12
Jul

Using a Journal in Middle School Language Arts

I'm often asked to explain how I use an interactive journal in the Middle School Language Arts classroom. I'll attempt to give my best overview of how I use it with my students, and give some tips as to how to set up the journal. I have used them in class for the past 4 years, and will never do without one again. I absolutely love using it.

First of all, if I had to define what it is, I'd have to call it a mix between a notebook, interactive notebook, personal journal, reading response journal, scrapbook and mixed medium journal. It's the only notebook we use in class, and no two students will have the same. The journals are completely personalized by the student so that it works best for them.

It starts with a marble composition notebook, the kind you can get at the back to school sale. While smaller than a spiral notebook, it is more sturdy, and the pages are more secure. The only other supplies needed are simply a glue stick, colored pencils or colored Flair felt-tip pens, and a black ink pen. Optional supplies include photos, colored scrap paper, paper punches, washi tape (if you haven't yet discovered washi tape, you haven't yet lived!), and anything else you can think of to decorate the journal with.

The journal will be home to a student's in-class notes, reading responses, background information, writing pieces, opinion writing, and pre-writing organization, among other things.  Any type of full size paper handout can easily fit into the marble sized notebook by folding it in half, and gluing the back of one half onto a notebook page. The sheet will be securely stored, and easily read by unfolding the sheet. Another way, which I prefer, is to use a copier to shrink the 8.5x11 inch handout to 80% of its original size. This is easily done, and then just trim the excess to fit the size of the journal, which is about 9.5 x 7 inches. The page can then be glued into the notebook onto a sheet using the stick glue. (Some people prefer white liquid glue, but I find it's very messy, causes bumps, and students get too carried away with it, not understanding that a little goes a long way.)

Organization is key with the journal, which is one of the reasons I love to use it.  Everything can be easily found by utilizing a table of contents, or index.

So, first day - make sure every student has a marble composition book, including yourself. Have them take a few minutes either in class, or for homework, to number the bottom outside corner of each page. Begin with the first sheet when you open the book.  In class, this can usually be done in about 10-15 minutes.  If you want to speed things up, have them only number the odd number pages, which would be each sheet on the right side of the book. Either way, they'll be able to flip through to find what they are looking for.

On the top of pages 1 through 5, have the student write "Table of Contents" as a header.  You'll be using the margin on the page for the "page number" column, the middle of the line for a "description" of each item, and the far right of the page for a "date". In my photo, instead of the date, I listed whether the item was a 7th or 8th grade activity. I made sure to do each activity as a sample when it was assigned the first time to show the students how it could be done, however, it was a guideline only. Part of the beauty of the journal will be that each student will interpret the activity and it's overall usage differently. I'll touch more on this later.

The first assignment for the journal will begin on page 6 of the journal. After this, all of your students will always be working on different page numbers. What I mean by this is that if Johnny writes only one page in his first assignment and Sally writes two pages, they will both be doing their second assignments on different page numbers. DON'T PANIC! That is exactly the way it should be. You should record somewhere the assignment and date assigned to keep track for grading purposes, and not worry about what page they did it on. That's why they have a Table of Contents.

One of the best activities of the journal is the first activity. You can have them decorate the cover to reflect themselves using pictures from magazines, duct tape, markers, whatever, and assign a writing prompt as a "getting to know you" writing activity, such as "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" or "What aspect of Language Arts do you find most challenging? What would you like to improve on this year?"  The prompt can be a way of getting to know them as a student and a person, and it serves an even more important purpose: it personalizes their journal from the start, and shows them that being self-reflective is an important part of writing in your classroom.

Once you have the Table of Contents and first writing assignment completed (and you've reminded them to record that first assignment in their Table of Contents along with page number (should be on page 6!), assignment title and date, then you are free to take it wherever you want it to go.  Here are some ideas:

For Novel Studies: Begin with an Introduction Page, which includes a photo of the book cover (I usually print a sheet of 16 photos of the covers and cut them out for the students), and research the book a bit. Setting, genre, published date, author... the page introduces the novel study and familiarizes the student with the genre. To explore the setting further, I have a set of student atlas books in the classroom, so we always include a map of the state/country where the story is set. For example, when my 7th graders read Voyage of the Frog by Gary Paulsen which was set off the coast of California and Mexico in the Pacific Ocean, we drew a map of that area of the country in order to better understand where the voyage took place, and throughout the story we drew lines to map the progress. Then, dig deeper, by having the students look up the background information on the author. I call this an Author Page. What types of work does this author generally write? How many books has he/she published? Usually by researching the author, students will better understand the author's writing style. For example, Gary Paulsen has been a nature lover his whole life - his bio reflects that. Reading about his hardships growing up, the student sees why Paulsen often writes books set around nature. Connecting the author to his writing helps the student comprehend the story a bit more. Next, tackle any vocabulary words that you'll be using that are specific to the book. For example, when reading the The Giver, defining words such as Utopian and Dystopian Society might be helpful. Don't forget about Dynamic Characters and Static Characters, Protagonist, Antagonist, etc...  Next, set aside a Quote Page for the students to use as they read. When they come across a quote that is important to the story, have them add it to the page, along with page number and who said it. They will refer to this later in their written assignments, for example.  Also, have them title a Character List on one page, where they can jot down characters from the story, identifying later if they are dynamic or static, major or minor, and what their relationship is to the protagonist.  All of this helps them in better understanding the story. Finally, a simple Plot Chart can be drawn in this section so students can jot down key events that take them to the conflict, climax and resolution of the story. Remember that some students will simply want to write down their notes - others may want to sketch note their pages with doodles or drawings, or color code their notes. Whatever works for them should be encouraged. The goal here is to let them explore ways that will help them to best retain the information based on their own learning styles.

Quickwrites are one page writing assignments that can be used in conjunction with a novel ("Should Jonas have left Gabriel behind when he ran away to find Elsewhere? Why or why not?") or just to get some opinion writing practice into class ("Should all toys be marketed to boys or girls or should they be gender-neutral? Should toy stores continue to have "pink" and "blue" aisles?). After assigning something like this, you can leave time in class for sharing, which some students usually love to do.

Creative Writing assignments are great in journals because the journal lends itself to being a perfect place to map out a story using a grid or a timeline, or to create character profiles by cutting out pictures from magazines and gluing them into the journal and then writing around the picture all of the traits of the character. Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome maybe has a secret life as a bank robber, but loves kittens and is married with 3 kids...

Steps to Structured Writing can be graphically represented in the journal. Samples of an opening paragraph for an essay and a thesis can be drawn out or highlighted in a writing passage and notes can be written in the outline to help with identifying key words, punctuation, structure. For each type of structured writing we do, I always draw out a diagram that students can refer to, whether for responding to a quote, writing a compare/contrast essay, an argument, etc.  Visual representation helps them to understand the structure before they even put any words on the paper.

Vocabulary Words can be tackled using foldables that allow students to study on their own. Taping index cards in their journal by only taping a small area at the top or side of the card allows the card to be flipped to reveal a definition or example.

Common Themes of stories can be included and examples can be given of stories or movies that have those themes so students can understand them. "Courage and Bravery" can easily relate to books (The Fault in our Stars) as well as Movies (Batman vs. Superman, Dawn of Justice").  Once they understand this, they can easily do the same to books they read in class.

How to grade journals? Well, I just check that the activity was completed. I told them up front that how they do it is up to them, but the information that should be included, needs to be included in order to get credit. And I grade them only once a month or so. They can use them on any of their writing assessments or tests. I want them to learn to take good, usable notes. Knowing they can use them on a test or writing assignment makes them take the time to be sure the information they include is useful to them.

These are just a few of the ways that journals can be used in class. We use them almost daily. I've included some photos below with some writing assignments we've done in class, and some that show how each student can make the journal their own through personalization and adding photos or poetry or whatever. The only rule is that everything has to be listed in the table of contents. I hope you try using the journal in your own classroom. If you do, let me know if you and your students enjoyed using them, and tell me about your favorite lesson or activity. If you want some other ideas, or have any questions, please feel free to contact me! I've included some other activities in other blog posts, so feel free to browse.

Click on any of the pictures below to enlarge.

 

covertable of contents   anne conflict schema

themes thankful reference quickpublic speaking

dialogue dialogue 2 holocaust giver jack

plot chart  quick 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5
Feb

Middle School Non-Fiction Activity: The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping

One of the most engaging activities I do in class with my Middle Schoolers when we tackle non-fiction is our quest to find the real killer of the Lindbergh baby. You may ask, "How can that be? Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried, convicted and executed for that crime 80 years ago!" Well, yes, he was. But the case was so flawed, it doesn't take an FBI-trained officer to see that the wrong man may have been blamed.  Or, possibly, been guilty but didn't act alone.  In either case, the students get into the story and background and are determined to find out who the real killer(s) are...

I begin with a two page summary of the kidnapping. You can find them all over the internet. Once they understand what happened, and view the key pieces of evidence (the note, the location of the baby's body, the home-made ladder..) and throw in the fact that it was a rainy night, no one knew the Lindberghs were even at their vacation home that night, there was no way anyone went down that ladder holding a baby... well, before you know it, the students will be throwing conspiracy theories, other evidence, and motives at you like hot potatoes.  The internet has the drawings of the layout of the home, aerial views of the property, photos of the ladder propped against the house, and a list of mistresses of Lindbergh Sr. that all lend credibility to the idea that he might have been involved.

I give them 3 days to search the evidence, work in groups to go over theories, and watch videos. Then they write a 5 paragraph essay with an introduction, thesis statement (focusing on who they think really did it, and why) and their body of proof to support their claim. On the day their papers are due, I invite our school resource officer to sit in on the class. They each informally present their suspects and motive, and the officer quizzes them and tries to disprove their claim. (Officer: What about footprints? Wasn't it raining out?"  Student: "Yes! They found footprints - same size as Lindbergh's!" Officer: "They found the baby's body in the woods." Student: "No! They found A body, probably not THE body. There was an orphanage nearby, and it could have been a baby from there!")  I'm always amazed at the theories and motives the students throw out during the discussion. It's obvious that they did some research, and I've heard from parents that it was often the dinner conversation each night for that week.

I also throw in a quick lesson on domain-specific vocabulary. In this case, we go over a list of police terminology so that when they are presenting, they are using words such as motive, indictment, evidence, conspiracy, alleged, felony, etc.  They love learning the terms and using them. And, you'll be surprised at how many CSI TV program watchers you have in your class!

I love this research/writing lesson because it gets my students involved in local history - the Lindbergh's vacation home where the kidnapping occurred is not far from our school in New Jersey, and that helps the students relate to it .  It is also a great way to practice formal essay writing and thesis statements and all that goes along with that. Oh, throw in public speaking as well.

Some links to get you started:

FBI information on the kidnapping

The American Experience on PBS: Lindbergh Kidnapping

NJ State Police Lindbergh Kidnapping Evidence Photographs

Lindberghfbiposter