reminds them of. Once I put dinosaur stickers in the journals and asked students to tell me what they knew about that particular dinosaur."
Other teachers find that daily quotes are a great tool for getting kids to write!
MORE WRITING PROMPTS
Many teachers are more comfortable providing a daily prompt for students than they are letting them write freely. A prompt might be a sentence to complete, a question to respond to, or a quote to explain. Below are some teacher-tested prompts guaranteed to motivate your young journal writers!
- I am from another planet and although I now understand numbers, I do not understand (she fills in a concept they've worked on). Please explain it to me.
- You are helping your cousin (little sister, etc) with his or her math. How would you teach (she fills in a concept)?
- She provides a word problem and asks "How would you solve this problem? Tell all of the steps you would do in sequence."
- If I were the teacher, I would...
- If I could give one piece of advice to any person in history, that advice would be...
- Describe a dream that you had recently. Provide as many details as possible.
- The best lesson my grandparent (or parent or any relative) ever taught me was...
- [on the day after the Grammy Awards are announced.] Do you think the right artists won? Why or why not?
- Tell five things you'd like to do on your next birthday.
- Imagine a friend of yours is considering whether to take steroids. What would you tell that friend to persuade him or her not to do that?
- In 20 years, I will be...
- Tell about an event in your life that has caused a change in you.
- I was most angry when...
- If you could design one room in a house to suit only your needs, what would it look like? (Challenge kids to be as fanciful as they like. For example, would someone have a desk made of chocolate?)
- Describe your perfect vacation.
- My worst mistake was...
- [for high-school students.] Do you believe in love at first sight?
- If you and your best friend could have a free limo for 24 hours, where would you go and what would you do?
- You have the freedom to travel to any city or country in the world. Where would you go and why?
- What would you do if you were president of the United States?
- You have an extra $100,000 to give away; you cannot spend it on yourself. What would you do with the money?
- The qualities that make a best friend are...
- If you were an insect, what kind would you be and why?
- Describe your room at home in detail. What are you proudest of and why?
- [using a current local controversy] Do you agree with the decision? Why? Would you change if anything? What?
What is your favorite journal prompt?
Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2010, 2017 Education World
Writers Journal Topics
The unexamined life is not worth living.
Like in any sport or art, repeated practice improves your physical as well as your mental ability. You develop a sense of what works and what is important to include. Writing uses skills on a mechanical level: vocabulary, spelling & punctuation that clarify meaning, sentences that clearly say what you mean, and skills on an inner, mental level: observing closely, seeing the world in a way that is more full of meaning, thinking about things that matter. These are 'writer's prompts, that means they are not 'confessional', but artistic recreations of an experience, a truth elaborated upon. DO NOT 'explain' the experience, but 'SHOW' it.
For six weeks your mission (assignment) is to produce FIVE 250-400 word journal entries each week on 30 of the following topics. Date and number each entry. You may use the same prompt more than once (different writing each time) and create your own prompt, --numbers 42 through 52 are student-generated prompts-- (Your own original prompt. State your 'goal,' then do it.) These observations, descriptions, scenarios, dialogues & ruminations become a bank account for you to draw upon in your writing. Keep the originals in your journal, then edit, elaborate, and type (double space!!!) each entry into a neat form to be handed in on Mondays.
Each day start with an observation of something from the natural world, --sunrise, sunset, the shape and position of the moon, weather, sky and cloud formations-- add what else you noticed about people & your world-- USE YOUR “WRITERS 21 SENSES”, then continue with the topic of the day.
1. Take a walk alone, no people, no music, no food. Walk in silence for 15-20 minutes. Come home and write immediately about what you saw, heard, smelled, touched & tasted. Then write about what you thought about on your walk.
2. Write about a favorite toy from your childhood.
3. Write about 3 different incidents you observe, -students interacting at school, a lonely person, parents & children on the ferry--.
4. Hold 5 very different objects in your hand: like a leaf, bread, a pen, a blade of grass, or a piece of tree bark. Taste each and describe.
5. What's in a name? Explain the history of your name and what name you would use for your 1st child & why.
6. Write about the monster that lived under your bed or in the closet when you were little. When/how did it go away?
7. On the left side of the paper make a list of all the things you heard today. On the right side, describe how these sounds taste, look, feel, and/or smell.
8. Find a building, observe, & describe what intrigues you about it. Write so the reader can ‘see’ the building also, ie, Stephen King’s “telepathy”.
9. Sit near a window and describe what is "framed" in the glass. Then write about what you know is beyond the frame, but can't see. Use all your senses.
10. Find someplace where you can get a long view of things--over hills or across water--a great expanse. Describe what you see closely.
11. Find a vivid magazine advertisement. Describe its content and its strategy for getting you to buy. Pay careful attention to form, color, tone and message. How does the advertisement make you FEEL?
12. Discuss a weekend morning. What does it feel like to a happy person? To a sad person? Do NOT use the word happy or sad. Do NOT use any form of the verb ‘to be’ (is, am, are, was, were, been, being)
13. Write about someone who has disappointed or betrayed someone else. Describe their inner feelings with italics & their outer appearance in regular font.
14. Write about a person who is insecure about their appearance, use inner dialogue to contrast with outer reality.
15. Write from the point of view of someone who feels very small.
16. Respect. Write a scenario that shows respect between two people only using dialogue. Describe again using only their body language.
17. Describe the scenario of, --in vivid, concrete detail--, the perfect meal: food, setting, & people. Write from the preparer’s point of view. Mess it up: make one person not appreciate it.
18. Fear. Write about a person or animal that is totally afraid. Where are they? What do they taste, touch, smell, hear, see?
19. Describe a game you used to play. Sandwich it as a flashback in an experience thirty years from now.
20. Use hair as a central image in a story. Morning hair, model’s hair, baldness, buzzcuts, long hair, short hair, wigs, hair products, bad hair, how a nervous person plays with their, chews their hair, dog hair, cat hair, horse hair...hair. Several paragraphs or write about one character and their obsession with hair.
21. Use voice or voices in a conflict scene. How are you going to show Irritating voices, pleasing voices, babies' voices, old people's, accents, computer voices?
22. Selecting the clothes a member of the opposite sex choses what to wear on a certain day... Describe their room, their interaction with a mirror.
23. Write about a family heirloom, object or attribute you or someone else or will inherit. Maybe something you do NOT want to inherit from a relative.
24. Open a desk drawer or a box of your childhood things you've 'put away' and describe its contents. Tell a long story about one object. You may use this exercise again for another entry about a second, third or fourth object.
25. Describe the inner thoughts of someone who finds it so hard to say "No" that they regularly do favors they do not want to do. Write the whole scene again from the manipulator’s point of view.
26. Write about how a child feels about a pet. What if: they love spiders? their step-mother’s cat pees on their bed?
27. Write about what a person finds in the wreckage of a natural disaster, flood, earthquake, fire, mudslide. What do they do with it? Who do they show?
28. Go outside at night and look at the sky. What is the night anyway? Describe a person looking up into the sky. What is happening in their life? What is reflected in glass, water, a river, a puddle? Write a scene that only happens after dark.
29. Describe someone rehearsing what to say on the phone, and then the actual conversation.
30. Write a scenario that triggers a memory. Integrate the memory with the present.
31. Describe a dream that seemed real even after you woke up.
32. Writers write about what obsesses them...When I'm writing the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is. Anne Rice. Write about pain, about what can make you cry, about bravery.
33. What makes people cute? Why does it matter? Write from the POV of a cute person who hates being ‘cute’.
34. Write about sleep: what other people look like, what you feel, your pillow, your blanket--
35. Describe the fantasy world you visit when you're bored, when people start to sound like 'blah blah blah', a daydream you suddenly wake up from in class--
36. If you think you don't have anything to say, try going for one day without saying anything to anyone, then write about what you wanted to say, but couldn't. --Have a note in your pocket to show people why you can't talk and journal or paper as an immediate outlet for recording your thoughts & things you wish you could say.
37. Take an opportunity of personal silence to write an entry about really listening.
38. Begin a story with a conversation you overhear. 'Book end' it with another conversation sound bite.
39. Are there feelings that consume in the way a moth is consumed by the desire to fly to a light? Write a scene that shows that. Who resists the obsession?
40. Look at your own bedroom from afar, write what you see, imagine the lives there as a fairy tale.
“#41”. Your own original prompt. State your 'goal,' then do it.
The following are classmate prompts:
42. Write from the perspective of someone who wants to tell someone else something, but is afraid to. Use inner & spoken dialogue.
43. Observe one person in a public place and write from their perspective.
44. Write from the perspective of a bird flying south for the winter. What to they feel, where are they going, what do they see?
And or: write from the perspective of a bird flying north for the summer.
45. Write about a person with a voice in his/her head.
46. A person in the desert with the wind talking to him/her.
47. Describe someone in total darkness. What happens?
48. Set iPod music to shuffle. Write whatever comes to mind for at least 10 minutes.
49. Create a personality and write from the perspective of one of their possessions.
50. Irony/tragedy/humor: take something out of the news & write about the event from a peripheral person's point of view.
51. Describe how a parent's lost or forgotten ambitions turn up in their child. Or, how a child is affected by that/those dreams. Focus on one dream and fictionalize the parents & the child.
52. Write a satirical "alphabet" story, as in M is for Midlife Crisis or C is for Car Accident, etc. Make the whole story work together, not just a random list.
53. Write a scene where your protagonist finds something that belongs to someone else, what do they do with it? what surprising thing do they learn when they find out who it belongs to. Do they give it back?
54. Imagine visiting a house or building from your childhood, (grandparent's aunt's, neighbor's) and you have to go down in the basement to get something. You can barely see, but something attracts your attention, a flicker of light, a small sound. You investigate and discover a door you never knew was there. You open it and find a room, a hallway, and explore. Does it lead to another time or another place in the same time? Continue the story. Can you return to your world or not? How? Have fun with the idea.
55. How forgiving are you when a friend lets you down? Write a mini story for the experience. Option 2, write from the other person's POV.
56. Write a mini story about being able to communicate with animals.