An Alternative Approach to Journal Writing

For the past five years, I have used an alternative to the now accepted practice of journal writing. I had found journals to be a wonderful way of motivating writing, but there were some problems in the actual implementation of journals that I had found aggravating. My solution was the 15 Minute Writing.

Journals have two main problems. First they are terribly bulky and difficult to carry. 125-150 journals carried home on a weekly basis represent an enormous burden. I found myself avoiding them just because of the logistical difficulties. In addition, the students I most needed to motivate were the ones who wrote almost nothing if at all. I had no way to follow them home and insist that they attempt this activity.

I created the concept of the 15 Minute Writing in response to these problems. A 15 Minute Writing is just what the name implies. I allocate an exactly timed 15 minute period of time for my students to write. They are given a suggested topic or idea on which to write as a way of starting them out, but they are never limited to that topic. They may write on that idea for a few lines, the whole time, or not at all. They may change topics as often as they like as long as they writing.

Some of my topics over the years have covered recent events such as the firing of a coach, personal questions about themselves, thought provoking questions such as it is your classroom or mine, and the perennial how was your summer vacation. I find that it is essential to give them such starts, but they never seem to feel constrained by them. They treat these writings very much as I have had students treat journals. I receive poems, stories, nonsense, personal thoughts and predicaments, and gripes about cafeteria food. However, I always get something which was not always the case with journals.

Grading is easy and straightforward because I grade on the actual quantity. I count the number of pages to determine their grade. Most students are pressed to write four pages so I give a 95 for that much. The others follow that pattern. 4=95, 3=85, 2=75, 1 =65. If the student has written to the maximum and completely filled up the page without getting onto the next, I allocate an additional five points so 1 +=70, 2+=80, 3+=90, and 4+=1 00. Students know in advance exactly what determines the grade, and as the year passes, they frequently push themselves trying to beat their own best grade.

At the beginning of the year, I have students bring a folder with brads to use just for these writings. When I return the read and graded manuscript, I have them put the writing into this folder so that at the end of the year they have a complete set. This means I only need to carry home a set of papers instead of a load of arm-eating spirals. Yet my students have a record of their year’s writing.

The limitation to this plan is that handwriting and time for reflection suffer. Nevertheless, I have found this workable. Most students write much more and seem to find enough time to think as they write. They learn to “think on their feet” and to write on a moment’s notice. It takes them only a few such writings to develop a voice and use it.

Originally published in Notes Plus, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English

Urbana, Illinois 1987

Leave a Reply