What Makes A Journal Better?

The other day, I had a conversation that has been on my mind ever since. I was speaking with another teacher about writing in Kindergarten. I’m very passionate about authentic writing, and the value in using this writing to also support reading development. In my 17 years of teaching with the Board — and 11 years teaching Kindergarten — all of our children this year are reading and writing more than I’ve ever seen before. All of this writing is authentic.

  • It’s embedded in play.
  • It’s largely student-driven.
  • It takes place all day long.
  • It’s linked with opportunities to read, and supports and includes the development of new vocabulary (oral language).

My teaching partner, Paula, and I could not be happier about the reading and writing that we’re seeing in our classroom, and we’ve received numerous emails from parents that express their gratitude for the growth that they’ve seen in their children. All of this matters immensely to me! This may have been why I was triggered when this same teacher suggested the use of notebooks/journals for some of our kids. What? Why?

I’m going to share here the same concerns that I expressed at the time.

  • Many journals are lined, and there’s information out there that shows how these lines act as “visual noise,” and can discourage children from writing more. I used lined journals for years with my Kindergarten and Grade 1 students, but as soon as I made the switch to unlined paper, I noticed a huge increase in the quality and quantity of writing. I’ve never gone back! This unlined paper also allows children to easily draw and label their work, which is something that beginning writers do frequently. Drawings are how many Kindergarten students communicate — especially initially — and our Program Document supports this with Visual Arts being one of the ways that children can communicate. 
  • Even if we can find unlined journals, as soon as we make writing about what happens in a notebook or a journal, we start to devalue the writing that happens in authentic ways. I don’t think that this is done intentionally, and maybe it’s not the case for everyone, but often there is far less writing happening around the room and through play when writing happens in a notebook. Maybe it’s in our attempt to make that notebook special that children receive an implied message about the importance of this journal. Maybe it’s because so many of our mini-lessons happen with the journal that the other writing is seen as less valuable, be it in the eyes of adults or children. But for years I’ve noticed that as soon as a journal is introduced, other writing gradually decreases. I think it’s worth exploring why this happens. 

I know that writing starts to look different as we move up in the grades. I’ve taught Kindergarten to Grade 6. Yes, these grades are not all the same. But while the pedagogy is explicit in the Kindergarten Program Document, it’s not explicit in the Language Curriculum. Reading and writing could still happen through play. When I taught Grade 1 at Dr. Davey, a Writer’s Workshop model totally changed things for my students. Kids were writing constantly and for long periods of time, and these were not children that started the year feeling as though they were readers and writers. I had grand plans for how I wanted to run our Grade 1 classroom, but I had to make changes because of the children that were in front of me. This Writer’s Workshop model was one of these changes, and it was a game changer. Even then, my children did not have journals. I did have writing folders, and encouraged students to organize loose papers in these folders, but writing was often done and displayed around the classroom. Signs and labels were used within the context of play, and it was when the interests changed, that children took these papers and began to put them in their writing folders. Perfect!

Please don’t get me wrong. I know that sometimes the value of a journal is not in the writing (the expression of ideas), but in the printing practice (opportunities to form letters correctly and in ways that are readable to others). There is a time and a place for learning proper letter formation … and I realize that sometimes when learned incorrectly, this is a hard habit to break. That said, I’ve noticed that when children get hung up on how to form a letter, many of them stop writing. For some children, just showing them that they’ve made a mistake is enough to discourage more writing. It all comes down to knowing your students. 

  • If Paula and I notice letter reversals, we will often demonstrate how to form these letters correctly.
  • We might write children back a note based on what they wrote us, and even point out the differences in some of our letters versus theirs. 
  • We might encourage students to trace the letter that we wrote and try some of their own.
  • For a few children, we might remind them before they write to remember about uppercase and lowercase letters. 
  • And for some children, we might not say anything because just the very act of writing can be stressful enough, and we want to encourage and support, and not discourage the growth we’re seeing.

And so, we try to put out papers that are of various sizes: from small sticky notes to notepads in the dramatic play restaurant to papers on clipboards. We also put out different writing instruments: from Sharpies (the preferred one) to pencils. We want children to learn to write smaller and more exact, but we also want them to love writing and to understand that writing can be a very valuable and convincing way to express ideas to others. This is why we’ve also started to include technology as part of our writing, and using PicCollage is another way for children to write. They love sharing their PicCollages with a larger audience through Twitter and Instagram. We’ve also started to use Explain Everything in addition to PicCollage to give children a bigger voice in their writing, for often at this age, what children can express orally even exceeds what they can write down. 

Writing is complex and wonderful, and even now as an educator, I’m inspired by what I can share through text. Sometimes this text is a handwritten card (yes, even with the lack of a pen, I still do those 🙂 ), sometimes it’s a blog post, and sometimes it’s a Twitter or Instagram post. These kids that we’re teaching now will grow up to hopefully still be eager writers, who realize that writing can happen anywhere at any time. There’s still time to further perfect the size and formation of the printing, and while it might also matter, the confidence that comes from children realizing that they can communicate to anyone through the messages that they write is powerful. I don’t want to even inadvertently change these feelings by adding a journal into the mix. If children bring their own journals into class — which some do — we’re happy to support the writing that happens in these journals. This is now child-initiated writing that’s meaningful to that child. How can we not? But we’re reluctant to go the route of a journal for everyone — or even a handful of children that have not indicated an interestAre they really necessary? What do you think? I know that the teacher that mentioned this to me the other day got quite the passionate response — and I do apologize for that — but I hope that this post explains why this matters so much to me. With a Program Document that supports authentic writing, why move to a journal? I wonder how authentic this kind of writing really is for our youngest learners.


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