“Is today journaling?” eagerly asks my little student, a non-native English speaker.
“Yes!” Their cheers greet the announcement of journal class.
I’m greeted by students in the morning. “I know what I’m going to journal about. Can I whisper it in your ear?”
Do I simply have a class of students who all enjoy writing; or is an enthusiasm for writing something that can be cultivated? I firmly believe that all students can learn to enjoy putting thoughts on paper, even though they are not the compulsive writers that their fellow classmate may be. And, the time to begin is during the first days of school.
You can have a five-minute journaling slot every day. You can have a thirty-to-forty-minute slot twice a week. A key to writing without groans is for it to become ordinary and routine. Students learn to anticipate the class and mentally prepare themselves for it.
Make the writing time a priority. A co-teacher recently shared that her journaling time has not been as successful this year because she did not set a certain time for the students to actually write. It became one more thing they should do when they finished their required subjects and less students actually participated in the exercise.
Writing is somewhat like a physical exercise routine. If the habit is maintained, interest and participation will remain high. If one slacks off the routine and skips some days, it is easy to become lazy. Writing takes discipline and effort. It is an exercise of the mind.
Most of us have students in our classroom who, if allowed, would tell stories all class period. Younger children, especially, love to tell others about themselves. Journaling is a time they can share these stories.
Older students enjoy creative prompts or creative ways to write about the ordinary. There are many resources available to help spark creativity, including resources on The Dock.*
Younger students enjoy sharing their stories and pictures with each other during a journaling share time. The shyer student may need encouragement but I seldom let a student skip sharing with their classmates. I have yet to have a child that has not overcome their reluctance to stand in front of their classmates and share their story. When this becomes the normal and expected experience it is no different than any other class process. As I comment on the stories they share, it is a way to give them recognition and affirmation.
Older students may be more reluctant to read their writings in front of classmates but at least some of their writings should be for an audience, even if it’s just a class booklet of their favorite pieces or a letter they send to their elderly grandparent.
There is a time and place for critiquing student writing. However, allowing students to put their thoughts on paper without worrying about proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation can be freeing to the child who struggles in these areas but has creative things to say. Students should be required to read back over what they’ve written to make sure it says what they wanted it to say and to catch the obvious errors. They should not need to feel the need to edit and rewrite most pieces.
Keep the proofread and edited pieces for those in the Language Arts program or those pieces that need polishing for printing purposes. (This is an important skill to be learned—just not at the expense of creative writing experiences.)
Writing blocks often fall in two categories: lack of subject material, or lack of ability to produce what is envisioned. You as the teacher can provide aid for the student in both of these areas.
In introducing a topic or prompt, have a brainstorming session to warm up. Help the students get the creative juices flowing. If you as a teacher have an example to show them, it will provide a model for the less creative.
For classes where students choose their own topics, have a few suggestions available.
In my first-grade journal classes, telling the story is as much about drawing pictures as it is putting words on the page. Some students are uncomfortable with their drawing skills; however, with encouragement and no criticism most of them are willing to put something on their pages.
Spelling issues can also hinder some students. Along with allowing phonetically spelled words, each of my first graders has an index card of words that they ask me to spell for them. They keep these cards and can use the lists the next time they need the same word.
Take a few minutes at the start of each journal period to pull students into the class. My journaling periods usually start with a short well-written, age-appropriate story. We enjoy the words and pictures together before they launch into their own compositions.
An introduction to the prompt and a brainstorming session can get the creative juices flowing. Depending on the type of writing, a discussion of various samples may be appropriate.
Writing is personal. Each person has their own style and unique ability. Encourage the best in each student but allow them their own expression. The key ways that help students be successful with writing is to provide a writing routine, focus more on expression than structure, and make it purposeful.
The groans may not disappear right away, but keep at it. Eventually the students will realize that writing is not such hard work after all!