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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Required Reading: On Mandated Texts

If you’re a regular visitor to Moving Writers, you’ve seen the Behind The Scenes series of posts throughout September related to organizing the year. Earlier, throughout August, the Ask Moving Writers series had this team sharing answers to readers’ questions.  I have an obvious bias, but what a wonderful thing to have a community of teachers sharing their experience and insight.

In the spirit of this, I’d like to address a question that came up as we prepped for the Behind The Scenes series. Britt Decker asked about mandated novels within the workshop model. Although I don’t necessarily work in the workshop model, the idea of working with mandated novels got me thinking.

 

reading2

via the TEDEd blog

I’m lucky enough to not have to deal with mandated novels. My team and I have great flexibility, and have novels that are loosely attached to a grade, but little that is set in stone. We communicate to make sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes, and make an effort to complement what each other are doing with the texts that each of us chooses.

 

I’ve been open about my affinity for the whole class novel. I think a community of learners, exploring a text, creating some common experiences and knowledge is a powerful thing in a classroom. The whole class novel has been tarnished by the image of repetitive, mindless busywork. The mandated text compounds this distaste for us, because it feels like our freedom is impacted. We have to teach a book we didn’t choose, and we think of how we likely did a whole class novel as students, that mindless busywork hamster wheel we felt trapped on. Continue reading

Organizing Instructional Time

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food organization

I don’t know about you, but I feel much better now that the slice-able carrots are in the same bin as the plastic bok choy.

Organization. When we first kicked around the idea of organization being a common thread for our first series of the school year, I had to take a few deep breaths to keep from panicking. As I racked my brain for something I could write about, I was coming up empty. Well, unless you count Organization or Procrastination: You Decide as a worthy topic, in which case I could write all day. Take for instance the deadline for this blog entry. Before finally sitting down to hammer it out, I didn’t just tidy up my kids’ toys, I organized their pretend kitchen by food group.

 

Aside from this particular habit, anyone who has seen the mountains of file folders on my desk could probably attest that organization is not exactly my area of expertise. In nearly every case of organization I could think of as a possible topic, I found more questions than answers. How we organize our instructional time is no exception, but it is one that I’ve been especially invested in lately.

How we organize our instructional time is a big question in itself, or rather, it is comprised of several smaller questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between reading and writing?
  • What about the speaking and listening standards? Where do those fit?
  • How much time do we devote to reading shared vs. choice texts?
  • What role does independent reading have within the class structure?
  • How do we gradually release responsibility so that students can confidently take on the lessons independently?

These questions have been churning around in our department over the past few years, but this year, they’re mixed in with another big one:

How does lesson planning change between a standard period and a block?

Continue reading

Behind The Scenes: Considering The Big Picture

On Monday, Allison wrote about the nightmare of the blank planner.

I started this week with that nightmare as a reality for one of my classes. I knew exactly where I’d be starting with my Grade 11s and my Grade 12s, but I was kind of blanking on what my Grade 9s would be starting with. It kind of freaked me out.

And it kind of seemed like the right thing to do.

I have the luxury of working in a smaller school. Aside from a few changes, my 11s and 12s are groups of students that I know well, and have built a culture with. There are some programming pieces that I’ve used in those courses that are a perfect fit for them.

Those 9s though, I don’t know them yet, and I can’t decide what things I’ve got in the bag of tricks are going to work best for them. It’s a different situation for me – usually, I don’t see Grade 9 students until second semester, and by then, I have a sense of who they are. This year, I’ve got them in my classroom on the first day. I have an opening piece all figured out, personalizing our notebooks. I’ll be scrambling, trying to get some quick reads on who my new students are.

But here’s the thing. I’m actually pretty confident about things, because I’ve thought about what the Big Picture is in the course. I’m not sure exactly what the path will look like, nor have I figured out exactly what we’re going to do, but I know where I’d like us to be at the end of it. Continue reading

Preparing Mini-Lessons that are Intentional

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Recently I attended my oldest daughter’s back-to-school orientation in her third grade classroom. It was a typical night of excited cafeteria room chatter, squeaky new sneakers, and the exchange of adorable little kid hugs between reunited playground friends. The loudspeaker chimed in and out, prompting us to move from one location to the next, and parents shuffled around their forms and folders and PTA fundraising packets. Beginnings are beautiful. But they can be messy.

They can be stressful and overwhelming and exhausting.

But not if you have a plan.

A few other observations I made that night at intermediate school orientation had to do with my daughter’s incredible teacher, Mrs. Bowman. Mrs. Bowman is a teacher’s teacher — the kind who, if you’re in education and you’re sitting in her classroom, makes you want to be a better teacher. Besides the fact that she’s so obviously on the side of her students and passionate about their learning, and looking beyond her adorably and thoughtfully arranged and decorated classroom, what I saw was nuts and bolts organization and intention.

There was a book basket “book shopping” center, writer’s workshop table, and student conference space; there were comfy chairs, work-stations, folders, calendars, Class Dojo accounts, iPads, and adorable multi-colored paper-clips mounted to the walls ready for student work. And my personal favorite, a space on her board entitled, “We will do…How to do…How to succeed” for daily agendas, goals, and self reflection.

Mrs. Bowman has a plan. She doesn’t just anticipate her students’ needs, she prepares for them.

It gets me thinking. When we prepare a new writing study, this is what we should do — prepare for our students’ needs. We should think through each step and prepare our lessons and to joyfully and intentionally meet our students where they are in order to help them achieve as much as they can.

One way to do this is through mini-lessons that scaffold to the overarching goal of your writing study.

Here are some guiding questions that may help you plan and prepare for your writing unit and evaluate where some gaps might need filled in or extra practice might be required:

When taking stock of your writing study…

  • Did you begin with the end in mind? What is the overarching goal?
  • What is the final product? How will you know when a student is successful?
  • What are the critical skills students need in order to be successful in the writing study?
  • What will students need to know in order to successfully create the final product?
  • What will students need to do in order to successfully create the final product?
  • What kind of classroom atmosphere would be ideal in order for students to be productive?
  • Are there opportunities for collaboration?
  • Are there opportunities for modeling?
  • Are there opportunities for reflection and self assessment?
  • What do you want the students to get out of this experience? What do you hope they take away?

I’ve found that if I invest the time up front in asking and answering these questions myself, I have a deeper understanding of not only what I’m asking students to do, but where and when to schedule mini lessons based the task and overarching goal. For example, if you know that you want your students to have a strong introduction devoid of the classic, “Have you ever” questions, then you might want to spend some time in class analyzing and evaluating what makes an effective introduction, modeling how you might approach introducing a topic, and giving students low-stakes writing opportunities to practice and share. You can include plenty of mentor texts along the the way to guide your discussions and writing.

But of course, the greatest variable is our students — their strengths, weaknesses, and greatest needs. And if we can be intentional in preparing for them, I think we’re one step closer to moving our young writers.

How do you decide which mini-lessons to include in your writing study? What questions do you ask in preparing a writing study?

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

 

Rethinking Writing Genres

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As an English teacher with a minor in History, I’ve often wondered aloud to my colleagues in the Social Studies department about how they are able to continue cramming more and more history into the same size school year as the decades wear on.  Part of the answer, of course, is that what we think of as “modern” or recent history mostly goes unstudied–if it’s still fresh in the collective memory of society, chances are it’s getting only light attention in classrooms.  There are only so many hours in the school year, and the older stuff makes more curricular sense in a lot of ways (A student might absorb some sense of the Post-9/11 era at home or through media.  The significance of the Tennessee Valley Authority?  …Not so much.)

I couldn’t say why this year was the first time I made the connection, but it suddenly occurred to me as my PLC sat down to plan our first unit calendar that the curriculum of English classrooms has begun to mirror the struggles of history classrooms.  For one thing, the Canon that once dominated every English classroom in the land has slowly but surely been chipped away at in favor of at least some balance with more modern and diverse text selections.  The problem is, text selection is only one piece to the puzzle…

Continue reading

Behind the Scenes: Organizing the First Weeks, Semester, and Year…It’s Not What You Think

1It’s the first faculty meeting of the year. A few teachers gather in a corner to show off their new Erin Condrin planners…and as they energetically flip through them, I can see that the first days, weeks, and months are penciled in with big ideas, writing studies, and lesson plans. Then I look down at my own planner and peek inside, expectant… its pages are bright white. Blank. Empty. I don’t even know what I’m doing on the first day of school, and it’s tomorrow…

This is the dream nightmare that plays on repeat during the last few weeks of summer. It’s a nightmare, but it’s also real, because I am faced with a blank planner and the same ginormous question every single August: Where do I begin? What comes first, and then next? 

The curriculum doesn’t answer this question for me. Neither does Common Core, or whatever standards are relevant, or pacing guides. What I did last year doesn’t help either. No. All of these resources are merely guides. The decision of where to begin and where to go next THIS YEAR is ultimately up to me.

Or is it?

Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Generating Ideas or Narrowing Them Down

AMW Karla

Dear Trish,

I’m sure we’ve all been on both sides of this problem at some time or another. I know I sure have! And as an adult writer who’s been practicing for many more years than the young writers in my classroom, it’s easier for me to diagnose and treat my writing ailments. Although there’s no cure for idea deficit or idea overload, there are a few remedies I might prescribe.

Our first patient is the “I don’t know what to write” student who hems and haws with a topic and doesn’t know what to say or how. This particular writing problem sometimes gets me talking to myself. I confess that I’ve mistaken these indecisive writers as behavior problems, or worse, plain old lazy. The truth is, most of the time, this type of student truly does require guidance. And before I offer a few strategies to cultivate ideas, there are three checks that I use to test the vital signs of my assignment:

  • Does this assignment offer students choice?
  • Can all students find something relevant or relatable to discuss?
  • Is what I’m asking students to do achievable?

This is important because if a student is too confined, he or she may come up short on ideas. If they can’t relate to the assignment or find some glimmer of inspiration, back to the drylands. And if what I’m asking students to do is too far outside their ability levels, it may cause unnecessary stress and confusion. Trust me, I’ve been guilty on all counts and it was crippling to my students.

Now that that’s out of the way, here are a few fixes for the out-of-ideas student:

Talk. The is the best way I’ve found to help students generate ideas. My classes love activities like Philosophical Chairs and Socratic seminar to explore and define their ideas. I wonder if some of the problem with brainstorming and prewriting is students aren’t sure of what their ideas even are — where they stand on particular issues and what experiences they have to support their thinking. Talk is a simple remedy to cure the no-ideas blues.

Inspire. The longer I teach, the more I realize I’m in the inspiration business. There’s nothing quite like inspired student writing. As we age and mature, we seek our harness our own inspiration, but students need our help. Maybe it’s a walk outside on a beautiful day, maybe it’s a thought provoking story or image, maybe it’s a compelling question or quote, maybe it’s a unique and engaging short film. Whatever it is, I believe the more we create inspiration, the more ideas our students will generate ideas and feel moved to write.

List. Of all the Notebook Time ideas out there (like these, these, and this), my absolute favorite for the struggling writer is the simplest of them all. The small but mighty list. Whether it’s an idea web, an alphabetized list (like this Alpha Boxes assignment I love), or a trusty Top 10, this old school intervention strategy can, at the very least, help our struggling writers put black on white and begin to orient themselves to the landscape of their thoughts. And listing can help ideas take off, which of course, may lead to a side-effect…

On to our next patient — the overwhelmed-by-ideas, “how do I choose just one?” student who may need to play some elaborate game of idea darts to narrow down the choices.

When discussing the creative process, Stephen King said, “If they’re bad ideas, they go away on their own.”

I love this frame when I talk to students who are unsure about which topic to choose for their writing. For my students who have lots and lots of “good” ideas, the trick is helping them find the great idea.

I like to ask students to sit with their ideas for a while before officially claiming a topic, with the hope that the less-great ideas will have gone home for the night. We talk about the ideas that stick as their “shower ideas” — or the ideas that come back to them over and over at random and unobvious times. I don’t want these creative kids, or any kids, getting locked into an idea that doesn’t excite them.

So it becomes a matter of design, where the product is intentional, thought out, and effective. The advantage for the “too many ideas” writers is they have the opportunity to create a smart design.

Here is a series of questions for your inspired writers that may help them land on a single topic or focus:

  • Which ideas excite me the most? (Choose 3-5)
  • What do I find most compelling about them?
  • What experiences, observations, or knowledge do I have that supports these ideas?
  • Which idea could I tell the best story about?
  • Which topic do I know the most about?
  • Which topic do I find most interesting, problematic, or provocative?
  • Which of these best supports the assignment and prompt?

A few doses of these homemade writing remedies typically do the trick. After your students have found their great idea, have them free write a page or so and call you in the morning.

What strategies do YOU have to help students generate ideas or narrow them down? I’d love to hear from you!

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

Ask Moving Writers: What does a writing unit look like?

Ask

We are spending Mondays this summer answering reader questions in a series called Ask Moving Writers. If these reading our answers sparks yet more questions, please feel free to ask below and join the conversation! 

Here’s our first question: 

Dear Moving Writers,

Hi, Sylvia, Continue reading

The Final Thoughts

It’s June.

I know that some of you are already done for the year. I know that many, like myself, are in the homestretch.

Next week is our last week of classes, followed by exams. So, naturally, I’ve been discussing with my students the nature of their final.

finals-finals-everywhere

Via makeameme.org

My team and I have had a number of conversations, evolving what the final looks like in our English classes. I’m a very vocal advocate for having a team that communicates and plans together, because it allows for so much rich discussion and growth, resulting in classes that are engaging for students and teachers alike. Continue reading