Journaling the Old-School Way

In a class where every student has a laptop, there’s still an argument to be made for keeping a pen-and-paper journal.

November 16, 2017

This is the first year I had to seriously consider why I ask my students to buy composition notebooks for journal writing. As every ninth grader now has their own Chromebook, teachers have been encouraged to consider how they can utilize technology to update their practices. Although I tried, I couldn’t quite embrace the idea of abandoning the hardbound composition notebook.

Four Reasons for Sticking With Paper Journals

1. The notebook itself: Reflective writing deserves to be preserved in a format that resists the removal of pages—this writing cannot be deleted with the press of a key.

At the beginning of the school year, we write with Sharpies on the inside cover of our notebooks, “I have the right to write badly in this notebook” and “Writing is a way to think your way to a better self.” These are our mantras. There are no rules, no judgments, and no spell-check. Our only work is to clarify our thoughts, discover new ideas, and in the process become a better version of ourselves.

At the end of the year, each student has a notebook filled with pages written in a variety of ink colors and pencils of varying degrees of sharpness that speak to the highs and lows of the school year. The notebook is a jumbled compilation of neat cursive writing and messy print that reminds students of the day they said yes to a promposal, or lost the Class Council election, or earned their first A on a science test.

Our journals allow us to see the smudges, smears, cuts, bruises, and triumphs that have shaped us over the course of the year.

2. The act of putting pen to paper: Reflective writing is sacred. It’s a way for students to get really quiet and listen to their thoughts. Desks that are bare aside from a composition notebook, in a room where the only sound is students’ pens or pencils gliding over paper, is how 26 students can be granted the silence they need to be alone with their thoughts.

Writing by hand is a deliberate act, and it takes time. As we craft each letter, our thoughts slowly unfold on the page. Our words reveal feelings we hadn’t before considered, and our sentences lead us to clarity. The paragraphs that pour out of our pens refine scattered thoughts into fully realized ideas.

When we reflect back, we can run our hand over the indents from the days we pressed down our pens in frustration, or squint to read the scrawl from the days our pencils could barely keep pace with our musings. Our journals preserve these new understandings with a tangible reminder that mirrors our process.

3. An Opening to Conversation: My ninth graders are terribly self-conscious, desperately afraid of sharing an unpopular opinion—or worse, an incorrect answer. Journal writing in my class is safe, and it is forgiving.

After students write, they briefly share with their table group, which bolsters confidence in their ideas. Oftentimes, they read to each other directly from their notebooks. Then, emboldened by their peers, students seem more likely to share during our whole class discussion.

The natural progression from our composition notebooks to small-group shares to whole-class discussion leads to thoughtful conversations.

4. Teacher-Student Conferences: Each marking period, I meet with students individually to check their journals for completion. Before we meet, they select one entry they’d like to share. I value these moments as we sit together, flipping through pages together as we locate the entry to be shared, and reflect on others.

Students don’t often get the undivided attention of their teacher, so these interactions can quickly become very revealing and personal. This year, one student shared with me the pressures he was enduring at home, and another told me her about crushing loss in running for president of the Class Council. These are not small things, and sharing private thoughts on the written page forges a special connection between a teacher and student.

When we tuck away our journals, we open our Chromebooks to write for a larger audience. The epiphanies from our journals provide the seeds to formulate arguments, envision narratives, and reflect on how our class texts can provide further clarity in our writing and our lives.

We craft these pieces together in class, and share our writing through Google Docs. Peer editors provide suggestions, and I jump in and out of students’ documents to offer support, encouragement, and feedback. Our writing becomes a collaborative process as we prepare to showcase our work, whether it’s for a class blog, a social media platform, or a national writing contest. Journal writing is where we begin, and writing for the real world is our destination.

The accessibility of Chromebooks has enhanced our ability to design innovative activities and facilitate connections between students and the world beyond our classrooms. As teachers, we need to constantly adapt as we consider standards and objectives, departmental and school mandates, and the social and emotional well-being of our students.

But sometimes, as with journal writing, when we take everything into consideration, doing things the old-school way is still good practice.

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  • Literacy
  • Communication Skills
  • 9-12 High School

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