Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thinking about writing journals?

I'm starting to plan for my 6th year as a 7th grade reading/writing teacher at Chicago-area middle school, and I wanted to "think out loud" about writing journals/notebooks and their use in the middle-school language arts classroom.

There are several schools of thought on this, and a lot of powerful ways to use these things, as well as several possible ways to handle the logistics.

Here are some ways that I've used journals (let's just call them that for now) in the LA classroom:

  1. As a daily "Do Now" or immediate activity done at the very start of class.  This strategy is useful to reinforce management and get students seated and working.  It helps maximize productive class time.  
  2. As a less rigorously structured thinking or processing activity done at variable times during the class.  This might be something like, "Brainstorm a list of ways that you can use this strategy," or "Now that we understand what similes and metaphors are, write out some possible reasons that authors might use figurative language like this . . . ."  
  3. As a way to enrich classroom or small-group discussion, as a kind of preparation or planning ahead for a focused conversation on a specific topic.  "Before we discuss the end of the story "Seventh Grade" by Gary Soto, let's write out our thinking about this question: do you think it was okay for the main character to pretend to know French to impress the girl?"  
There is at least one other really cool way to use journals - as the "writing notebook," a kind of catch-all or "commonplace book" that writers use to gather their thinking and random ideas.  I think Ralph Fletcher and Donald Murray are the big proponents of this type of tool.  If used appropriately, it's a fantastic resource that makes composing much easier.  I'd like to move in that direction, and I'm going to be digging into this idea a little more this year.  If I decide to go ahead with journals again this year, I will probably try this.  

As far as logistical challenges go, there are numerous ways to provide students with notebooks to use for daily in-class writing:  
  1. Spiral, wire-bound notebooks 
  2. the slightly more expensive "neatbook" or bound writing notebooks with no wires
  3. A bundle of lined paper provided several times a year (through the district copying service)
  4. A stapled, pre-designed packet of prompts with space to respond
  5. Binders and loose-leaf notebook paper
  6. BYON (bring-your-own-notebook)
All of these cost money, and every year except one, I have provided these notebooks to my students.  One year I created a packet of prompts and questions, and had production make copies for me.  They not very sturdy, and the pre-written prompts often didn't feel related to the issues discussed in other parts of the class.  This also made it difficult (or cumbersome) to use longer response-type prompts, such as responding to poetry, music, or pictures (something that I began using this year with great success).  

I've been able to pick up dozens of notebooks during back-to-school sales, and the expense has been minimal.  I prefer this approach because it makes all the notebooks match (which makes stacking and differentiating them from others much easier), and it helps establish a positive climate at the beginning of the school year (here's a free notebook!).  It also makes me feel less guilty about collecting and reading them, and often keeping them at the end of the year.  

Notebooks as journals are more flexible than the packets, because it's easier to stretch to accommodate different-sized entries, and a notebook allows more creativity than a packet.  It also doesn't require a desk or hard surface for writing - students can take notebooks with them on "field trips" to other parts of the building or outside (a very intriguing and under-utilized feature, at least in my class).  I've never had a student run out of room, though students definitely vary in the amount of writing they do.  

I think the year-long tool is helpful, too, with year-end portfolios (it enables much greater scope of reflection), and regular use of the journal during daily required writing time helps build good writing habits (many students wrote that they felt like they grew a lot as writers because of the daily writing time) and writing fluency.  

I think the biggest surprise for me was the amount of room left over in the notebooks at the end of the year.  I think that regular feedback helps most students (some students were uncomfortable with me collecting and reading notebooks, and I did the "mark the entries you want me to read" approach at least twice during the year), and I think the lesson is that I should be using notebooks more often, and more closely tying notebook writing to grades and to curriculum.  I'm considering a weekly writing assignment, over-and-above the daily in-class notebook writing and workshop writing time.  

So, in the end, this whole thing boils down to one essential question:

How can I get my students to use their writing notebooks more, both writing more in the notebooks and using the writing for other things more often?

I'll be digging through some professional books in the weeks ahead to look for some answers.    
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