Friday, August 26, 2016

Keepin' It Old School: In Defense of the Journal

I love technology. I can't imagine teaching without it. I don't think anyone would accuse me of being "old school" when it comes to my ELA classroom. It's a writer and reader's dream to have access to such a wide and authentic audience with which to share thoughts, and technology makes that a reality. It lets my students and I foster connections outside of our classroom walls that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

But there is one foundational aspect of my classroom that is decidedly low-tech, and I plan on keeping it that way.

Every year, I ask my students to bring in a journal just for their reading and writing. Just a plain old composition notebook, easily purchased for a quarter. The notebooks in and of themselves are nothing special: just lined pages bound by two cardboard covers.

It's what we put in them that makes them powerful.

This year, I started off by showing my students my journals. I lifted them up with what I would term a reverence--I wanted them to see how special they were to me. I flipped through the pages that I filled with my not-so-neat handwriting, scratched out phrases and misspellings on prominent display. I showed them my ever-growing book list, my ideas, my thinking. I talked about how sad I would be if I ever lost one of my journals.
My journals

Essentially, I showed them a piece of me. And then I invited them, as fellow readers and writers, to create a journal of their own.

The tape edges both sides of the page.
We divided our journals into two sections: one for reading, and one for writing. We used colorful washi tape (tape that is easily repositionable) to mark the edge of the page that we designated as the end of one section and beginning of the next. When the journal is closed, students can easily see right where the sections split.
Easy to see the two sections.

In our reading section: 

We added a list of books we've finished to the front cover. Some students preferred a spreadsheet-like list, while others created visual bookshelves of all types to reflect a bit of themselves and their creativity.

We included several "Coming Soon" pages--a space for students to record names and titles of books that they would like to read next. Book talks, book tastings, peer recommendations and library visits all help to grow this list.

We also took the time to think about our past experiences with reading and created a visual Reading Life, where students recorded memories they had surrounding reading.

In our writing section:

Our first page is devoted to "Beautiful Words," a space where students can record quotes, lyrics, ideas or phrases that they overhear or see in the world around them that inspire writing. I plan to have them keep an eye out for beautiful words while reading independently throughout the year.
The rest of this space will stay empty for now, waiting to be filled with our words. 

I gave my students time to decorate and personalize their journals. Sometimes, we don't leave room in our teaching to let our students really make their mark on their learning, and I wanted them to feel how important these journals would become to them. I wanted them to see these pages as a place for self-discovery and for risk-taking, so I felt it was important to give them time to really make these journals theirs. 

When we get our Chromebooks next week, I will be rejoicing alongside everyone else. And we will use our technology to write. We will blog, Tweet and use Google Docs to their fullest extent, because technology can lift the level of our writing.

But I won't be abandoning our journals in favor of online equivalents. I have experienced first-hand the power that a 25 cent notebook can have. I want my students to have the chance to feel the rush of putting their words and their thoughts in a space that is all theirs. 

So the journals will stay. They are very young right now. There are a lot of blank pages. They don't mean a lot to us yet. But I hope that they will grow with us this year. 


  1. Love it! I always think about how to divide the student notebooks. You make it very simple: reading & writing. In short, it is basically what we teach :) I want to be a student in your class.

    1. Thanks, Justin!! I try to keep it as simple as possible--I've seen really intense notebooks where it seems like more time is spent on using it as an organizational tool. I want these to be more about them and their thinking.

  2. Nice! I love the modeling and sharing you provide to the students, a sincere insight into why this is important and meaningful.