What Is It?
Journaling is the practice of recording on paper a collection of thoughts, understandings, and explanations about ideas or concepts, usually in a bound notebook. Teachers ask students to keep journals, with the understanding that students will share their journal with the teacher.
Teachers can use journaling as a kind of window into how students are thinking about what they are learning. Student journals can be an important source of information about learning difficulties, misconceptions, strengths and weaknesses, and metacognition. The act of transferring thoughts, ideas, and feelings into written words also encourages students to examine their own thought processes. It is a private record of students' thoughts that provides a safe way of communicating with the teacher, giving teachers insight into those thoughts.
"Writing is more than living. It is being conscious of living."
Ann Morrow Lindbergh (1965)
Why Is It Important?
Toby Fulwiler has written extensively about the usefulness of student journals as the "heart" of a school-wide literacy program:
"Journal writing works because every time a person writes an entry, instruction is individualized. The significance of journals as records of thought cannot be under-estimated by teachers who value independent thinking. The journal records the student's individual travel through the academic world; at the same time it serves well when formal papers or projects need to be written."
"Journals belong at the heart of any writing-across-the-curriculum program. Journals promote introspection on the one hand and vigorous speculation on the other; as such they are as valuable to teachers in the hard sciences as to those in the more cushioned humanities."
How Can You Make It Happen?
Teachers need to make instructional decisions about how to use journals in their classrooms. Journaling can be a private conversation that students have with themselves and that they let the teacher eavesdrop on. Double-entry journals help students analyze central concepts and refer to the text for justification. Reflective journals help students develop metacognitive skills by reflecting on what they learned and how they learned it. Dialogue journals help students converse in writing about content they are learning, and learning logs help students keep a record of their learning, clarifying their thinking and learning. Writing journals or writing notebooks can also help students keep track of their ideas and thoughts that they may want to write about in the future. Journals work best when students know they will not be evaluated (or graded) on their writing, and that it is a safe place to record their thoughts.
When beginning to use journals, model journal writing for the class. Students should be aware of what is expected of them in relation to quality, content, and length. Encourage students to extend, defend, debate, elaborate on, and question their own ideas. This can be done within an entry or by revisiting an entry that was completed earlier in the year.
In order to set clear expectations and procedures for journal writing, teachers must plan how often students will write in their journals, when, for how long, and for what purposes. Be sure to establish a level of respect for each student's journal, and make clear that it is a private conversation that can be shared with other students if the student wishes, but is meant to be read by the teacher.
The journal can be a spiral-bound notebook or a binder of loose-leaf paper.
Keep the journals in a designated place in the classroom, or have students keep journals in their desks so they can access them easily.
Develop a classroom routine for distributing and collecting the journals; for example, assign a student who is responsible for the journals each week.
If you are going to have students use their journal writing for several purposes, have them divide their notebook into different sections. The sections could be labeled by subject area, or one section of the notebook could be assigned for each type of journal writing you will ask students to do during the year. As you introduce and model each type of journal writing students will use in their notebooks, have them take some simple notes on the first page of each section. Later, when you assign that type of journal writing, they can refer to their notes to remind them of the expectations.
Establish a system for identifying each entry in the journal, such as writing the date at the beginning of each entry. Students may use page numbers or clever titles, which will be helpful when students want to revise or reevaluate a past entry.
Provide an adequate amount of time for students to gather their thoughts and write them down. Tell them how long you will give them to write and how much writing is generally expected.
Seat students in a location that allows them to concentrate. Enforce a "no talking" rule during journaling time.
Provide feedback in the form of a written conversation, questions, notes in the margin, or some notation that lets students know you are reading and thinking about their entries.