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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Normal Park Museum Magnet School

Grades K-8 | Chattanooga, TN

Travel Journals: Student-Created Textbooks

Each student at Normal Park Museum Magnet School creates a unique “travel journal” to explore the themes of science and social studies units.
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Travel Journals: Student-Created Textbooks (Transcript)

Emily Pittman: Travel journals are the textbooks that our kids create themselves. They’re a great way for students to really take ownership of their learning.

Denver Huffstutler: We call them travel journals because it becomes a journey of all their engaging activities.

Emily Pittman: So this is a blank-slate travel journal from the module that we’re currently doing, “Follow Me Through Tennessee”.

Lydia: When they start out they’re all just a blank book. We get to create a page about our learning about that subject, and it’s fun because you get to tie it in. You get to keep them at the end of the session.

Emily Pittman: So the table of contents the kids put in at the beginning so that we can hand them the materials and say, “Okay, open up to page nine. We’re gonna be working on our history of West Tennessee page,” and it gives kids the main idea of what that page will be about.

Here we have our essential questions.

Those questions are really the basis of every single one of our lessons that we teach. One of our leaves says, “How does change occur over time? How does where you live affect how you live?”

Denver Huffstutler: If you look at the travel journals, everything that’s in there, it’s “Here’s how I understand how to answer the essential question that I was looking to uncover.”

Emily Pittman: Well, “I wonder” questions are done at the very beginning of modules. We usually give them a little bit of background information with our hook lesson. So we posted these four topics on the board and prompted them, “We want you to think of an ‘I wonder’.” Little Lucy, here, wondered how Tennessee became a state. It’s an easy assessment to know what we need to cover a lot or what we don’t need to cover so much.

Denver Huffstutler: --About twenty-five to twenty-eight lessons within a quarter that we put together. We not only want to include things that the student has learned, but we also want there to be reflective times and those are things that we can assess.

Jill Levine: These travel journals are rich with timelines, charts, diagrams, lots of writing, vocabulary, pictures.

Emily Pittman: We provide our lesson. We then-- usually we have a prompt that they respond to after the lesson. They do their draft and put it into written form. We talk about ways that they can revise and correct their mistakes. So then their published pieces turn into their travel journals.

Teacher: Right now I’d like to see you guys flipping through making sure all pages are complete, making sure that you have titles and headings on every page. In the middle of the table you’ll find your rubric.

Denver Huffstutler: A rubric is a simple way for students to judge their own understanding of content or completion of an assignment.

Emily Pittman: The rubric, it’s a reflection of the table of contents.

Grady: You can grade yourself in what do you think it is and the teacher grades what you got. If you got, like, a check-minus right here, you know now what you can work on.

Denver Huffstutler: As students go into older grades, the rubric tends to be a little bit more specific of things that have to be there. So it’s a great tool for the student to redirect their own learning.

Emily Pittman: The covers are usually completed towards the end of quarter once they have a full understanding and we do some kind of main idea of that module on the front cover.

Finn: A travel journal is very fun to do, because you really get to show what you have learned.

Hayden: I get to show all my work that I’ve done working really hard in school to my parents and to my teacher.

Jill Levine: What’s really special about travel journals is they really become prize possessions for our students. If they’re here for eight years and they’ve created four of these every year, they’ll have thirty-two, and so most of our students will have a shelf at home where all their travel journals are lined up and parents often say that that’s the bedtime reading. That’s what they most want to go back to, is they want to read those travel journals. When students are engaged, when they’re getting their hands dirty, when they’re creating, when they’re painting, when they’re thinking and problem solving, that’s when true learning takes place.

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Reflections of Student Understanding

Travel journals are student-created “textbooks.” Normal Park calls them travel journals because they chart the journey of students’ learning. They are a great way for students to take ownership of their learning. Every student creates one, and every travel journal is unique to the student.

Travel journals are a collection of the work students do for their science or social studies module. Teachers use travel journals on a daily basis; students create work and then add it to their journal throughout the quarter. Journals include writing and reflection pieces, graphic organizers, timelines, charts, drawings, diagrams, vocabulary, maps, pictures, and anything else that reflects students’ learning and understanding of the module topic. Teachers also photocopy relevant articles and have students place those in their journals.

During the course of one year, a student will create four journals for four different modules. Students take the journals home at the end of each quarter. Students love to show them off to their parents and keep them as a record of what they learned.

How it's done: 

Creating Content to Deepen The Learning

Students create a variety of content types for their journals -- from written reflections to maps and diagrams -- in response to teacher prompts and open-ended questions. Below are the essential elements of the journal project:

Blank journals: At the beginning of each module, teachers hand out a blank journal to each student.

Table of contents: The table of contents is teacher created and lists from 25 to 28 lessons for that module. Students paste the table of contents into their journals on Day 1 of the module.

Essential Questions: These three or four open-ended questions are the basis of every lesson taught in the module. Teachers develop the questions according to the standards students must meet in that particular module. For example, a typical question might be “How does where you live affect how you live?” or “How does structure influence behavior?” Students write in their Essential Questions at the beginning of the module, placing them on the page opposite the table of contents. This gives them a sense that everything they are exploring in the module is connected to investigating these questions.

"I Wonder" Questions: On Day 1 of the module, a teacher will deliver a “hook” lesson introducing students to the module theme. Students are then asked to write their own I Wonder Questions about what they are wondering about the particular module. This is a quick and easy assessment that allows teachers to gauge how much students know about a particular topic.

Content: A travel journal has a variety of content including graphic organizers, reflection pieces, timelines, charts, diagrams, vocabulary, pictures, maps, and all kinds of writing. Often teachers deliver a lesson and then offer some kind of prompt that students respond to. Each student writes a piece, the teacher helps the student edit the piece, and the final piece gets published in the travel journal as a record of the student’s work.

Rubric: A rubric is a simple way for students and teachers to judge the completion of assignments. The lower grades use a simple check minus, check, or check plus to assess learning. In the lower grades, the rubric is a reflection of the table of contents, with an added column for a grade the student gives him- or herself and a column for the grade the teacher gives the student. The rubric for the upper grades can be more specific and sophisticated to reflect what’s being learned.

Covers: Each student designs a cover for his or her journal at the end of the module that reflects an idea related to the topic. Students may have two or three options for themes for the cover they want to draw, paint, or design.

Display: At the end of the quarter, all the travel journals are put on display for the school’s quarterly Exhibit Night. Once the exhibits come down, students receive their journals back and take them home. 

Comments (22) Sign in or register to comment Subscribe to comments via RSS

Alissa Casey's picture

I love that much of what these students do is not overwhelmed by technology. On some level, the making of Travel Journals by hand may give students a deeper ownership of the final product than something that was produced on a computer. I know there is a push to make students as tech savvy as possible, and I absolutely see the value in being digitally literate. I also believe, however, that we do our students a disservice by abandoning handmade artifacts and all the effort and persistence their production demands. The journals not only contain the learning that each child has attained, but are also beautiful works of art. Bravo!

Red Cherry's picture

Amazing idea! it enriches the students knowledge and helps them to explore the world. they have formulated information nicely to be kept as a textbook designed by themselves.

Rem4841's picture

This is a great idea for students. It gives them an opportunity to create their own unique learning experience, one that is most beneficial to them. At the end of the quarter they have a tangible piece of work that shows everything they learned. Great idea!

lmachazel's picture

I can't wait to try it. A first grade teacher and I are planning to do Travel Journals with our first graders.

Virginia Pratt's picture
Virginia Pratt
Lead Teacher for Gifted/Talented @ Red Cedar Elementary in Bluffton, SC

So many great things about these. My favorite pieces are that you use true, concept-based essential questions that are overarching and not too topic specific. I also like that you aren't trying to do one of these for every unit in every subject-- too much, and the kids would lose interest, I think.... My biggest question/ concern is, what happens with the kids who are not super-organized, and whose books/journals may not "look like the teacher's" or fit a model? Are they penalized for this, or is there support? I'm very leery of projects where the appearance and organization take precedence over the learning displayed....

Thanks for sharing such a great idea!

Scott Bedley @scotteach's picture
Scott Bedley @scotteach
Teacher, Creator, Un-Maker, Foodie, Global School Play Day

Hey Virginia,
I totally understand your concerns. When I've provided learning opportunities like this, I've found that breaking down tasks in to smaller bite sized tasks that are coupled with a draft and approval process help a great deal. I love that this gives those students who may have executive functioning challenges a chance to learn a process that fits them. Going through this process helps student's understand the process of developing an idea from its initial stages to completed product. I also like to allow for some individuality in the process by giving a model example but letting my class know if they have an idea different to create a draft and "pitch" the idea to me. I've actually add a few great things created by kids to projects in subsequent years.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

Hi Virginia! I think that it's important to have clarity about the criteria are for quality work in terms of content, form, and process when working with a project like this. If we're clear about what quality work looks like (in very specific, objective terms) what content it's going to demonstrate, and what work processes or habits the student is going to demonstrate during its creation, then we're better equipped to assess "uncommon" work products that may like very different from one another. I think that the more concrete we are up front, the less likely we are to penalize a student when the work doesn't look like what we expected.

ProjectBasedIzzy's picture
Constructionist in Practice

I love this idea as well! It's very challenging to find a way to give students ownership of their learning. In fact, this could be the number one overlooked idea in education! You've developed a great way for students to see their learning through their own eyes. We often plan knowing what has worked for us in the past. We should be planning for what's worked in the past and how we can transform our classroom into the eyes of the student.

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