Beyond Notebook Time: The Journal Explode Essay

Beyond Notebook Time_ The Journal Explode

With thanks to guest contributors

Kevin Mooney, rumored to be the inspiration for the teacher John Keating replaced, he is a lead teacher at North Hagerstown High School in Washington County, Maryland and is in his 22nd year in education. 

Liz Matheny, AP Language and Composition teacher in Frederick County, Maryland. (Check out a great mentor text post from her here.) 

Each day to begin class, we journal. We journal because journaling is useful. We journal because it is a low-pressure opportunity for my students to share their thoughts, feelings, and observations about a text, a topic, an issue, or an image. We journal to connect to a character or anchor a big idea, and we journal to set the table for the day’s instructional menu. We journal because it’s fun and gratifying. We journal because Kelly Gallagher says students should write four times more than what we teachers can grade. Journaling is useful.

But where do these journals go? Some years, I’ve asked students to write, rest, repeat, and let this daily exercise stand on its own as writing calisthenics. Some years, I’ve collected journals and asked students to tag entries they’d like me to read and respond to. Other years (including this one), I spot check journals in class and invest time in the important discussion and sharing of ideas that ensues after our “on the clock” writing time.  

But the best, most effective, most bang for your buck expansion of in-class journaling?

The Journal Explode.

What is a Journal Explode and how does it work?

I’ll let my teaching mentor and Journal Explode creator, Kevin Mooney, explain…

For years, I didn’t assign many in class essays for two main reasons: students didn’t write well and reading over 100 essays devoted to the same prompt was grindingly boring. So I didn’t assign essays except for the required “full process” or “research essay” or as an option as an end-of-unit or alternate assessment. Unsurprisingly, not assigning essays didn’t make the essays I got any better.

But I knew that I was taking the easy way out. And I knew that writing made writing easier for students. So I created what I called a “journal explode.”

Here’s the idea: every day we do a journal entry. By the end of the week, students choose whichever journal they’re most interested in, tickled by, etc. and turn it into a full process essay and turn it in on Friday. Students write their journal entries in composition books. (This was, at the time, important to me, because I wanted students to be able to have an almost “flip book” sense of how their writing was improving as we wrote more and more.)

With the new system, if a student wanted, he could take the journal entry from Monday and “explode” it into a full process essay Monday night and be done for the week. Or she could wait until Thursday night and choose from the week’s worth. Or he could go back into the archives of journal entries from weeks past and choose one of those to write about. Or she could revise and recast and rewrite a previous Journal Explode.

I could require or encourage students to try to apply concepts we’d covered during the week – participial phrases, for example – as part of the assignment. I could look at all the essays and start seeing patterns of students’ strengths and weaknesses: they’re not varying sentence structure; they’re using a particular phrase too often and needlessly (in my opinion, though other people might disagree, I still think that…). We’d do mini lessons using student examples to clean and recalibrate.

And grading? That bugbear? I found I could get through all my classes in a couple of hours because there was lovely variety and real earnestness in their essays. They’d chosen a topic they really dug (“Should Iron Man be allowed to keep his suits? Defend with readings, observations and experiences,”) and which they were more or less excited to write about. I’d give a holistic grade: check, check plus, check minus, the rare zero. I’d spend time not so much correcting (though I did that, too) as making positive comments whenever possible. And all the while, looking for patterns in their writing and planning my week’s writing activities.

By the end of the year, my students had written at least one essay a week. More than they had probably written in all their other classes. Combined. Ever. They were no longer intimidated by essays. But it was really all them and their efforts and their work and their writing. And, I hope, essays became for them what they were for Montaigne and which we all intend them to be: unpacking and developing your thinking on paper in surprising, idiosyncratic and impressive ways.

Journal Explodes and Current Events

Liz Matheny also uses Journal Explodes to much success in her AP Language and Composition class. Click here to read all about her process. But in the meantime, read the highlights below beginning with a few examples of successful journal prompts from her classroom:

Journal: Starting January 1, everyone in France over the age of 15 became an organ donor unless they “opted-out” in the country’s refusal program. Every day 22 Americans die while they wait on the transplant list. What should we consider ($SEEITT) about organ donation?

Defend, Challenge, Qualify: America should change from an opt-in system to an opt-out system.

Journal: The number of 18- to 35-year-olds seeking prenups is on the rise nationwide, but many millennials are more interested in protecting intellectual property — such as films, songs, software and even apps that haven’t been built yet — than cash.

Defend, Challenge, Qualify: Prenuptial agreements should only cover physical or monetary property.

Some days I will simply use [an AP Language] Q3 prompt we do not have time to actually write in class. My students have no idea that it is a prompt, so it is a good way to help them see how the daily journals connect to the exam and their ability to craft meaningful, nuanced arguments on the spot.

Once a month my students select a journal and “explode” it into a full argumentative essay. I do not require a specific number of paragraphs, but I often assign them specific rhetorical moves and techniques to try out as they go (anaphora, epistrophe, staccato sentences, etc.).

I love this easy-to-implement daily writing because it helps me focus on argument development every day. It also serves as a formative assessment which ultimately leads to a summative assessment. Our daily discussions create a strong sense of community as students often develop beliefs and find their voice about global topics many of them wouldn’t encounter until they graduate or become adults.

Journal Explodes and Blogging

And finally, here’s how I incorporate Journal Explodes in my class.

I choose my journal prompts based on student need. Some days, we dig into a passage from our text, other days we examine mini mentor texts to spark inspiration. Sometimes we play with language or talk about what’s on our minds, and sometimes we examine a big idea that exists in our literature and in the world. Day after day, students use this time to strengthen their thinking, explore their voices, and just…practice.

That’s the fun part — any idea is fair game and the outcomes are flexible.

Like the original assignment, I ask students to expand upon one of their in class journals and turn it into a developed piece of writing. But this year, we’ve gone digital. I’ve moved my students’ Journal Explode experience to Weebly blogs, giving them agency and audience.

Here is one smart cookie’s Journal Explode blog on a childhood memory from our introductory journals to To Kill a MockingbirdAnd check this one out to see a student really explore and challenge his thinking about dark and offensive memes. (Special thanks to Katherine B. and Revan B. for allowing me to share here.)

Although we’re in the beginning stages of blogging, and though there will likely be missteps along the way, I believe blogging is an awesome platform and opportunity for my students’ journal writing and “exploding” to go live somewhere beyond their notebooks and out into the world. 

In what ways might you adapt the Journal Explode assignment for your classroom? We’d love to find out!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!

-Karla

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