Approaches to Journal Assignments

For teachers interested in assigning journals and trying to decide how to go about it, here are some common approaches:

(1) The general class journal: Students are just asked to fill up a certain number of pages or write a certain number of words by the end of the semester. They can write a variety of things as long as the writing is related to the class. In a writing class where writing itself is the objective, they might be allowed to write about anything on their minds. In a sociology class, they might right about anything they see, hear, or observe related to what they’ve been studying.

(2) The reading response journal: As you might guess, in this approach students are asked to write about what they’ve been reading for the class. They might write their way through textbook chapters or a combination of the textbook and supplementary articles. They might keep a reading response journal on a specific research topic, or it might just be on the general subject area of the class. In any case, they’ll be writing a combination of facts about what they’ve read and their own opinions on those facts. This is a good place for students to be creative. In a reading response journal, they can be encouraged to show some personality in their answers. These journals also make good sounding boards for class discussion. Assign a reading, have students write about it, and then go around the room asking them to read excerpts from what they’ve written.

(3) The double-entry reading log: This is a more organized approach to the reading response journal. In the double-entry log, students arrange their responses in columns. Typically, they might place facts about what they’ve read in the left-hand column and opinions or reactions in the right-hand. This is a good way to work through articles or chapters that might be more difficult for them to understand. The act of finding the most important points and articulating responses to those points one by one will help the students gain a deeper understanding of what they’ve read.

(4) The discussion topic journal (or the DT): In this approach, students are given guided topics to write about. Maybe the same types of topics that would be given on essay tests could be used as journal entries for the students to write about in a lower stakes, more informal manner. Discussion topic journals can also be good springboards for class discussion.

(5) The timed free writing journal: One way to encourage students to really think is to drop a topic on them and have them write about it on the spot. Writing teachers love timed free writings because they’re all about generating as many words as possible in the amount of time allowed, which is often no more than about five minutes. In this approach, no one takes the time to edit for grammar. They just put the words on the page, free association style. Timed free writes are wonderful ways to get past places where conversation seems to have halted in the classroom. Put the pressure on for students to write something, anything at all, in response to your topic very quickly, and by the time they are finished, almost all of them will have something to say. This kind of writing gets the juices flowing.

If you want students to keep a free writing journal for class participation, you might devote ten minutes of each class period to writing on a topic and then going around the room to hear what students have to say. It doesn’t take up a lot of time, but it does add a lot of energy to a lesson.

(6) The creative prompt journal: Another favorite with writing teachers, prompts meant to spark creativity are often used for timed free writes, but they don’t have to be. Students might also work on them on their own outside of class. Prompts might include anything from photographs to literary quotes to just random words or phrases. A history class, for example, might look at a picture of a Medieval village and write about what they imagine life is like in that village. This is different from reading facts and forming opinions about those facts in that the students are given free rein with their imaginations. And once their imaginations are engaged, they’ll be much more likely to take an interest in learning some facts.

(7) The multi-purpose class notebook: Lots of teachers like to assign a little of this and a little of that, which is really a very good idea. Consider giving a class notebook grade with separate sections devoted to free writes, discussion topics, and reading responses. It’s all good.

Note: The success of journal writing for class rests in the fact that it is low stakes writing. The trick is to have them organized enough that they are easy to grade quickly but not so organized that the thrill is gone. Journals should be participation grades in which effort really means something. They shouldn’t be graded from grammar, and they should have too many rules that are too rigid applied to them. If you just can’t help remarking on a student’s grammar in a journal, go ahead and make a comment, but don’t put red marks everywhere, and be sure to tell the student that you are only dispensing advice, not deducting points with your comment.