Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

How to Get Students to Write Daily Journals

I used to be a personal journal person. Every January I would buy one of those 6x9 inch spiral wildlife calendars, the kind where you can see a week at a glance and have lots of space to write. At the end of each day, before I turned off my light, I'd scrawl in very tiny handwriting all my thoughts for the day. Sometimes I didn't say much. Other times I went into the margins or the white space below the pictures.

Before I got married I tossed all of those journals. Did I really need to know the exact day some boy had dumped me and broken my heart? I was ready for a fresh start. No looking backward.

Daily writing is important, especially for young students. It's a way for them to not only learn to organize their thoughts but also to express them. This is why I have my students do a form of daily journaling. On the very first day of school, I tell them they need a novel or biography of their choice and a 70-page spiral notebook, which during all those August school supplies sales should cost no more than 50 cents for a plain spiral notebook. This size spiral notebook is actually the easiest size to manage (since I will be collecting these and returning them) and should last the student all year.

We literally start journaling no later than the third day of school. Yet rather than having them write whatever they want all the time, I provide them a list of about 20 questions that apply mainly to fiction or biographical reading (for a complete list, see my class blog).

Typical questions include things like this:

  • What is the mood of the work?
  • Summarize the book so far and predict what happens next.
  • If you were in (character's) shoes, pick one scene and tell how you would have handled it differently and why your approach would be better.
  • Compare and contrast two characters in the work.
  • Pick one character and describe his/her internal conflict. Suggest solutions as to how the character can solve his/her problem.

The questions on the list can apply to their novel-of-choice free-reading assignment or to the class novel. The day we start journaling I teach how to answer the questions, which usually require a minimum of three sentences. Sentence one is the answer. Sentence two is one example of support from the book and sentence three is another. So a sample student entry for Stephen Crane's "The Wayfarer" could look like this:

The mood of Crane's "The Wayfarer" is ironic and bittersweet. The traveler finds the pathway to truth, but it is thickly grown with weeds.  My mom always tells me to tell the truth, but here the person finds that each weed is a singular knife, meaning it is too hard. So he gives up, which I do too sometimes.

Writing in the journal is a grade. Each entry is worth two points and my students are expected to make up any entry they miss from an absence. When I read their answers I look for interpretation and the support for their answer. Unless they have missed the answer by the proverbial mile, I don't count off for wrong answers. Instead I write comments in the margins. I do take off points if they have only given one example for support or didn't give any support at all, as it's the assignment expectation that they support their answer with two examples.

The one thing I do not take off for is spelling, punctuation and grammar. I am not grading those skills in this setting, but rather checking for comprehension and understanding of the material. I want them to problem solve. If they don't remember what mood is then they look up the definition and go from there. These questions are not simple completion.

Journals aren't all work, though. Sometimes I have them do questions of my choosing (as in I make them up that day) and on occasion I also have them free journal, which is when they can write about whatever they want. Free journals are fun — some students tell me about their day and what they had for lunch. Others do talk about their books. Others tell me about their weekends and their hopes and dreams. In addition, my students do quarterly and unit-based goal setting, and so some journals are reflections of the goals they set and the progress they feel they are making. Free journals and reflections like this are usually always two automatic points unless they just write me one line. The general rule for size is to take their thumb and forefinger of their left hand and create a C. That's about the average size journal entry.

While the types of questions on the given list may at first feel one-size-fits-all and I use the same questions with my juniors as I do my freshmen, the complexity of what they are reading and the depth of their thoughts will make each entry unique.

Open-ended questions like these journal questions allow students to formulate their own thoughts and do so through their own reasoning. They must go beyond picking the right answer from a list of four choices, which seems today to be the current trend in education that we test, test, and test. It's a way to teach, apply and reinforce concepts.

Journaling on a set question can also stimulate discussion. My kids use these questions and their journals as a springboard for conversations and learning. They think first, write and then share. This way all students have a basis from which to begin sharing.

For logistical purposes, I collect and grade the journals about every 10-15 entries and usually have them returned in about two or three days. By reading these journals I can tell how my students think, how they write, and what skills they need. This allows me to adjust and tailor curriculum. We also get to know each other and connect — I've had my students share cat stories, love of Dr. Who and their thoughts on the latest NASCAR race. I write notes, give feedback, and personalize instruction.

To make journaling successful, I've found I have to start immediately at the start of the year and to provide students a consistent time for the journaling. My students walk in the room, read for five minutes and journal for five minutes. In addition, at times I will also have them journal their thoughts at the end of the day, but this is not consistent and usually as a follow up to the day's lesson. If my students don't finish their journal entry, they can finish sometime else during the class or at home or another day before I collect journals, a date which I tell them a few days in advance.

Journaling takes effort on the teacher's part, as I have to read all the entries and provide feedback. The more students you have, the more time it will take. It's not going to be as easy as running a quiz through the computer scanner. Yet it can be done at all levels, from middle school to high school to college. The results are worth the effort.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.