At the moment the first-grade journal period is filled with stories of train “drivers,” swinging with friends, playing doll, fishing, and kayaking. Today one student was putting out a fire. Another one was playing with his dog while his younger brother sold apples and apple cider at a stand and his sister made apple jam to sell. Many of their stories are fiction while some are autobiographic. Some of these beginning writers have struggled to come up with a subject. Some of them have so many stories that they don’t know which one to journal about. These young authors have only had five weeks of school but most of them are already enthusiastic journal writers. (I’m using the term “journal” loosely. It encompasses any material that is composed during our journal class.)
Since we aren’t very far into the school year, you may be wondering if first graders are capable of journal keeping. While they may not yet be able to write the words on paper themselves, yes, they can keep a journal. Most young children love to tell stories. Our journal class is a means for putting their stories on paper and sharing them with others. For the first several months of first grade, the students draw their story and dictate a sentence for me to write on their paper. We then have a sharing time when they stand up and tell about the picture they drew. As first graders learn to read and write they can start writing labels on their pictures. Eventually I require them to write something about their picture. We end the year with a storybook that they have written and illustrated as an accomplished author and illustrator.
There are several benefits to starting this writing process early in a child’s academic journey.
We journal twice a week on set days. When it is part of the weekly schedule, students are less inclined to view it negatively. Most often I allow students to journal about whatever they would like. Once they become familiar with the routine, many of them start to think about what would make a good story in advance. In the week of Youth Hunting Day, several of my students came to school with hunting tales. They are primed and ready to put their stories on paper. I find that most first graders will journal about real happenings in their lives. A few will use their imaginations to concoct fictional tales. There are usually a few children who have difficulty coming up with something to journal. Then it is helpful when the teacher knows something about their life outside of school and can help give suggestions. It can also be helpful to have a list of ideas to write about. Some years I give out a story prompt that the student should use if they have not already chosen a topic. And sometimes I tell them that we will all be writing about the same thing. I usually need to warn them in advance if I require a topic. If I spring it on them at the last minute some of them will be disappointed that they can’t write what is on their minds. Some children have difficulty deciding what to journal about because they can’t draw the subject, or they can’t spell the words. I stress doing the best that they can because my dogs look pretty funny, too.
As we go further into the year and the spelling skills grow, I start requiring students to write their own words. At first they can simply label the picture. Then I require a sentence. As the ability progresses, I start urging students to produce more words and sentences as we slowly transfer from pictures to text. By the end of the year, my goal is to have the written words more prominent than the pictures.
Spelling is always an issue. Students are quite capable of wanting to write words that they can’t spell. I deal with this in two ways. First of all, I allow invented spelling. I also keep an index card for each child on which I write down the words they ask me to spell, unless it is a word they can sound. Many students will need the same words over and over so if you keep a card that they can reference, it saves you time.
I am not looking for perfect spelling, perfect structure, or perfect grammar. The main requirements for the end of first grade are that the piece begins with a capital letter, ends with a period, and names are capitalized. If I have time, I like to look over the written journal piece with the child. We look to see if there are other places to put periods. We may weed out some ands and thens. I may help them correct the grammar. I guide them into using complete sentences. I may have them fix some spelling errors. Usually this does not happen for every child, every time though I try to get around to each child every couple of sessions.
There are two components of a journaling class that help create enthusiasm and purpose for the writer. First, we start the class with a short story that I usually read to the students. Or, I may tell them a story. I choose well-written and classic stories. I also use this time to introduce them to the various story genres: the folk tale, a tall tale, fairy tales, tales from other countries, true tales, Bible tales, and story poetry. When possible, I use a book that is well-illustrated. Just as important to the young child is the sharing time. When we are finished with our journals, each child gets to stand up in front, show his picture, and share his story. Most children learn to enjoy sharing their stories. There are usually a few shyer students who need to be coaxed into telling their story by questions from the teacher to draw out the details, but after a while they are comfortable sharing also.
In the presentation part of journaling class, we talk about how to share the story and we also talk about what the listener does. A good listener pays attention to the speaker. He also does not laugh (unless the speaker means for them to laugh) or make uncomplimentary comments about the ability of the one sharing. This part of the class needs to be a safe time for all the students.
Our journal stories are kept in a personal ring binder that grows through out the year. Students enjoy seeing their progress and parents enjoy paging through the binders when they visit school. For many of the students, these pages have become a first-grade keepsake that they bring out and chuckle over in later years. And, some students have discovered an enjoyment of writing that goes with them through their school years and into life.
CONTRIBUTOR: Carolyn Martin