Journals: A Handy Tool and the Ultimate Back-Up Plan

Having a stack of journals in the corner of your classroom can be a real lifesaver.

Stuck for an activity when your lesson plan wraps up earlier than you thought? Journal time! 

Need five minutes to deal with an urgent situation? Journal time! 

Want students to write creatively, have a chance to process things going on in their own lives, practice using vocabulary in narrative writing, invent a story based on a hilarious youtube clip, and much more? Journal time!

Having your students bring a notebook in to leave in your classroom in the first week of school opens up a huge range of possibilities to you throughout the year. It also allows students to see their own expanding portfolio of different types of writing and their growth as writers throughout the year. 

They get to practice writing with no judgment, writing as fluidly and quickly as possible. No backspace button. No staring at a screen wondering what to write. Just the quiet sound of pens and pencils scratching and scribbling.

I always include a fun composition notebook as one of the required materials for my class. Bringing it in is one of our very first (and easiest) homework assignments. 

Once you’ve got that stack ready for action, here are 10 ways to use it.

#1: In Connection with Vocabulary 

Journals fit well with the introduction of new vocabulary. Have students write on a creative prompt using a certain number of your vocabulary words. Then let them trade and circle the words of their partner that they feel are used accurately. Circulate to answer questions as students share with one, two, or three partners. 

#2: Postcard Collection Story Starters

Keeping a stack of photos, postcards, and intriguing magazine images in your classroom makes for a great regular journaling activity. Spread out your pictures and let students pick one they are drawn to. Then give them a prompt like “set a story about two brothers in the scene you are looking at,” or “write a description of what just happened before this picture was taken, using every type of sensory detail.” You can read more about how I use my own postcard collection and  over on my blog here

#3: The Plot Twister

Try this fun activity with your students at the beginning of the year. Have them create a chart in the back cover of their notebooks. There should be three columns: characters, setting, and conflict. Then let them brainstorm alone or in partners. They will end up with a wide range of characters, settings, and conflicts. Then, any time you'd like them to write a short story, ask them to choose one or two of their characters, one setting, and one conflict. It's a fun mix-and-match game that will take their writing in unexpected directions. 

#4: The Prompt List

This is another fun and easy activity for getting journals ready to be used with ease. Give every student a post-it and ask them to write one journal prompt on it. Give them some examples: "describe your favorite place in the world," "write about a day that shaped you," "if you were a color, what color would you be," etc. Then have them put their post-it on their desks, stand up, and walk around copying everyone's prompts into the front cover of their notebooks. Now on days you ask them to write on any topic, they have a list of inspiration. 

#5: The Cover and Pass

This makes for a hilarious creative activity, so pull the journals out when your class needs a bit of a lift. Invite every student to begin writing a story. As they write pass everyone a piece of blank paper. After five minutes have them stop and cover everything they've written but the last two lines with the paper and pass their notebooks to the student on their left (or something like that, depending on your seating arrangement). The next student reads those two lines and continues the story for five more minutes. Keep it going as long as you want, but on the last pass include the direction to "bring the story to an end." Have everyone pass the stories back to their original owners and read the wild tales that have been produced. If you have time, let a few volunteers read aloud or let everyone share in partners. 

#6: Makerspace drafting

If you're thinking about creating a maker space in your ELA classroom to inspire creative students writing, journals are a great tool. As your students paint settings, construct characters, explore themes through photo essays, etc. you can have them write down their developing ideas in their journals. 

#7: Monthly Goals

Journals make a great space for students to reflect privately on their own lives. Giving them an opportunity once a month to chart out what they hope to do in the weeks to come and revisit their goals from the previous month gives their writing a truly authentic purpose: to help them create their own life's story the way they want to. 

#8: Letter to the teacher

Similarly, journals can be a great place for you to learn more about your students. Announce clearly that just this one time you are going to read their entries, and then ask them to write you a letter about what is going on with them. It can be academic or not. Consider writing them back, briefly, underneath their entry.

#9: The Bell Ringer

Have students pick up their journals on the way into class and begin writing as soon as they sit down. You can take attendance and get things ready if you've had a harried transition from a previous class or meeting. 

#10: The Early Finisher

Journals are also an easy way to further an activity for early finishers. If students finish their group work early or complete an assignment with ease, point them toward the stack of journals and let them choose a prompt to write on. 

For me, journals have always been a steady and helpful system I can rely on in the classroom. They are flexible to whatever is going on in our curriculum and in our schedule. 

If you'd prefer to have ready-made printable prompts for students to put in their notebook covers, I've made some for you over on TPT. This allows you to skip the activities of having students brainstorm prompts and plot twister elements if you don't have time to do them. 

About the Author: Betsy Potash from Spark Creativity

After almost a decade of teaching across all the high school levels and grades, in both the United States and abroad, Betsy now joyfully spends her time helping high school English teachers escape the podium and teach creatively. Betsy runs the blog Spark Creativity and has also written for Independent School Magazine, English Journal, Reading Today, and Classroom Notes Plus. Her degrees and a lot of happy memories come from Pomona College (B.A., English) and Middlebury (M.A., English). Betsy loves to travel the world (she'll be back, Morocco!), play playdoh with her little ones, and cook a range of desserts that would make the Hogwarts house elves proud. When it comes to writing instruction, she brings a creative twist. Whether it's teaching her students to use quotation burgers in their formal papers or launching a student-authored one act play festival, Betsy always hopes to help students enjoy writing by keeping it fun and engaging. 

Join me on Instagram or hop into my free Facebook group, Creative High School English. Can't wait to see you there! 

Further Reading: 

Best First Lesson of the Year: E-mail Etiquette

The Six Word Memoir

Writing Makerspaces



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