Journals in a Facing History Classroom


Facing History and Ourselves is committed to helping students develop their ability to critically examine their surroundings from multiple perspectives and to make informed judgments about what they see and hear. Keeping a journal is one tool that Facing History has found instrumental in helping students' develop these skills. A journal might be defined as any place where thoughts are recorded and stored. Loose-leaf and bound notebooks both make excellent journals. 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--something teachers can review to better understand what their students know, what they are struggling to understand, and how their thinking has changed over time. In addition to strengthening students critical thinking skills, journal writing serves other purposes as well. Journals help nurture classroom community and, through reading and commenting on journals, teachers build relationships with students. Frequent journal writing also helps students become more fluent in expressing their ideas in writing or speaking.

Students use their journals in different ways. Some students may record ideas throughout class while others may only use it when there is a particular teacher-driven assignment.   Some students need prompts to support their writing, while other students feel more comfortable expressing their ideas without any external structure.  Just as students vary in how they use their journals, teachers vary in their approach to journal writing as well.   While there are many effective ways to use a journal as a learning tool in the classroom, below are six suggestions that we offer based on decades of experience working with teachers and students.

[i] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (Orlando: Harcourt Inc. 1971), 5.

[ii] Quoted in Joachim Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1970), 39.

Our ideas about the importance of journals in a Facing History and Ourselves classroom have been informed by decades of experience listening to teachers and students as well as by academic research, especially the following studies: Lisa Colt, Fanny Connelly, and John Paine, “Excerpts from Student Journals in Response to the Curriculum Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior.” Moral Education Forum, Summer 1981.


Questions to consider when using journals in the classroom 

1)      What is the teacher's relationship with students' journals?  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 critieria? (See more on grading journals below.) For teachers at most schools, it can be impossible to read everything students write in their journals; there just is not enough time in the day.  For this reason, some teachers decide that they 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 that during class time or might ask students to incorporate quotes and ideas from their journal 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.

2)      What is appropriate content for journals?  It is easy for students to confuse a class journal with a diary (or blog) because both of 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. Facing History believes 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 their personal diaries may not be appropriate to include in their 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. 

3)      How will journals be evaluated? 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. Therefore, we suggest that if you choose to grade students' journals, which many teachers decide to do, that you base these grades on criteria such as effort, thoughtfulness, completion, creativity, curiosity, and making connections between the past and the present. Additionally, there are many ways to provide students with feedback on their journals besides traditional grading, 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 journal 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.

4)      What forms of expression can be included in a journal? Students learn and communicate best in different ways.  The journal is an appropriate space to respect different learning styles.  Some students may wish to draw their ideas, 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 express their thoughts. 

5)      How can journals be used to help students build vocabulary? Throughout this unit, students will be encountering new vocabulary, while they develop a more sophisticated understanding of concepts which might already be familiar to them. From the earliest days of Facing History, the journal was used as a place to help students build their vocabulary through constructing "working definitions." The phrase "working definition" implies that our understanding of concepts evolve 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 you use the journal, 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.   (Note: each lesson plan includes a list of key terms.)

6)      How should journal content be publicly shared?  Most Facing History teachers have found that students are best able to express themselves when they believe that their journal is a private space.  Therefore, we suggest that information in students' journals is never 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.



Suggestions for using journals in the classroom

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 examples:

Teacher-selected prompts: One of the most common ways that teachers use journals is by asking students to respond to a particular prompt.  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.  In every lesson, you will find suggested prompts for journal writing. 

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:  One way to have students respond to what they have read is to ask them to "lift a line" - select a particular quotation that strikes them-and then answer questions such as, "What is interesting about this quotation? What ideas does it make you think about? What questions does this line raise for you?"

Brainstorming: The journal is an appropriate place where students can 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, even if that means 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 incorporates 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 (examples: Once upon a time, I could not believe my eyes when my friend came running down the street, yelling...).

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. Notes could be taken in various formats-such as lists, concept maps, or in graphic organizers.

Vocabulary:  Students can use their journals as a place to keep their working definitions of terms, noting how those definitions change as they go deeper into the resources.  The back section of their journals could be used as a glossary-the place that students record definitions and where they can turn to review and revise their definitions as these terms come up throughout the unit.

K-W-L charts:  To keep track of their learning in this 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:  While there will be times when some students will not want to publicly share thoughts form their journals, most of the time students are eager to have the opportunity to select something from their journals to share with a small group or the larger class.  There may be times when you let students know in advance that what they wrote will be shared with the class. 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.


Related Content

Teaching Strategy

Identity Charts

Help students consider the many factors that shape who we are as individuals with this teaching strategy. 

Teaching Strategy

Socratic Seminar

By focusing on listening to one another, students work toward a shared understanding around ideas in a text rather than asserting their own opinions.


A Scene from a Middle School Classroom

Students explore social conflict in a familiar setting through a case study set in a 7th grade classroom.

Teaching Strategy

Iceberg Diagrams

Help students gain awareness of the multiple factors that give rise to particular events by identifying the underlying causes that bring about such events.

New Edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior

We've released a new digital edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior. We're working on updating all of our content to reflect the new resources and scholarship. For now, some content on this page may reference the previous edition.

Search Our Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.