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Today members of our Expository Composition class wrote their final journal entries and handed in their well-worn spiral notebooks. I’m so proud of how many words and pages they wrote, and the profound wisdom and entertaining writing found in those notebooks.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about integrating journal writing into a writing class, how I set it up, grade it, etc. As some readers know, for the past few semesters I have posted our class journal topic on Twitter each day, and it’s always fun when someone tweets a response. Thanks to those who have played along.
Recently I’ve had some requests for the list of journal topics I have used. So, here it is.
Some of these are adapted from other sources, but I’m a little worried that some of the topics listed below are borrowed from sources that I’ve forgotten. If you see something I should attribute to someone else, please do me a favor and let me know.
Those familiar with Natalie Goldberg’s work will immediately see her influence on this list. In some cases, I know exactly who inspired it, and I’ve provided attribution in those cases.
I hope this list helps teachers and inspires young writers to think and write deeply about their influences, outlooks, and experiences.
The Journal Topics
Begin with this: I remember …
Begin with this: I don’t remember …
Tell about your favorite clothing item.
Tell about something that happened near water.
Tell about when you’re most comfortable.
Tell about the time you didn’t go.
Tell about a trait you probably inherited.
Tell about when you feel awkward.
Tell about when you feel conﬁdent.
Tell about when you don’t want to be disturbed.
Tell about a work of art (painting, song, ﬁlm, poem, etc.) that has meant something
Tell how you knew it was over.
Tell what normal means.
Tell about green.
Tell about a memorable car ride.
Tell about something someone (maybe you) said yesterday that is still relevant
Tell about what you don’t understand.
Tell about the games you like (or don’t like) to play.
Tell about something from your refrigerator.
Tell how to do something that you do really well.
Tell about what isn’t fair. Should we expect to be rewarded for doing the right thing?
Tell about your luck.
No words today. Just draw.
Tell about when you tried to be perfect.
Tell about the difference between passion and obsession.
Tell about a memorable meal.
Tell what you think about at night.
Begin with this: I Am From …
Tell about something that starts w B.
Tell about your ideal college.
Tell about an argument.
Tell about your stress.
What else do you need?
Write a 26-sentence alphabet entry. The first sentence should begin with A, the second sentence with B, all the way through to the last sentence beginning with Z.
If you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do right now?
Tell about trust.
How are you intelligent? (from Sir Ken Robinson in The Element)
What food or drink best represents your personality?
What’s your subplot?
Tell how your hair has changed over time.
Tell about leftovers.
Tell about a change you would like to see in your school.
Tell about when you were surprised.
Tell about your favorite elementary school memory.
What are you waiting for?
Tell about what you’ve never been asked.
Tell about a time you couldn’t see.
Tell about a baby.
Without complaining, tell why you felt (or feel) stuck.
Write in praise of something not usually praised–ﬂeas, garbage, mold, etc.
Tell about a ﬁrst meeting.
Tell about an interesting non-English word or phrase.
Tell about a person you see regularly but don’t really know.
Tell what you wish more people knew about you.
Tell about what surprised you.
Tell about what you tried to ﬁx.
Tell about your music.
Begin with this: I’m glad my name isn’t …
Tell about wearing high heels or neckties.
Tell about what doesn’t matter.
Tell about one of your responsibilities.
Tell what you would do if you were invisible for a day.
Look through your journal. Tell about what you see in there.
Tell about something minor that turned major.
Write the apology you should give, or receive.
Begin with this: “I used to believe…”
Do we get the lives we deserve?
Begin with this: No thank you. (from Natalie Goldberg)
Tell about what you see in the mirror.
Tell about a smell you encounter frequently.
Begin with this: What if…
What do you have stored or saved?
Begin with this: I want to be ____ because _____.
What did you recently realize?
Tell about your favorite lie.
Tell about your favorite picture of yourself.
Tell about when you won.
Make a list of all you’ve learned in the past week, in school and out.
Tell how you want to live.
Tell about an interesting family member.
Tell about the best advice you have received (or given).
Tell about something someone said yesterday that is still relevant today.
Make a list of your strongly held beliefs.
Tell about your favorite animal.
Tell about a time you screamed.
What is a current trend (fashion, music, media, technology, etc.) that you particularly like or dislike?
Tell about yourself as a little kid. How are you still kind of the same? How are you different?
Tell about something you earned.
In one page, tell about your mother or father.
Tell about one of your dreams.
Tell about a class that should be offered at your school.
Tell about being alone.
Tell about what you eat.
Tell about your manners.
Tell about the oldest person you have known.
Who do you believe (or not believe)?
Tell the president/principal/governor/mayor how she’s/he’s doing.
Choose one word for this year and tell about your choice.
If you could make one rule that would be strictly enforced in the community around you, what would it be?
Tell about someone important to you. Include all 5 senses. (from Kathryn Janicek)
What is your FREMD acrostic–F is for …, R is for …, etc. (“Fremd” is our school.)
Tell a true story involving a liquid other than water.
Tell about Fridays.
Tell about a disguise or costume you once wore (inspired by Natalie Goldberg).
Begin with this: I wish I had more time to …
Tell about someone you’re glad you know.
Tell about something you think is inﬁnite.
Tell what it would take for you to be more like _____.
Do you consider yourself young? (inspired by Alyse Liebovich)
Some questions about our Creative Writing class have come my way in the past few days from a few different people. Although I responded to those folks by email, I thought I’d offer this as a blog post too with the hope that others searching for ideas will find it heplful. If this is more or less than you’re looking for, feel free to stop, or ask for more!
When I started teaching Creative Writing, the best advice I received was from my colleague Kevin Brewner. Although I knew what I wanted students to learn and experience, I wasn’t so sure about the subjective grading. So I asked, “How do you figure grades in Creative Writing?” His answer: “By weight.” Great, great advice. Sometimes quantity is quality. With that in mind, I created a grade contract requiring students trying for an A to write 75 journal entries, a 30-page manuscript, some kind of publication submission, numerous assignments, and participation in whole-class peer review. Those who wanted to aim lower had somewhat less demanding expectations. This raises all kinds of grading-related philosophical questions and concerns. I understand that. All I can say is that this has worked for my students and me. I try to never talk about grades and writing in the same conversation with students. In fact, I hardly ever talk about grades, but the day of reckoning always arrives, and we need to have a way to approach it. The grade contract is ours.
Let’s tackle those other elements one at a time. First of all, the journals are the starting point for each class session. I said pretty much all I know about journals in a previous blog post. Maybe you won’t mind popping over there for my take on journals.
The manuscripts can be a 30-page single project, or a collection of various pieces produced over the course of the semester. The assignments, activities, and exercises from class can be wrestled (or massaged, if you prefer) into more polished versions to be included in the manuscript.
As we work through poetry, drama, and prose, students attempt a variety of writing genres, formats, purposes, and styles. Some of those pieces—but not all of them—will find their way into those manuscripts, along with some of the ideas that started out as journal entries.
The publication submission can be a contest entry, a presentation at Writers Week, a Facebook “note,” contribution to Polyphony, fanfiction.net, Figment.com, or TeenInk.com, a more-elaborate-than-average Tumblr.com post, or the school’s literary magazine. I’m also open to suggestions from students. The main thing is that it has to be available for others to see. Three of my students this semester started new blogs through Blogger or WordPress. That was pretty cool.
I have all kinds of assignments and in-class activities—too many to upload here. If you’re looking for something in particular, please let me know, and I’ll try to provide it or steer you toward it.
We do Wednesday “sharing sessions.” This means that students sign up in advance for a specific Wednesday or two when they will bring one or two pages of their writing for the class’s consideration and feedback. Before we do this, I give them a talking-to about the importance of pairing criticism with suggestions. If a criticism doesn’t have a suggestion attached, it can be written as a margin comment, but it should not be said out loud. That has worked pretty well. On those Wednesdays, each of the students for the day distributes copies of their work, and the other students read it and write comments on it. After ten minutes or so, the writer is invited to read it aloud. Sometimes they do; sometimes they prefer to have it read by someone else. In rare cases, they say something like “I’d really rather it just remain on the page.” That wish is respected. Then for about ten minutes, students offer oral comments and suggestions. Sometimes I have to steer the conversation a bit, but these sessions are almost always productive and memorable.
So, a typical day begins with a journal prompt, followed by an activity, followed by the opportunity for anyone (including me) to read aloud or tell about something written that day.
A typical week includes three of those typical days, plus Wednesday sharing sessions, and on Friday, we do “topic journals,” a collection of notebooks on specific topics that students take turns adding to throughout the semester.
Some of the dilemmas I haven’t quite solved:
1. Is a genre by genre approach the best way to go? If so, which genre should we start with?
2. How can I integrate more one-on-one time with individual writers?
3. How can I serve the larger composition instruction needs of Creative Writing students who take this class in order to avoid the research paper in our Expository Composition class? I use some of the description and pre-writing activities from our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice textbook in Creative Writing, but I still wonder if I’m doing enough of this to meet the needs of the heterogenous class make-up this class tends to pull in.
Your thoughts on those issues are extremely welcome.
Here is a list of the books that have been helpful to me for our Creative Writing class:
Thomas Newkirk: Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones
Penny Kittle: Write Beside Them
Steve Kowit: In the Palm of Your Hand
Natalie Goldberg: Old Friend from Far Away
Geoff Hewit: Today You Are My Favorite Poet
Ted Kooser: The Poetry Home Repair Manual
Sheila Bender: Writing Personal Poetry
English Companion Ning and Twitter are also great ways to connect with other teachers interested in this kind of class and who are going through similar experiences. Knowing you’re not alone is a good thing. I’m glad to help, and maybe those of you reading this post can also somehow help each other.
Again, I don’t intend for this to be read as The One True Way to Do Creative Writing. It’s just the way I’ve done it, for better or worse, mostly better, but I’m always looking for ways to make things even more rewarding for our young writers. Please share your ideas. Thanks for reading.
Our Creative Writing class outside on the day after the seniors left us.
Each day I write on the board: “Today’s journal topic,” followed by a prompt that comes to me or that I adapt from other sources. I tend to draw the prompts from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, Susan Shaughnessy’s Walking on Alligators, our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, or from a variety of sites that I find through Googling “high school writing prompts,” “journal prompts,” “writing ideas,” or some other similar search terms.
Each journal prompt also goes on Twitter so that absent students can get the day’s prompt. A happy by-product of the tweets is that quite a few people see them, use them, and chime in with ideas. In the past, I’ve used the hashtag #journal, but that one has become sort of busy and distorted, so this semester I’m using #E307, our school’s code for the Creative Writing course. Feel free to follow along and join in!
When I write the day’s journal prompt on the board, I always add “ … or ? …” The idea is that students can use the prompt or not. I tell them that when it comes to the journal prompts, they are free to explore or ignore. Why should students be tied down to my idea when they might be more compelled to delve into their own ideas? The goal is to explore their own depths and imaginations, so it’s 100% OK with me if they never use my prompts, but at the same time, I don’t want anyone to struggle with “I don’t know what to write about.”
Sometimes it takes a minute or two for the writers to settle in, but then it becomes almost eerily quiet, with pens and pencils scratching across paper and the occasional quick flip of a page the only sounds. The air in the room seems to change as everyone, including me, focuses for ten or twelve minutes on whatever we’re writing about.
After about ten minutes, I say something like, “OK. Can we please bring that in for a landing?” All of the writers find a way to come to a stop within about a minute. This is followed by, “Does anyone have anything you’d like to read today?” On most days, several writers will share something from their journals.
When I check the journals from time to time, I always get surprises. In my most recent class, I was surprised that several students wrote poetry every day. Sometimes the poems were on the day’s suggested topic, sometimes not. I also had a couple of pairs of students who wrote to each other, trading their journals on alternate days. This resulted in some rich back-and-forth on a variety of topics with each response at least a page in length. One student wrote in red every day but never used that color on her other work. Many students wrote about their own writing projects or referenced pieces written by other students.
I’m still in the process of learning from my students’ journals, but so far I’ve learned this:
• No one is brilliant every day, but everyone shows brilliance from time to time.
• Quantity begets quality. As the semester continues, the writing gets stronger as stamina improves.
• Students will write thoughtfully and energetically when they trust the environment and feel like they have something to say. Teachers can provide motivation for both of those elements.
Over the course of this one-semester class, students write at least 75 journal entries, each at least a page in length. They use their journals to reflect, have fun, question, rant, problem-solve, and think deeply. When I read what comes out of their minds and pens, I’m always inspired to be a better, more disciplined writer.
Your thoughts and experiences with using journal in class are welcome here! Thanks.