StarTeaching Writing Ideas

Journal Writing, part 1
By Frank Holes, Jr
Middle School English Teacher

This is the first in a series on developing Journal Writing in your classroom, a writing technique that is applicable to any grade and any subject area.

We use the journal writing style for several applications in class.  The number one goal of mine is to provide students with a place to record their thoughts and to reflect on their lives.  I also advocate writing activities that can (and should) be done on a daily basis.  I really believe students need to write a lot and often; they become better writers with a lot of practice.  You can't expect students to be good at writing if they only write a few times each month or marking period.  But I also don't believe students need to formally write essays each time either.  Journaling is one way to break up the monotony of the formal style.

Creating journals is a very easy and fun activity that gives the students ownership of the journal. Pass out ten or so pieces of regular lined paper to each student.   I always keep a basket of lined paper at the front and back of my room anyway, so students can add pages to their journal at any time they need.  Then pass out colored construction paper for the front and back covers.  Each student receives three fasteners to hold it all together.  A suggestion is to NOT punch holes in the covers, as the fastener heads sometimes slip through, and the journals can fall apart.  I allow the students to decorate their covers with anything, as long as it's tasteful and appropriate for school.

Students must be given the freedom of choosing their own topics if they wish.  However, I always provide a topic for the students to use if they are unable to generate their own ideas.  Students are allowed to use my topic, or to change any part of it.  I'll share a few of my classroom journal topics in the follow up to this article.  Any idea can be changed into a journal topic - I usually add a few guiding questions for students to consider when making their responses. 

Some students also enjoy writing on the same topic for more than one writing session.  I even have some students who are writing stories, and complete chapters or stanzas during class time.  They may take a break once in a while and write on a different topic, but they usually end up back at their story.

Students are not allowed to stop and think for more than a few seconds - this is a writing activity, not a stopping and thinking activity.  And their grade is based on the amount they write, not the amount they think. "I really believe students need to write a lot and often; they become better writers with a lot of practice."

So what are the rules for a journal write?  Basically you get to decide!  Just keep them consistent and students will know what you expect within the first few writes.  In my class, students are allowed to choose the genre, such as poetry, drama, or prose.  They are encouraged to try out different styles.

Since the journaling is actually a form of active brainstorming, I don't worry about complete sentences, spelling, or mistakes in grammar or mechanics.   These are the guidelines we use, but you can feel free to adjust them to suit your class and needs.

 

In the follow up article, I will explain the easy grading system that is set up to MINIMIZE the amount of teacher work.  This stress-free system allows your students to write more and write often, without the massive paper stack for you to grade at home.  I'll also provide some of my sample topics to get you started.

 

Journal Writing, part 2

I use a grading system that makes the journals easy to grade.  In my class, a full page is given ten points (ten being the maximum per page).  However, I'm a stickler; the students must write a full page, right down to the last line on the paper.  I do allow the top eight lines for brainstorming, though I don't always require it.  Students are always allowed to use the brainstorming lines if they wish. 

I require at least one page at each journaling session, which lasts from ten to fifteen minutes.  Students are required to write constantly until the time is up, or until they reach a full page.  However, before they are allowed to go on to another activity, they must show me their completed work.  Students may also write more than a page for extra credit.  I give out ten points for each full page beyond those required.  For example, we may have three journal sessions in a week, so the weekly grade is out of thirty points.  If a student completes five full pages, their score is fifty points, twenty of them extra credit!

I don't mind offering the extra credit, since usually the ones who take advantage of this are your A students anyway.  And since I want to promote as much writing as possible, I strongly encourage every student to write for extra credit.

Journals are the only form of writing that I allow to be done outside of class.  Mostly this is because I allow students to write for extra credit (only promoting more writing!)

Students are allowed to share their writing with the class afterward, though no one is required to share.  I tell the class they may read all or just part of their writing, or just tell about it.  The remainder of the students are allowed to keep writing during the sharing time, and must stop when there are no more to share.

I strongly believe students should be allowed to keep their journals when the year is finished.  For many students, putting down their private thoughts in class can lead to a lifetime of writing.

If you'd like to check out a list of journaling topics, check our website at the following quick link:   www.starteaching.com/free.htm.  Again, you may feel free to use any or all of these, and they may lead you to think of many others of your own.  You can also use any of our Weekly Writing Prompts from issues of our newsletter.  I encourage you to send along your own topics to add to our calendar.  

 

 

Journal Writing Topics

(on an overhead you can print and use)

Journal Topics                                Week 1

Imagine that you are going to be stranded for 6 months on a deserted island in the South Pacific, and are allowed to keep only 5 objects (other than the clothing you are wearing).  What would you choose?  Why would you choose each item?  How would each item help you to survive? 
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Describe the best moment of your life in great detail.  What made that event so special?  Why do you remember it?  Describe how you felt.  Who was involved?  What did you learn from it?  Looking back, how has this moment changed or affected your life?
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What is the best excuse you have ever used (or heard someone else use) to explain why your homework was not finished?  Describe the event in great detail.  Did the excuse work?  Why or why not?  Feel free to create your own unique excuse!
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If you were the principal, describe 5 changes you would make to improve school.  Explain why each item needs to be changed.  How would these changes be put into action?  Who would need to help make them happen?  How would these changes affect other students, teachers, parents, or visitors to the school?
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What are 3 goals you have for the remainder of the school year?  Why is each goal important?  What will you learn from achieving each goal?  How will you work to attain each goal - what action steps are necessary to accomplish each?  Who can help you reach each goal?
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What are the top 5 places in the world you would like to visit during your lifetime?  Describe each place in detail - what does it look like?  What are the people like?  What unique foods are there?  What neat activities are there to do?  How will you get there - plane, train, car?  Why do you want to visit each place?  What do you hope to learn by visiting each place?

 

 
Journal Topics                                Week 2

If you woke up in the middle of the night, and found that your house was on fire, and you only had time to grab 5 items (all of which you must be able to carry together at the same time), what would you take out of your burning house? 
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Why are some friends 'best friends' and others are just friends or acquaintances?  What characteristics are different?  Why is friendship important?  Why are both types of friends important?  If you were in a rough situation, or going through tough times, which of your friends would you want to be there with you, and why?
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If you could meet any 3 famous people (modern day or from the past), who would you choose and why?  What would you say to them, or ask them?  What do you think their responses would be?  Why are those persons famous - what did they do to achieve/deserve their fame? 
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What dream job would you have if you could be anything you want to be?  Describe your job in detail.  What would be your duties?  What would be your responsibilities?  How much would you get paid?  Why would your dream job be rewarding to you? 
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If you could plan the hot lunch menu for a day, what would you have on the menu?  Describe each item in detail.  Use as many adjectives and adverbs and other describing phrases as possible.  Why did you choose each dish?  Would others agree with your choices?  Why or why not?
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Describe the worst moment of your life in great detail.  What made that event so awful?  Why do you remember it?  Describe how you felt.  Who was involved?  What did you learn from it?  Looking back, how has this moment changed or affected your life?

 

 

Journal Topics                                Week 3

If you could plan your own summer vacation, what would you want to do?  What would you like to see if you could go anywhere in the world?  What activities would you want to do?  Who would you like to travel with?  Would you choose to take anyone with you?  Why or why not? 
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Describe an unusual dream you have had.  What made it so unusual?  Tell about it in great detail.  Were there other people in your dream?  What do you think it means?  How can dreams affect us in the ‘real’ world?  What can we learn about ourselves from dreams?
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Who has been your favorite teacher so far in your life?  What was it that made that person your favorite?  What important information did you learn from that teacher?  Which teacher has been your least favorite so far?  Why?  Describe a few examples.  How can teachers impact our lives, good or bad? 
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If you won $1000 in the lottery, how would you spend the money?  Would you buy items for yourself or others? Describe what would you purchase?  If you donate part or all of the money, who would you like to help with such a donation?  Would you invest it, or put it in the bank?  What advantages or disadvantages are there in putting money away? 
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Do you think students should be forced to wear uniforms to school?  Why or why not?  What advantages or disadvantages are there?  Describe these in detail.  Is it right for someone to force students to all wear the same outfit?  What about your own creativity, and freedom to choose?
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Imagine you have received money to take a bicycle trip across any state in the U.S.  You can take as long as you like and you can stop anywhere, but your only means of transportation is a bike.  Which state would you choose?  Why?  Where would you stop in that state?  What would you like to see?  How long do you think it would take you to finish? 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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