Explorations: The Ultimate Journal for Elementary and Middle School Students

Early in my teaching career I read a book that said to call an activity, “Our Time.” Since the name “Our Time” had nothing to do with the activity, I thought it was a pretty ridiculous (and manipulative) idea.

What I came to see was that even though “Our Time” had nothing to do with the activity, it did have everything to do with students understanding exactly what was expected of them during that time.

Over time, this rather absurd “Our Time” clarified for me that when you classify something and name it, it becomes a shortcut for understanding and communication. In teaching, it becomes a shortcut for students and a shortcut with students.

Explorations: A Shortcut for Exploring Writing and Exploring Learning

Explorations focuses on:

1. Real writing for a real purpose
2. Reflecting on what is being learned
3. The prewriting process 

“Explorations” clearly defines six types of writing. It gives a name to each and clear guidelines for each. In one sense it “compartmentalizes” these six types of writing inside of a single journal.

 These six types of writing have a lot in common.  The way I use “Explorations,” all six types of writing could be considered “prewriting.” They are not a finished product that gets “turned in for a grade.” However, they are all very important types of writing. In fact, they are the types of writing that most people are most likely to do EVERY DAY.

The Explorations Journal, or Explorations, is a shortcut for much that I want to achieve both in teaching the writing process and in teaching the learning process.

Finding Maximum Writing Opportunities Every Day

The research says to give students LOTS of writing opportunities every day.  “Explorations” is a journal that fits A LOT into a tiny package.

Explorations: The Six Types of Writing to Explore

1. Quick Writes – Quick reflections on what students have learned or are going to learn. They are directly connected to what is being studied and the curriculum. They last anywhere from 2 minutes to 7 minutes. I may pose a prompt or I may leave it completely open ended. This is one way to check for understanding and to make sure students are following along. It should provide great insights for students about what they have learned. The teacher needs to “help make students aware of their own insights” and promote them.

2. Journal Entry – More thoughtful/reflective than a Quick Write. The word “journal” comes from the word “journey,” so in one sense it’s about each student exploring their own unique journey and their unique learning experiences. Journal entries take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. If we have the time I may have students do a quick brainstorm. (After “Pattern Based Writing: Quick and Easy Essay” students are experts at brainstorms, both brainstorming for details and focusing on the bigger picture with the Main Idea List (MIL.)

Here are a few times I may choose journaling as the best strategy: completing a chapter or unit, exploring a sticking point in math, reflecting on a field trip or an assembly, progress reports, vacations, the weekend. Quick Writes are more about the information and journals are more about the experience. 

3. Brainstorms – As mentioned, my students are experts at brainstorming both at the detail level and at the main idea/big picture level.

Here are some times we might brainstorm: Before a discussion, making a class decision, getting a few ideas flowing before reading, before discussing what is expected.

4. Note Taking – Note taking is a lot like brainstorming, or I should say that it’s easy for students to make the jump from brainstorming to note taking. The way brainstorming is taught in “Pattern Based Writing: Quick and Easy Essay” has students easily able to brainstorm for details, as well as brainstorm for main ideas. We take these skill and transfer them to what the students are reading. For this kind of “note taking” I do not have children write in complete sentences. (All this is covered in, “Pattern Based Writing: Quick and Easy Essay.”)

Here are some times we might do note-taking: If we watch a video, a student is giving a presentation, before discussing what was important in a chapter. Note taking largely focuses on vocabulary words, shocking facts, main ideas, and “ohh, that will be on the test.”

5. Free writes – I use free writing as a gateway to creativity and language play. Sounds, rhythm poetry. Unconscious stream of thought, with a little “intent” thrown in. The intent is, “sounds, rhythm, and poetry.”

Doing one of these from time to time is better than the traditional ways to prevent “writer’s block.” The free writes seem a little bit like preventative medicine.

Here is an example of a 3 minute free write: (Remember, it’s unconscious stream of thought writing…)

String, strung. How the thin little thread creates a web of tricky little treats. String for kites and boats, but not for thread. I use it in my teeth, and in the sheets on the bed, but when I tie a string around my finger it reminds me of… string, the string reminds me that I need even more string. String is strung around the flagpole at dawn. It is also strung from the spiders two front claws. Sting, strung, string, strung. Guess what? It’s spring!

I see many amazing free writes. Often strange, but it’s writing people can’t do when they try, especially when they do try. However, the goal here is not the results. (I personally find them to be amazing, but I don’t know that everyone would see eye-to-eye with me on that.)

The point is, and the goal is, that they open up the door for so much risk-taking and creativity in student writing. If you teach the kids how to do it without complete silliness, it’s fun for both teachers and students. (It’s not something I am going to spend hours on, but 3 minutes every once in a while… good use of time.)

6. Lists – Sometimes lists are the best ways to get great ideas fast. Ex. We are going to an assembly. “Your ticket is showing me five behaviors I will see, and five behaviors I won’t see. Use complete sentences with correct spelling and punctuation.” 

Lists are also a nice way to get great ideas without seeing a lot of grammar and spelling “rule breaking.” If I’m teaching important new concepts, I don’t want to see a bunch of rules being broken that will take the teaching and the learning in the wrong direction. A list keeps it simple!

General Guidelines for Explorations:

I refer to the journal as “Explorations.” I don’t emphasize that Explorations is a “journal.” The word journal has a specific meaning to many people.

Three Definitions of Journal:

• A notebook for reflecting on, exploring, and examining one topic in order to progress and breakthrough.
• A diary to reflect on life.
• A diary to record life.

Explorations purpose is different than these three journal descriptions. Explorations is strongly connected to prewriting. Prewriting to me is about exploring… and then getting organized. Explorations (obviously) deals with the exploring part of prewriting. We can then use Explorations to create “brainstorms and Main Idea Lists (MIL)” as taught in the “Pattern Based Writing: Quick and Easy Essay” writing program.

This leads to fantastic essays that students write quickly and easily!  Click here “Teaching Essay Writing Strategies” to discover how!

More General Guidelines:

• I give students a short amount of time (2-12 minutes) for most of the writing in Explorations.  Although I do not give a lot of time, I do expect neat, thoughtful work. This is not “sloppy copy.” (I do not teach students to purposely try to do poor work.) Explorations (and prewriting) is more about writing without judging than about writing fast. If you don’t judge your thoughts as you write, it flows more easily.

• I make sure students know which of the six types of writing they will be doing. Purpose and intention guide their writing. (I use printed descriptions and checklists to both teach and review the six types of writing and my expectations.)

• I never skip a day. Skipping even one day is the beginning of “abandoned journal syndrome.” As busy as we are, I can always find 2 minutes EVERY SINGLE DAY to reflect or brainstorm. Usually I can find several opportunities each day. We keep Explorations close at hand!

• No skipped lines or empty spaces. If the previous entry covers more than half the page, skip to the next page. If there is more than half a page empty, draw a line under the ending of the previous entry and start on the next line.

Sharing and Grading

Be sure to read “How to Use Journals in the Elementary and Middle School Classroom.” There are many great ways to handle the sharing and grading of journals.

I have a lot of different systems for sharing writing. I try to have most everything students write read by at least one other person. That’s the goal. (I will need to do another post on all the ways I have students share their writing!)

I also have a lot of different systems for grading, including rubrics and checklists.

I do collect Explorations every week and read/scan them over. I write a few comments at the very end, and possibly along the way. (Studies have shown that students pay most attention to the comments at the end.)

I pay attention to:

• Neatness
• Completeness
• Ideas and thoughtfulness
• Spelling and grammar
• Appropriate style and format
• Used time wisely

Structure in Journals

There came a point in my career where I was frustrated with journals. I worked hard to teach students to write correctly, and journals seemed to send a mixed message. In journals students would write “sloppy copy.” I don’t have that problem anymore. I spend 1-2 months getting students to write fantastic essays, and then everything in Explorations just makes sense to them.

There is no such thing as “sloppy copy” when you understand the writing process and take pride in your work! Click here to check out the essay writing program for kids.

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