By Jennifer Guyor Jowett
There are many ways to record our lives. As a child, I kept journals in various formats. Diaries housing private thoughts locked behind heart shaped keys. Reading lists of titles and authors and 1-10 rankings of favorites books. Notebooks filled with stickers of all the colorful shapes and images I couldn’t bear to let go. Early on, I realized that housing my thoughts, ideas, and artwork in pages allowed for self-expression in a space where I could experiment with how different shapes or words worked together on paper.
But my writing journals, which only contained pencil-scrawled work, were the most important to me. These places held my stories and captured narratives from imagination to page. All of these written forms became daily records of events and authentic paraphernalia stored in mini capsules of their time. They showcase who I was on my journey to become who I am today.
This need to keep a written record of our lives has a long history. When we look at the origins of the word journal, we see that it means a “day-book” for travel or work that takes place daily. The word has its roots in the Proto-Indo-European dyeu, meaning “to shine.” Like all words, meaning shifts throughout time, and journal eventually came to mean a book for the daily record of news and events, a daily publication. Teachers have adapted this form into the writing classroom where students use daily prompts to record and flesh out their own thoughts, reactions, and ideas.
The initial idea of a student writing journal came to me as I saw the pride and effort students took in crafting their words. A student would leave a notebook on my desk with a sticky note asking for feedback. Or emails began popping up in my inbox with poems attached. Or students would linger at my desk as class ended, looseleaf stories in hand. They all had one common thread—here’s what I’ve written, and it’s important to me.
These voices were too significant to become lost in the myriad papers, the one-and-done’s, completed during the year. Their words deserved a more prominent placement as a record of their efforts. They deserved to be encapsulated in this moment in time while students journeyed through junior high discovering themselves as writers. As they discover who they were, are, and who they might become. They deserved a place as special to them as my childhood writing journal was to me.
Affectionately known as Smash Journals due to all students smash inside, these writing journals exist as a way of letting students’ daily writing shine. Smash Journals are meant to celebrate student writing. They are a place to contain the smaller pieces students explore: the poems, letters, 6 word stories, business cards, top ten lists, grandparent interviews, and explorations of word forms like anagrams, kennings, and mondegreens. These collections allow students to express themselves uniquely. They have choices in which pieces are housed in their journals. And each entry contains a title and a date, to document its place in time.
The word be means to exist, to occur, to take place. First and foremost, writing needs to be. Just as it needs a place to be. Writing needs to take place within our classrooms habitually so that students can come into their voices. So that their thoughts and reflections can exist, even beyond the time and space we allow within our classrooms. By providing students a place to write and offering them authentic audiences, we allow their voices to be.
During the first half of the week, my 8th grade English students write from a daily prompt, along with mentor texts. These mentor texts come in the form of picture books (How to Read A Book by Kwame Alexander encourages writers to explore their senses) or novels (the opening lines to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming serves as an origin text), or poems written by other students. We spend time talking about the prompt and texts, noticing themes and word choice along with literary devices. We look at examples from previous years for inspiration. And then students have quiet writing time.
We spend a minimum of fifteen minutes to just be with the writing. Students try new forms, a nonet or ekphrastic poem, for example, as they hone their voices. They may choose to write a piece of their own design, though they almost always write from the prompt. On the fourth day, we respond to writers, either through an open mic or a written response on a shared doc. This enables students to see what is most effective in their writing and gain strength in their voice.
Our last day of the week is a much needed journal work day. The work that begins here will continue outside of class. A student sourced playlist of music serves as the backdrop to the hum of activity that students engage in as they start to craft their journal entries onto pages. Fridays are filled with collaboration. Students ask each other about layouts, show one another how to draw faces, help make 3D clouds, and discuss ideas for interactive elements. And these conversations help their writing to be. Help their voices to be. Help them to be.
A sample writing week:
Journal writing occurs frequently throughout the school year. While we begin with a History of English unit that helps to identify where our language originated, students follow this by writing identity pieces such as a Dear Photo piece, I’m From poem, or a mandala. There is a continual back and forth between content and exploration.
The word come means to travel into a place thought of as familiar, to appear, to become perceptible. It’s a welcoming. A natural connection exists between visual art and writing. Readers are invited into books, into stories, into lives, by the visuals of book covers. They choose to open books based on these covers and continue to read the stories based on the images found along the way, whether these images are through written words or artwork.
Each entry of students’ journals contains artwork that functions as a cover to a completed piece of writing. These “covers” draw readers in. They invite them to think. To explore. To wonder what else might be there. To pay closer attention to the words on the page. The combination of written word and artwork allows readers to travel to imagined spaces.
Curiosity allows humans to feed their hearts, and it is stimulated by both words and art. Along with the journal cover and the titled and dated entries, the artwork students create offers peritextual information, providing clues for plot and theme, for thoughts and ideas.
Students choose everything from their cover design to the art that accompanies each individual entry. Sometimes a theme develops that they incorporate into every page. The student interested in sports adds a weekly final football score to the bottom of each entry. The student who loves fairytales incorporates Rapunzel or Ariel within her creations.
Students try different mediums in their artwork in the same way they try different writing forms. Examples from former students are examined and ideas form. They add interactive elements to engage the readers as well: flaps to lift, blank paper tucked into pockets for responses or spontaneous writing, moving Cinderella figures, or envelopes to open storing business cards, for example. All of this is done to draw the reader in, with the hope that readers will spend more time traveling within the written pages.
Just as students don’t initially see themselves as writers, there are students who don’t view themselves as artists. The struggle for them is valid. But just as we encourage fledgling writers, we encourage fledgling artists. We talk about how to elevate a page: adding cut out shapes from construction paper to add texture, using magazine images in place of people or as part of a collage. It’s helpful to let students develop both a written and artistic style throughout the year.
Become: a celebration
Students celebrate their journals by sharing them with a broad audience. From the moment journals are introduced, we discuss our audience (everyone from 1st graders to parents and teachers). In the second half of the year, we do a journal exchange with 1st graders. 8th graders and 1st graders sit side by side, reading aloud and showing, sharing and responding. They take turns writing in each others’ journals.
As a teacher, I add written notes on post-its dropped onto pages. Students write letters to their parents describing what they are most proud of and what challenged them within their pages. And parents respond by writing a letter back. These responses are incredibly impactful. Students added these exchanges into the journals in order to document their work that year. Students tell me these responses mean more than a grade because it is in the written word that connections are made.
I look for growth over time while students try new ideas and take risks. While we individually conference while students work, writers also present examples of their journal entries in a slideshow and highlight these areas to their class. This happens midway through the second quarter. Because journal writing occurs frequently throughout the year, this provides them with enough work for self-reflection and offers an opportunity for them to see how other students are growing as well. These smaller pieces, interspersed with units on speech, listening, grammar, and other longer writing pieces, allow students to experiment in a way that expository writing does not. They feel more manageable and there isn’t as much risk invested if something doesn’t work out.
The word become means to begin to be. And while writers begin with the same stuff, the same daily prompts, the same mentor texts, the same number of letters in the alphabet, and the same options for punctuation, each journal looks different because it comes from the writer. It comes from their artwork, from their imaginations to the page.
Jennifer Guyor Jowett is a middle school language arts teacher in Lansing Michigan. She contributes to literary blogs, educator guides, and the Five Day Open Writes at Ethicalela.com.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.