Each day I write on the board: “Today’s journal topic,” followed by a prompt that comes to me or that I adapt from other sources. I tend to draw the prompts from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, Susan Shaughnessy’s Walking on Alligators, our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, or from a variety of sites that I find through Googling “high school writing prompts,” “journal prompts,” “writing ideas,” or some other similar search terms.
Each journal prompt also goes on Twitter so that absent students can get the day’s prompt. A happy by-product of the tweets is that quite a few people see them, use them, and chime in with ideas. In the past, I’ve used the hashtag #journal, but that one has become sort of busy and distorted, so this semester I’m using #E307, our school’s code for the Creative Writing course. Feel free to follow along and join in!
When I write the day’s journal prompt on the board, I always add “ … or ? …” The idea is that students can use the prompt or not. I tell them that when it comes to the journal prompts, they are free to explore or ignore. Why should students be tied down to my idea when they might be more compelled to delve into their own ideas? The goal is to explore their own depths and imaginations, so it’s 100% OK with me if they never use my prompts, but at the same time, I don’t want anyone to struggle with “I don’t know what to write about.”
Sometimes it takes a minute or two for the writers to settle in, but then it becomes almost eerily quiet, with pens and pencils scratching across paper and the occasional quick flip of a page the only sounds. The air in the room seems to change as everyone, including me, focuses for ten or twelve minutes on whatever we’re writing about.
After about ten minutes, I say something like, “OK. Can we please bring that in for a landing?” All of the writers find a way to come to a stop within about a minute. This is followed by, “Does anyone have anything you’d like to read today?” On most days, several writers will share something from their journals.
When I check the journals from time to time, I always get surprises. In my most recent class, I was surprised that several students wrote poetry every day. Sometimes the poems were on the day’s suggested topic, sometimes not. I also had a couple of pairs of students who wrote to each other, trading their journals on alternate days. This resulted in some rich back-and-forth on a variety of topics with each response at least a page in length. One student wrote in red every day but never used that color on her other work. Many students wrote about their own writing projects or referenced pieces written by other students.
I’m still in the process of learning from my students’ journals, but so far I’ve learned this:
• No one is brilliant every day, but everyone shows brilliance from time to time.
• Quantity begets quality. As the semester continues, the writing gets stronger as stamina improves.
• Students will write thoughtfully and energetically when they trust the environment and feel like they have something to say. Teachers can provide motivation for both of those elements.
Over the course of this one-semester class, students write at least 75 journal entries, each at least a page in length. They use their journals to reflect, have fun, question, rant, problem-solve, and think deeply. When I read what comes out of their minds and pens, I’m always inspired to be a better, more disciplined writer.
Your thoughts and experiences with using journals in class are welcome here! Thanks.