The other day, my sweetheart’s third grade daughter, Claire was talking about how much she loves her new teacher. When I asked why, one of the first things she said was, “She makes writing fun! I used to hate writing but she gives us neat stuff to write about.” When I asked for an example, she enthusiastically told me about how the teacher had them write about the perfect school day. Contrast that with a parent who was recently telling me that her child was bored because the only prompt the students ever got was, “What did you do over the weekend?”
Writing in a school journal can be tiresome drudgery or creative magic and which it is has a lot to do with the prompt. Here are some guidelines for writing good ones.
Ask a Good Question
Often a journal prompt is in the form of a question. The main thing to keep in mind is that these questions should be open-ended and require more than a few words or sentences to answer. Consider the classic prompt: What do you want to be when you grow up? This is a bad journal prompt because once the child writes, “a rockstar” there isn’t much else to do. This question can be improved in several ways, here are just a few:
- What do you want to be when you grow up? Why?
- What are five things you would like to do before you are twenty years old?
- What is your dream job? Describe a typical work day at this job.
- What do you think your life will be like when you are thirty years old?
- What are the three most important jobs in the world? Why are these three jobs so important?
- Would you want to be the president? Why or why not?
- Would you rather be a famous writer, a rock star, or a doctor who finds a cure for cancer? Why?
Often a good journal prompt is like the one that Claire’s teacher gave. Students love to imagine what could be, what might be, what could never happen in real life. These prompts often start with, Imagine that… or What if….Here are some examples:
- Imagine that you can do whatever you want for a whole day, even if it costs a lot of money. Describe your amazing day.
- What if animals could talk? How would the world be different?
- What if you could be invisible? Write about what you would do.
- Imagine that you get to plan a party for your class. What would you eat? What games would you play?
- What if you could make your favorite fictional character real? Write about spending a day with that character.
The trick with having students write about their real lives is to make sure that the prompt will lead to an interesting response. “What did you do over the weekend?” may not be very inspiring to the kid who played video games all weekend or had to spend his weekend doing chores around the house. Try these instead:
- Describe a time when you did something you were proud of.
- Write about a time when you did something you have never done before.
- Write about the last time you helped someone
- What is one of your favorite memories from when you were…(pick an age)?
Posing ethical questions can make for some really interesting journal entries and also helps students to further internalize their own values. Consider some of these:
- What are the most important qualities in a friend? Are you a good friend? Why or why not?
- Is it ever okay to lie? Why do you think so?
- What are three things that every parent should do? Why are these things important?
- It has been said that money can’t buy happiness. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
- Would you rather be beautiful, smart, or athletic? Why?
While some of your students might balk at writing a paragraph, most are willing to make a list. If you choose a good subject, list writing not only is a worthwhile activity on its own, but could be the foundation for deeper writing later. Here are some good list topics.