by Darren J. Butler, MFA
Recently, a principal emailed me with a question. "Do you think daily journal writing is effective?"
The simple answer is "YES!" The more complicated answer is, "If..."
Several years ago, I was in a third grade classroom observing. The administration asked me to come in and evaluate where they were with writing and close reading. I visited a number of classrooms, where I saw a great deal of excellence with the staff. However, one classroom stood out to me...
The teacher asked her third graders to write in their journals. She set a timer of thirty minutes and returned to her desk. No further instruction. I walked around the room and eagerly observed the students as they took out their journals and turned to a clean page. For several minutes, I watched them basically stare at the paper. A few students scribbled some sentences, but the majority of students had the same problem every writer experiences...the blank page and no direction.
From what I had seen of this particular classroom, the students were writing well on open-ended question assignments, but their writing was fairly simplistic and cookie cutter. It lacked voice, style, and imagination. With the teacher's permission, I jumped into the lesson and started asking them questions about what they were curious about and activities that brought them joy. Once we identified the "what," they were able to create on the blank page.
Daily journal writing is great. Just keep in mind that students need direction. A "free for all to write" can happen eventually, but first, students need mentoring to learn how to understand the task at hand and how to brainstorm for ideas.
Also, journal writing can be bullet lists, graphic organizers, drawings, fragmented sentences for ideas. My journal has numerous pages like that before I write a short story, opinion, descriptive, or an explanation of something.
For grading, I recommend grading the effort - not the content. To me, a journal should be a place where students can use their imaginations and be free of the dreaded red grading pen. In fact, you might want to call it something besides a journal. A Think Book, Imagination Journal, or perhaps something you come up with that fits your classroom and teaching style. Keep in mind - we want our students to enjoy writing. We want them to be eager to pull out those journals and create.
As you're planning for the new school year, consider journal writing each day with a new perspective. Think about what you want to achieve in the end - a love of writing, a brainstormer, engagement in the writing process...the list goes on and on. Make it fun, and you will reap the rewards!