A student writes at their desk.
Section

Teach with Facing History Journal Prompts

Learn creative ways to incorporate journaling into your units and lesson plans and explore  our bank of Facing History journal prompts.

Published:

At a Glance

Section

Language

English — US

Subject

  • English & Language Arts

Grade

6–12
  • Culture & Identity

Overview

About This Section

The act of writing helps us figure out what we think 1 . Journaling is one of the most natural ways for students to learn more about themselves as thinkers and writers. It is important that teachers give students the space to reflect on complex issues and questions so that they can formulate their ideas and opinions before sharing them with their peers or developing them into more formal writing pieces. 

Journaling, whether to make personal connections to the content, explore questions of human behavior, or respond to open-ended questions about a text, is at the heart of any Facing History classroom. The resources in this section of the unit planning toolkit help teachers to incorporate journaling into their daily classroom practice.

  • 1 Joan Didion, "“Why I Write,” New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976, 270.

This section on journaling includes: 

  • 10 ideas for incorporating daily journaling into your classroom 
  • 30 journal prompts that encourage students to explore the following coming-of-age themes in literature and life: navigating multiple aspects of identity, fitting in versus standing out, and the role of storytelling in how we perceive ourselves and others

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before using the journal prompts in this section with students, please review the following information to deepen your understanding of the role journaling plays in a Facing History classroom

Teachers should write and reflect alongside their students. When they do, and especially when they share their writing, no matter how messy or scattered, it sends a powerful message to students that writing matters, writing is hard, and even teachers don’t get it right the first time.

Journals play a key role in a Facing History classroom. Learn more about our approach to journaling with the resources below.

Journaling in a Reflective Classroom

[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.

Journaling in a Reflective Classroom

The purpose of watching this video is to witness how journals can be used from the first days of school to create space and time for student reflection.

Using Journals at the Beginning and End of a Lesson

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.

Using Journals at the Beginning and End of a Lesson

The purpose of watching this video is to observe how journals can be used at the beginning and end of a lesson to create space and time for student reflection, and to witness how student thinking “moves” over the span of a lesson.

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Inside This Section

Inside This Section

Facing History Coming-of-Age Journal Prompts

Below are suggestions on how to incorporate journaling into your existing lesson plans and classroom routines, as well as ideas for how to combine journaling with other teaching strategies:

  1. 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.
  2. Freewrite or sketch what is on your mind or in your heart. 
  3. Reflect on a scene or respond to a question from the point of view of a character.
  4. Write a dialogue or social media exchange between yourself and a character where you give advice about a conflict or choice the character faces in the text. 
  5. Reflect on the unit’s essential question for five minutes. Then write a new question that emerges from your exploration and respond to it for three minutes. Write a new question that emerges to explore for one minute. 
  6. Visualize and reflect on big ideas, concepts, or takeaways from a text with the Sketch to Stretch teaching strategy.  
  7. Develop ideas about a character or theme with the Alphabet Brainstorm teaching strategy. 
  8. Choose a passage or scene and examine what is surprising, interesting, and troubling about it using the S-I-T teaching strategy. 
  9. Explore a question, prompt, or scene in increasingly greater depth, or explore ideas for a piece of writing, using the Rapid-Fire Writing teaching strategy. 
  10. 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.

Select from the following journal prompts, and create your own, as you design and teach your coming-of-age literature unit. To help students feel safe and empowered, it is important that they always know before they write if they will be sharing their ideas, and they should always have the choice to keep what they write in their journals private.  

Identity and Growing Up

  • What does it mean to grow up? 
  • When does a child become an adolescent? When does an adolescent become an adult?
  • What makes you, you? What factors shape your identity? 
  • What factors impact your sense of who you are, especially at this point in your young adult life?
  • How does an individual’s identity change or remain the same as they grow up? 
  • 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? 
  • What are the internal and external factors that shape your identity? What aspects of your identity can you control, and which ones are controlled by other people or your circumstances?
  • Do you have one identity, or do you have many versions of yourself? 
  • How do you navigate multiple, and sometimes competing, aspects of your identity? 
  • What does it mean to belong to a place? What is the relationship between who you are and where you live?  

Relationships with Family and Friends

  • What is the relationship between who you are, who others think you are, and who you will become? 
  • How do expectations from your family, friends, teachers, and other people in your life impact your sense of who you are?
  • What makes for a good friendship or relationship? What can complicate or destroy a good friendship or relationship? 
  • What role do other people, such as your family and close friends, have in shaping your identity? What role does the media have in shaping your identity?
  • How do your friendships impact your identity and the choices that you make? 
  • What, if anything, do you owe your family? What do you owe your friends? What do you owe yourself? 
  • What responsibility do you have to your family, friends, and community, and what responsibility do they have to you? How does the way you understand your responsibilities toward others change as you grow up? 
  • What role do you play in shaping your future? What roles do your family, friends, mentors, coaches, and/or teachers play?

Fitting In and Standing Out

  • 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 navigate the tension between your desire to fit in and your need to express your own individual identity?  
  • How do you respond to people who are different from you?
  • How does the existence of “in” and “out” groups in your school or community impact how you make decisions and how you treat others?
  • How can we belong to a group (of our own choosing or not) without losing our sense of individuality?

Identity and Storytelling

  • Who are you as a reader and writer? What text—book, story, poem, movie, song, podcast, vlog, blog, television show, etc.—has most influenced or inspired you and why?
  • What is the relationship between identity and storytelling? What stories do you tell about yourself? What stories do others tell about you, as an individual and as a member of different groups?
  • What kinds of stories do we tell about ourselves? 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? 
  • What does it mean to be a ________ (choose a label: boy, girl, transgender person, big brother, immigrant, person with a disability, Latinx teenager, Jewish teenager, etc.)? How does it make you feel? Depending on how you feel, how can you embrace, rise above, or escape that label?

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Get our list of 30 journal prompts for a coming-of-age unit in Google Doc format. 

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Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif