Writers keep journals. Introducing children to journal writing is truly beneficial for young writers. One way to introduce journal writing is through the natural world. Virtually all of our most famous and influential naturalists kept journals. Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson all used journals for the same reason children should keep journals.
Journal writing is a way to live life over again; to recapture the past, preserve it and better understand our lives. Journals preserve the moment and make it special. Journal writing is a chance to reflect, question, wonder, scream and yell. It is a place to be sad or happy. Journals listen to whatever we write. They are places without editors. Children can experiment, take chances and be honest. Our role is to encourage, inspire, prompt, provide opportunity, help and guide.
Journals can make the everyday magic. A random thought, an interesting observation takes on an importance when recorded in a journal. Journals help children realize their thoughts matter; they are worth recording. They do not have to have something “important” to say. What may seem unimportant now doesn’t always end up that way. The entries in the journals will be the ingredients for poetry, stories, essays and reports.
Good writers lead wide awake lives. Keeping a nature journal is also a wonderful way to help young writers pay better attention to the world around them. It helps children walk with their eyes open to the world and to their feelings. A nature journal becomes the history of the place and of the person. The journal is first hand research. It is also a gift for the future. As adults a journal from childhood is a window to our past.
The beginning of the year is the time to start a nature journal. The skills the children learn will be important all year. There are many ways to set up a journal writing program in you class. It can be daily, weekly monthly or saved for trips to local natural areas. It is important to make it a habit. Regular journal writing becomes a ritual which demonstrates its importance. There can even be a class journal with different entries each week by different students.The focus here is on a nature journal, but it will be natural for some children to expand their scope on their own or under your guidance. The nature journal can be part of writer’s notebook or used as a way to introduce journal writing to children.
Hopefully some of the students will become true journal writers and will carry their journals everywhere. As much as possible the writing should be done in the outdoors. Direct contact with the outdoors makes the writing vivid. A great deal is lost with distance from the source of inspiration. Encourage children to write with detail and reflection. A journal entry is more than an account of the day’s events. Journals are not limited to words. The journal should be a child’s place to put down thoughts, questions, story ideas, memories, images they see, smell, hear and taste in the outdoors. They can be places to sketch, paste in pictures, photographs, feathers, pressed flowers and other items that have meaning to the child.
Model the way you keep a journal by sharing some of your entries and the thought process you go through when writing in your journal. Entries should be dated and nothing should be thrown out. One line can be just as important as twenty lines. Read passages from other writer’s journals. Collect good journal entries from students to serve as a benchmarks, in order for children to have a better idea of the standards you expect and the level they can achieve.
A journal is not simply a record of the day’s events. It is reflection and reaction to life’s experiences. Continue to model and share journal entries throughout the year to maintain a high quality. Give the children the respect and privacy a journal deserves. I leave it up to the students to decide if they want to share a reading with the class or with me. Throughout the year remind the children to refer to their journals for their poetry, fiction and even nonfiction writing.
Of course each child needs a journal. There are a wide variety of journals to choose. Since much of your journal writing time will be outside, durability is essential. Spiral notebooks usually don’t last. Other than that the choice is wide open. It should be a personal decision. Personally, I like the black and white marbled composition notebooks. You may want to make your own journals with the students.
I divide the journal entries into three categories, Free Entries, Suggested Entries and Required Entries. Over the year the students experience a mix of these.
Free writing:Free writing is exactly that, free writing. I give the children time to write whatever they want. Suggested entries:I use these when I want a little more focus from the students. Sometimes I may give them a choice of various prompts. Sometimes there is an opportunity for free writing with suggestions. The main thing is to get them to write.
Some children prefer to have suggestions and may even need them. In the beginning children may need prompts more than later in the year. Depending on your objectives and the place your are working your suggestions will vary. This is a list of prompts, in no particular order of importance:
Take someone on a walk through the place. What would you show them? How is your mood affected by the place? Imagine being in the place a whole year. Imagine you have just seen the whole history of the place in five minutes. If a friend said, “It’s a ______day.” What kind day would it be? Pretend you're blind. How would you describe the place? What is the opposite of the place? In what weather is the place most itself? What are the rhythms and patterns of the place? How does this place compare to a place the you hate?Is this the kind of place you like? What kind of places do you like? What animals would you like to be in the place? What questions would you ask the place? What questions do you have about...What to you know about...? What did you learn in this activity? What did you see today? What has changed since last time? Pick one thing to write about every time you see it. Record regular entries on the changing seasons. Respond to books and quotes read on nature.
Assigned Entries. Any of these suggestions can become assigned questions. Assigning journal entries is a good way to do a quick evaluation of an activity or find out what the class is thinking. It is also helpful if everyone has been given the same question some thought for class discussion. If you decide to have a system for reading these entries, you will have the chance to write back and have more interaction with the children. You can ask the children to mark the page to be read so their privacy is ensured.
I lean towards the freedom side rather than the structured side when giving journal writing time. My overall goal is to help my students become lifelong journal writers. This is in a child’s control. It has to be their choice, their place to write without worry. An occasional required assignment is fine. Some children will not produce much when given the freedom. Others will use it to the fullest and it allows them to shine more than if you require everyone to do the same thing.
Keep journal writing going all year.