This page is designed to help you help yourself! Are you interested in using journals in your elementary or middle school classroom? If you are, then you will definitely want to read what follows.
The main issue with journals is time. With so much to accomplish and so little time, are journals an effective use of time? Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” This applies to journal writing and using your classroom time wisely. By planning out what you hope to accomplish and by making a variety of strategic choices, you will maximize the benefits for your students and reduce the headaches and heartaches for everyone.
Journal writing usage and effectiveness can vary from grade to grade and from teacher to teacher. There is no absolute right way to use journals in the elementary or middle school classroom, but there are many wrong ways. The problems with journal writing are illustrated by the fact that many, many teachers begin using journals with high hopes, only to abandon them soon after the first metaphorical ink has begun to dry. In short, journals without a real purpose seem like busy work to everyone involved, and they soon fall by the wayside.
Once again, this page is designed to help you help yourself. You know your students best, and you know yourself best. What do you hope to achieve with journals? What you are likely to follow through on? What sounds great but will likely prove unrealistic or ineffective? Where will the journal writing time come from? Let’s think about these and other issues before we make the leap. Let’s make a plan!
By the way, if you are looking to teach writing quickly and easily, but are feeling a bit lost, please go to the homepage and check out the Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay writing program. It’s highly effective for teaching elementary school students and struggling middle school students multi-paragraph essay writing!
Can you Make Journals an Effective Use of Time?
The answer to the above question is YES. In fact, you can make them a fabulous use of time, but you have to develop a strategic plan. You must be able to answer these questions:
1. What are my goals and expectations?
2. How will the journal fit in with my curriculum?
3. How will I implement my journal system?
Harmful Unmonitored Journals in the Classroom
First, a word of warning: unmonitored journals can do harm. Kids see them as busy work. And since no one really cares about the journals, students practice writing poorly—very poorly. Unmonitored journals often send the wrong message as to what is important in writing. In fact, unmonitored journals can erase a great deal of hard work that went into getting students to write correctly in the first place. Practice makes perfect, and if students practice writing incorrectly, they will get perfect at writing incorrectly. Students must understand that their journals are important and they must take pride in them.
Questions to Ask and Answer about Your Classroom Journal Writing System
When it comes to using journals in the classroom, think before you act. I have witnessed (and participated in) more abandoned journals than I can count. Abandoned journals almost always represent time that could have been used more effectively elsewhere. Before you hand out a journal, think about the following list of issues. Take out a piece of paper and make a plan. You will be thrilled that you did!
1. Will the journals be graded? How will the journals be graded?
2. Will students share the journals with others? How will they share the journals with others? With whom will they share? How often will they share?
3. What are your time constraints? What results are you hoping to achieve in that time? Do you have writing goals? Content area learning goals? Will the journals help you achieve your grade level writing standards?
4. Will the journals be primarily prompted writing or unprompted writing? Will it be reflective writing or personal writing?
5. What types of writing and learning activities will be done in the journal? Quick writes? Journal entries? Free writes? Reflections on learning?
6. When will students journal? Why will students journal? Will students understand the when and the why and the intended purpose?
7. How will the teacher interact with the students’ journals?
8. What kind of journal will it be? What’s the purpose of the journal? How many different journals are you going to use? (There are many different kinds of journals and many different ways to use them. I will be posting a few different journal models I have used, so be sure to check back.)
9. Is it a timed writing? Does everyone get to finish every journal entry? Does everyone have to finish every journal entry?
10. How do you handle spelling and grammar issues? How do you handle multi-paragraph writing issues? How does the journaling fit in with the writing process?
11. Privacy and sharing: How personal do you want your students to be? Do you want them to write in such a personal manner that they are then embarrassed to share their writing with the entire class? Kids will get very personal in journals. Some students end up providing “a bit too much information.” What is your policy?
12. How do you communicate your expectations? Checklists? Rubrics? Where are the checklists and rubrics located? On a poster? In their journal? Copies passed out?
13. Will you have students decorate and personalize their journal? How? When?
14. How does your usage of journals in the classroom align with your state writing standards and the CCSS?
15. How will you monitor the journals? Will you evaluate each journal entry thoroughly? Or will you quickly comment on a few that catch your eye? Or will you comment on all of them after a certain amount of time has passed? Or will you use another method for monitoring journals?
16. Is the journal a multi-purpose journal or a single purpose journal? Will you have one type of writing in the journal or many different types of writing in the journal? Based on my experience, one fully used multi-purpose journal is better than many journals that contain many empty pages.
17. Is the journal’s main goal to improve and explore writing or to reflect on learning?
18. How often will students write in the journal? Daily? A couple times a week? A couple times a day?
19. Do you schedule a different type of writing or entry on different days of the week? Different times of the day?
20. What do you do while students write? Do you also write? Do you conference? Doing anything else is likely to send the message that the journal is simply busy work.
21. Is the journal connected to any other writing curriculum? Is it connected to your entire curriculum?
22. How much of your intent is to provide a fun, safe place to explore writing?
23. How do you end the journal writing session? Do you give advanced notice to “wrap it up” or do you require a certain amount of writing? Do students share what they wrote with at least one other student?
24. Do students write in the journal after they finish their class work? Is it a part of their homework? Is there a special journal writing time?
25. Do you treat the journal writing as a regular classroom writing assignment? Is there a difference between the journal writing and the other writing assignments students do? Do all of your regular classroom writing rules apply?
Pros and Cons of Journal Writing
Some teachers successfully use journals as an important tool in their teaching methodology. As a rule, these teachers are experienced and have learned over time what works and what doesn’t. Many new teachers try journals, and while the journals may be fun and engaging, the teachers find that they don’t deliver measurable academic results. As such, let’s examine a few pros and cons of journal writing in the elementary and middle school classroom.
Pros of Journals
• Journals are often a good relationship building and community building activity.
• Journals are usually low-stakes personal or reflective writing, which helps students to develop confidence and supports critical thinking.
• Journals are usually a “safe place to write.” This is especially helpful with beginning writers, reluctant writers, remedial writers, and ESL students.
• Journals can provide numerous writing opportunities for students.
• Journals can be used as a part of homework that all students can complete independently.
• Journals can get students focused and working when they come into the classroom.
• Journals can help build a community of writers.
• Journals can be used as a source of ideas and prewriting for other writing assignments.
• Journals can help create fluent writers.
Cons of Journals
• Journal writing is often perceived as busy work.
• Journals take time. And when combined with silent reading etc., it becomes a pretty big chunk of time without actual instruction.
• If teachers simply let students write whatever they want, however they want, they are unlikely to achieve any important or specific writing goals.
• How thoroughly will the teacher read the journals? Could the teacher’s time be better spent doing something else? If the teacher doesn’t read the journals, could the students’ time be better spent doing something else?
• Journal writing can be hard to align with achieving state writing standards and CCSS.
• Journals deliver academic results mostly for teachers who really understand how journal writing fits in with their curriculum, their academic goals, and their teaching style.
• Many journals are abandoned when they don’t seem to be going anywhere or delivering any results.
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