Student Journaling Teaching Strategy | Facing History & Ourselves
Two students writing in a classroom
Teaching Strategy

Journals in the Classroom

Create a practice of student journaling to help your students critically examine their surroundings and make informed judgments.


  • Advisory
  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US




What Are the Benefits of Student Journals?

A journal is an instrumental tool for helping students develop their ability to critically examine their surroundings from multiple perspectives and to make informed judgments about what they see and hear. Many students find that writing or drawing in a journal helps them process ideas, formulate questions, and retain information.

Journals make learning visible by providing a safe, accessible space for students to share thoughts, feelings, and uncertainties. In this way, journals are also an assessment tool: you can use them to better understand what your students know, what they are struggling to understand, and how their thinking has changed over time. Reading and commenting on your students' journals offers a way for you to build relationships with your students as well. Frequent journal writing also helps students become more fluent in expressing their ideas in writing or speaking.

Below, we describe some of the many ways you can use journals as an effective learning tool in the classroom. We've also collected student journal prompt ideas you can use to jumpstart journaling in your classroom.

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How to Use Student Journaling in Your Classroom

Students are entitled to know how you plan on reading their journals. Will you read everything they write? If they want to keep something private, is this possible? If so, how do students indicate that they do not want you to read something? Will their journals be graded? If so, by what criteria? (See more on grading journals below.) For teachers at most schools, it can be impossible to read everything students write in their journals; there is just not enough time in the day. For this reason, some teachers decide that they will collect students' journals once a week and only read a page or two—sometimes a page the student selects and sometimes a page selected by the teacher. Other teachers may never collect students' journals but might glance at them during class time or might ask students to incorporate quotes and ideas from their journals into collected assignments. You can set limits on the degree to which you have access to students' journals. Many teachers establish a rule that if students wish to keep information in their journals private, they should fold the page over or remove the page entirely.

It is easy for students to confuse a class journal with a diary or blog because these formats allow for open-ended writing. Teachers should clarify how the audience and purpose for this writing is distinct from the audience and purpose for writing in a personal diary. In most classrooms, the audience for journal writing is the author, the teacher, and, at times, peers. At Facing History, we believe that the purpose of journal writing is to provide a space where students can connect their personal experiences and opinions to the concepts and events they are studying in the classroom. Therefore, some material that is appropriate to include in personal diaries may not be appropriate to include in class journals. To avoid uncomfortable situations, many teachers find it helpful to clarify topics that are not suitable material for journal entries. Also, as mandatory reporters in most school districts, teachers should explain that they are required to take certain steps, such as informing a school official, if students reveal information about possible harm to themselves or another student. Students should be made aware of these rules, as well as other guidelines you might have about appropriate journal writing content.

Many students admit that they are less likely to share their true thoughts or express questions when they are worried about a grade based on getting the "right" answer or using proper grammar or spelling. We suggest that if you choose to grade students' journals, which many teachers decide to do, you base these grades on criteria such as effort, thoughtfulness, completion, creativity, curiosity, and making connections between the past and the present. There are many others ways to provide students with feedback on their journals, such as by writing comments or asking questions. Students can even evaluate their own journals for evidence of intellectual and moral growth. For example, you might have students look through their journals to find evidence of their ability to ask questions or to make connections between what was happening in Nazi Germany and an event from their own life.

Students learn and communicate best in different ways. The journal is an appropriate space to respect different learning styles. Some students may wish to sketch their ideas, for example, rather than record thoughts in words. Other students may feel most comfortable responding in concept webs and lists, as opposed to prose. When you introduce the journal to students, you might brainstorm different ways that they might use it to express their thoughts.

Throughout a unit, students both encounter new vocabulary and develop a more sophisticated understanding of concepts that might already be familiar to them. Journals can be used as a place to help students build their vocabulary through the construction of "working definitions." The phrase "working definition" implies that our understanding of concepts evolves as we are confronted with new information and experiences. Students' definitions of words such as "identity" or "belonging" should be richer at the end of the unit than they are on day one. We suggest that you use the journal, or perhaps a special section of the journal, as a space where students can record, review, and refine their definitions of important terms referred to in this unit.

Students are often best able to express themselves when they believe that their journal is a private space. We suggest that information in students' journals never be publicly shared without the consent of the writer. At the same time, we encourage you to provide multiple opportunities for students to voluntarily share ideas and questions they have recorded in their journals. Some students may feel more comfortable reading directly from their journals than speaking "off the cuff" in class discussions.

Once you settle on the norms and expectations for journal writing in your class, there are many possible ways that you can have students record ideas in their journals.  Here are some student journal ideas to get you started.

  • Teacher-selected prompts: Asking students to respond to a particular prompt is one of the most common ways teachers use journals. This writing often prepares students to participate in a class activity, helps students make connections between the themes of a lesson and their own lives, or provides an opportunity for students to make meaning of ideas in a reading or film. You’ll find some suggested journal prompts in the next section of this guide.
  • Dual-entry format: Students draw a line down the center of the journal page or fold the page in half. They write the factual notes ("What the text says" or "What the historians say") on one side and on the other side their feelings about the notes ("Reactions").
  • "Lifted line" responses: Ask students to respond to what they have read by "lifting a line." In a lifted line response, students select a quotation that strikes them and then answer questions about it. Questions could include, "What is interesting about this quotation? What ideas does it make you think about? What questions does this line raise for you?"
  • Opening or closing routine: Open and/or close class with a journal reflection to help students come into the space and to help them synthesize and make connections between key ideas, concepts, and their own lives.
  • Brainstorming: Students can use their journals as a place to freely list ideas related to a specific word or question. To activate prior knowledge before students learn new material, you might ask students to brainstorm everything they know about a concept or an event. As a strategy for reviewing material, you might ask students to brainstorm ideas they remember about a topic. Moreover, as a pre-writing exercise, students can brainstorm ways of responding to an essay prompt.
  • Freewriting: Freewriting is open, no-format writing. Freewriting can be an especially effective strategy when you want to help students process particularly sensitive or provocative material. Some students respond extremely well to freewriting, while other students benefit from more structure. That may mean a loosely-framed prompt such as, "What are you thinking about after watching/reading/hearing this material? What does this text remind you of?"
  • Creative writing: Many students enjoy writing poems or short stories that incorporate the themes addressed in a particular lesson. To stimulate their work, some students benefit from ideas that structure their writing, such as a specific poem format or an opening line for a story.
  • Drawings, charts and webs: Students do not have to express their ideas in words. At appropriate times, encourage students to draw their feelings or thoughts. They can also use symbols, concept maps, Venn diagrams, and other charts to record information.
  • Note-taking: To help students retain new information, they can record notes in their journals. 
  • Vocabulary: Students can use their journals as a place to keep their working definitions of terms, noting how those definitions change as they learn. The back section of their journals could be used as a glossary: the place that students record definitions and review and revise them as these terms come up throughout a unit.
  • K-W-L charts:  To keep track of their learning in a unit, students can keep a K-W-L chart in their journals. In this three-column chart, the first column "K" represents what students already know about a topic. The second column, "W," represents what they want to know. And, "L," the third column, is where they record what they have learned. 
  • Interviews:  From time to time you might ask students to interview classmates, family, or community members about particular themes or questions. Students can record data from their interviews in their journals.
  • Sharing: There may be times when you let students know in advance that what they wrote will be shared with the class, or invite them to select something to share from their journal. A pass-around is an exercise where journals are "passed around" from one student to the next. Students read the page that is opened (and only that page!) and then write connections they see in their own lives, current events, or other moments in history.
  • Cross-class journals: If you teach more than one section of a course, create cross-class journals. Staple together 5–10 sheets of lined paper and assign one student from each section to each journal, writing their names on the front cover. Create norms for responding, which students can copy or paste into the front of the journal. Then have students respond to questions, prompts, and to each other. Cross-section journals create meaningful opportunities for students to engage in rich written discussions across classes.

Journal Prompts for Middle and High School Students

These journal prompts reflect themes that many high school students and middle school students encounter as they come of age. Select from these prompts or use them as inspiration to write your own journal prompts. 

  • Why do you believe what you believe?
  • In your family, community, or culture, what events or traditions mark the transition from childhood to adulthood? Do you think you actually become an adult on the day of that event or tradition? 
  • Do you have one identity, or do you have many versions of yourself? 
  • Take a moment to be still and focus. What sounds do you hear? What do you notice around you? What sensations do you feel? After you reflect, write down what you experienced.
  • What does it mean to belong to a place? What is the relationship between who you are and where you live?  
  • Describe a place that feels like home. What does the place look like? Why does it feel like home?
  • What goals and actions do you share with others that give you courage, strength, and hope?
  • Explain a childhood game that makes you feel free. What is a memory you have of playing the game? Why does it make you feel free?
  • Look at Marc Brackett’s Mood Meter. Where would you place yourself on the meter right now? Why?
  • Complete the sentence: “Today I feel . . .”
  • What makes for a good friendship or relationship? What can complicate or destroy a good friendship or relationship? 
  • How do your friendships impact your identity and the choices that you make? 
  • How do expectations from your family, friends, teachers, and other people in your life impact your sense of who you are?
  • What role do you play in shaping your future? What roles do your family, friends, mentors, coaches, and/or teachers play?
  • What is the story of your family? What is the story of your community? 
  • What do you hope people say about you? Why?
  • What is a compliment you recently received? How did it make you feel? What is a compliment you would like to give to someone else and why?
  • Who inspires you and why do they inspire you?
  • Write a thank you note to someone who has been there for you. What have they done that has helped you? Why did you find it helpful?
  • Write an apology note to someone who is currently in your life or who used to be in your life.
  • Write a note of encouragement to someone in your life who you think could use a pick me up.
  • What does it mean to “fit in”? How do we learn what it means to fit in? What does it take—and what can it cost—to fit in? What are the consequences of not fitting in? 
  • How do you respond to people who are different from you?
  • How can we belong to a group (of our own choosing or not) without losing our sense of individuality?
  • Discuss a time when your individual values have conflicted with the values of a group or community that you are a part of. How did you address this challenge and what impacted the decision you made? Did you speak up or remain silent? For example, you could think of a time when you have disagreed with the decision of your school, parents, or peer group.
  • What text—book, story, poem, movie, song, podcast, vlog, blog, television show, etc.—has most influenced or inspired you and why?
  • What is the story of your family? What is the story of your community? 
  • Whose history is your history? Where do you see your history reflected in the stories that people write or tell? Where is your history missing from these stories? 
  • Where do you see yourself and your experiences in the stories that people write and tell? Where are you missing from these stories? What is the story that you want to tell the world? 
  • Explore a particular choice made by a character in a text you have read. How does their identity impact their choices?
  • Choose a book you recently read or a show or film you recently watched. What kinds of challenges do the main characters face? How do they deal with these challenges? What words of advice do you have for them?
  • Choose a book you recently read or a show or film you recently watched. Which character do you most relate to and why? Which character do you least relate to and why?
  • Choose a book you recently read or a show or film you recently watched. Why do you think the author or director chose to tell the story from the perspective they did? What other choices could the author or director have made? How would it have changed the story?

Student Journaling Classroom Examples

Facing History teacher Jonathan Dee engages with student.

[JONATHAN DEE] Today's lesson, they're going to start with a journal where students will be reflecting on either when they felt comfortable or uncomfortable in a classroom setting, preferably, hopefully, in the past couple of years so it's fresh. And students will write, they'll reflect in their journals for a couple of minutes, and then we'll come together. They'll share with a partner who answered the different prompts. We'll have students-- some who felt comfortable, some who didn't feel comfortable-- talking to each other and conversing before we come back together as a big class. Using journals in the class is a great way to get students to think about either what we've just done in class the previous day or the previous week or to get them thinking ahead to what we're about to do. The first thing we're going to do is our journal. So please have your journals open. You don't need the Chromebooks today. You can put those-- stash those away. Here's the way the journal's going to work. So there are two prompts today. If you are sitting on the inside, so the inside two rows, you're going to do the first prompt. I want you to think about-- identify a time when you have felt comfortable sharing your ideas and questions in a class. What happened in those moments to help you feel comfortable? So try to think of something in the past couple of years since you've been in middle school. If you're on the outside, the outside two rows, identify when you've had ideas or questions but have not shared them in class. Why not? Why didn't you feel comfortable? What was happening at those moments? So guys, I'm going to give you a couple of minutes here to respond in your journals. I know it's only our second journal of the year. Keep in mind the date today is the 5th, journal number two. Come up with a title. We have the model on the board you can look at in a second. Title someone earlier today came up with-- just the word "comfort." Keep it simple, something that relates to the prompt. Get to it. You guys finish up that final thought. I'm happy to see a lot of people writing for almost the whole five minutes. I haven't been able to read everything that you've written, but I can see a lot of people seem to have a lot of ideas down. The next step-- the reason that I split up the room-- two different prompts-- is I'm going to have the people on the inside turn and talk to someone behind you. You can talk in the groups of four. You don't have-- before you do it, you don't have to read everything that you wrote. But just please share-- Aiden. I want you to share with them some of your ideas about either why you're comfortable sometimes or uncomfortable, and we'll give you guys a couple of minutes to do that. And then, we'll come back together. So please turn around and talk to someone near you. [STUDENT 1] I usually never am comfortable sharing ideas of mine them because I'm not really a talkative person with people that I'm not friends with. But sometimes, if I'm partnered alone, I actually like to-- I get more comfortable and relaxed and actually let go of myself and say some things that are in my mind. [JONATHAN DEE] Awesome. So what else? Someone who has felt uncomfortable. [STUDENT 2] I feel very uncomfortable when we're doing projects and stuff we have to present in front of the class. But if it's in a small group, then I feel more comfortable. [STUDENT 3] I don't like to share that much because I get nervous a lot. [JONATHAN DEE] What makes you nervous? [STUDENT 3] Just talking in front of a big group of people. Like, I can do it in partners. But I can't do it in, like, big groups. [JONATHAN DEE] Are you afraid of something, of how people might react? [STUDENT 3] No, it's just a weird shyness. [JONATHAN DEE] Shyness? I can relate to that. All right, guys. Come turn back. I got to listen to a couple of the groups. I heard some words came up in a couple of the people that I heard share-- nervous, confused. And those were the people who don't-- who have had those experiences where they weren't comfortable in a class. In our class, we're going to do a lot of different things. You'll be sometimes working alone. Sometimes we'll be all together like this, or we'll be doing some of that small group work. So our goal-- we've talked yesterday and a couple of days now, what makes a reflective classroom? I left some notes up on the board from yesterday. A reflective classroom-- we talked about just that word. What does it mean to reflect, to think back on? And we said it's a thoughtful classroom. It's respectful. There's written work happening. There's class discussion going on, again, small group or whole class. And every class we talked about this. They all talked about different viewpoints, different perspectives being shared in the class. I believe so strongly in using journaling in the classroom. On day one, when I'm going over the different supplies that they need for the class, I always-- the journals, number one on that list. And I talk to my students about when I was in eighth grade or middle school, I always felt like I had a lot to offer. I thought I had a lot of great ideas, but I was really shy. And I know I would sit in the class and I'd hear the teacher say something or another classmate that either I agreed with or I had a different opinion, and it was so hard for me to open up. But I had a teacher who used journals and really encouraged us to be honest. And they were going to be confidential, meaning that other students weren't necessarily going to be able to read through them. And it was a place where you actually could participate in the class, even if you weren't ready just yet to be raising my hand or jumping into big discussions. And it really made me feel comfortable, and it made me feel like my ideas mattered. And I remember it took a couple of months, but eventually, my teacher would comment to me, you have a lot to offer. I can see that, and I really want you to try to share with the students. And I was never forced to do that, but it made me feel comfortable. And that's something I've tried to use in my own classroom now, and I relate that to my students on day one. They think it's weird that all of the sudden, here I am, a teacher in front of eighth graders. I never thought that would be where I would end up 20 years ago, but I talk about the importance of that journal. And I've already seen-- it's just the first week of school, but some students you can actually tell they're quieter than others, that they're already writing in that journal a lot. And so far, some of them aren't feeling comfortable opening up yet. But they're opening up in that journal, and I hope that continues as we get into deeper topics. I try to allow five minutes for the journaling activity. And there was many students who are writing right up until that five minutes, and part of me felt bad calling time. But with that activity, like, that's really-- that's kind of to activate their thoughts.

In this classroom video, middle school students acclimate to using journals during the first week of school.

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Student writes at desk.

[JENNA FORTON] Journaling is everything in my classroom. We talk about, at Ravenswood, that writing is learning. And so these processes of learning are shown and practiced through writing, the act of writing. So journaling is an integral part of the classroom because it's an integral part of learning. So I have students use their notebooks as a space where they can engage. And so even if they are not feeling the confidence to share out vocally or they don't want to share out vocally or they're not ready, or they want to listen, they have an opportunity to engage within the classroom no matter where they are at because everybody can journal something. And so journaling can be used at any moment for engaging during class. And the strategy specifically of quick writing is that idea of not picking up your pen or pencil off the paper. And so using singular words, using a poem, using a drawing in order to express where you are at in your thinking even if that point is I don't know what I'm thinking, it's always a place for students to go. Jack, first question please. [JACK] What does equality mean to you? [JENNA FORTON] Second question. Carlos, go ahead. [CARLOS] Does it mean equal treatment under the law, equal opportunities, equal education, or something else? [JENNA FORTON] So based on what you know of equality, what does it mean? Go. You're going to have about 10 minutes to work on this, and then I'll check in. Now one more layer to your thinking. Eyes up here. So going back to the document for the dispute, how did you decide on the case? Did equality play a role in your decision? Even go back into the 14th Amendment itself. Look for the verbiage, look for the wording, try to identify a piece of evidence that you can connect to this idea of equality. Turn and talk. [SIDE CONVERSATIONS] [STUDENT 1] Not eagle-- legal-extralegal thing. [STUDENT 2] Yeah. [STUDENT 1] Yeah. And it's also important to distinguish equity and equality because equity is like advantages are given if you aren't-- if you're disadvantaged. But equality is the same treatment and none of that special treatment is given to even help other people. It's just the same. [STUDENT 3] Yeah. And, for example, even if equality is a thing, there's still going to be some people who are still going to struggling. Like, for example, that poster's a good example because it really does show if people are given equality, not-- people may be given the same treatment but not everyone is going to be feeding off that. [STUDENT 2] Some people need more help than others. [STUDENT 3] Yeah, and if we give equity, that means we get to help more people that are in need. [STUDENT 2] It's like the intersections of identity where people-- we see that woman are treated correctly sometimes and Black people-- Black men are treated equally sometimes, but what happens when you cross in the middle? [STUDENT 3] People decide to ignore it because there's no answer for that. [STUDENT 2] Yeah, we still don't have enough experience with that group to be able to help them. Therefore there's no equity. [STUDENT 1] No, it's not that there's no experience. I think it's more that there's just no way-- there hasn't been a way crafted to view them in their struggle. [JENNA FORTON] It is something that is so integral in our classroom that students almost just-- well, let's go. I appreciated that many of them, as I was giving things for them to consider in their journaling, I was happy to see that as I was walking around they were like asking themselves different questions. I was happy to see that when I would lean down and want to talk to a student about what they were writing about that they had something they wanted to verbally engage with me already. So I just think, again, that element of it was 100% participation in journaling, and I just am always surprised by that. You would just hear that it's such a difficult thing to get kids 100% engaged, and then you see through journaling that it's possible and kind of debunks that.

Caption: In this classroom video, social studies teacher Jenna Forton uses journaling to open a lesson on the Plessy vs. Ferguson court case..

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KEVIN TORO: One thing about using journals in class that I find really useful is, as teenagers, they are so willing to sort of write their thoughts down, organize what they're thinking. And often when we have them speak in class, that there's a little bit of disconnect that happens as they're trying to think and put norms on it and everything that goes along. And with writing, at least from what I've seen and experienced, they seem less limited. They seem almost more willing to talk about harder topics. They get right to it. And it's been something that's really helped me in terms of reflection.

Journals as a tool to get them ready. They are using their sort of own thoughts. They know that it's going to be collected, so it is a bit of work, and there's a bit of tension there. They know that there's going to be outcomes that are going to be assessed. They also feel personal to them in a lot of ways. And they use it constantly throughout class.

For today, what is freedom and what does it mean to be free? You have, let's say five minutes. And then we'll talk a little bit about that freedom. We have this question, what is freedom? And then we have another question. What does it mean to be free? We're talking about a time, remember, where we have a lot of people who have acquired new given citizenship. They are emancipated. They are now citizens in this country. They have full rights.

We know necessarily, from what we've already looked at, that that's not the full truth, but we're going to analyze that to come to our own sort of conclusions about it. If I could take any volunteers for what is freedom and what does it mean to be free. Remember, you could place it in the context. You can also place it out of context. Doralee.

DORALEE: I think freedom is the collection of basic rights and the constitutional rights. It's the ability to express yourself willingly and throughout the government and have a voice in it. And I said that it means everything to a person, because it allows them to be an individual and pursue happiness and live the way they want to live.

KEVIN TORO: Wonderful, yeah. What a great definition of freedom. Gus, I saw you had your hand up.

GUS: Freedom is like the right not to be owned by anyone.

KEVIN TORO: Yeah. Well, especially in the time period we're talking about, that seems so pertinent as an idea. In your own words, describe the freedom given to the former slaves. How does this compare with the definition that you already put from your journal earlier today? What I would like is to take a little bit of time for these. And then hopefully, share. But I'll give you, let's say two, three minutes, and then we'll check in, OK?

If I could ask you to do something last two minutes of class, I just want to get a few answers. How do these compare? And in your own words, what is this freedom? Diego, start us off.

Diego: Education. And I felt like with all the things that I read during the whole session, I feel like that's what I got the most from the readings. To them, like receiving the proper education was most important and like I hadn't thought about that when I wrote my definition. All I thought about was just like being able to go where I please and like freedom of speech and stuff like that. But to them, it was education.

KEVIN TORO: Doralee.

DORALEE: The freed slaves had to work like twice as hard just to like gain their freedom. And I think like nowadays, we take things for granted, like education, the right to just living free or just anything that we want to do. And we have to remember like these people actually had to fight for their freedom. It's not like something that was natural to them. So I think that a lot of people forget where we came from.

KEVIN TORO: Yeah, and the struggle it is, what freedom is in my opinion, is a struggle. Amelia, finish us off.

AMELIA: Um, kind of related to Doralee's, I said like the freedom they're given was also more responsibilities in the world, like their whole community and like society, rather than just in their own personal lives. And like they definitely act upon their freedom a lot more and like don't take it for granted as much.

KEVIN TORO: Absolutely. Opportunities as well. All right, everyone. Thank you so much. Today was great. I use journals in class as a way to allow the students to connect with their inner thoughts, especially in the class around racism. There's a lot of deconstructing of sort of myths and barriers that the students have to do. The journals allow them a safe space to really think, put down their thoughts.

Using it throughout the class period, beginning sort of middle and end, really also allows them a point to check in and breathe, which I really love. And so they get to not only access the information for themselves, reflect, but they just get a chance to actually some little bit of downtime. I think if all of us write journals, we know how comforting they can be.

In this classroom video, a high school history teacher uses journals with his students both at the beginning and end of a lesson on Reconstruction.

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Additional Resources

Resources from Other Organizations

The resources below provide additional guidance for addressing difficult topics in the classroom.
Notebook Work
Penny Kittle

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