Journaling & Free-writing

This chapter contains two sections:
Introducing Free-Writing into a Middle School Classroom
Using Journal Writing to Build Critical Academic Skills

Introducing Free-Writing into a Middle School Classroom

by Marina Pantelidis

As a first year teacher, it is very nerve wracking to introduce a non-traditional way of writing into a classroom filled with eighth graders. While many teachers and administrators have their doubts on the effect of free-writing within the classroom, you will be the only one to judge whether this is effective or not within your own students. One important aspect to remember during this process is to keep a routine and make free-writing part of your weekly routine (or even daily, if you have a large enough time slot). Students will tend to be more engaged with an assignment, if they understand that it is part of a routine and vital to the classroom.

Before you begin your first free-writing assignment within the classroom, be sure to have a set of rules that you want your students to follow.

Since free-writing could be new for some of these students, rules need to be implemented. My own set of rules that I had created within my classroom were:

  1. You MUST be writing within the allotted time period. Your pen should not be leaving the paper, even if you are stuck (you can write the word ‘stuck’, until thoughts come to you)
  2. Do NOT focus on spelling or grammar during this time, just focus on your ideas and your response to the prompt.
  3. Do NOT cross out or erase during this time. This is all part of the writing process and I want to see your thoughts as they come out onto the paper.
  4. This is a low stakes assignment, which means it will be graded for participation, but not on the content within it. You are free to be yourself within this writing.
Students can even write “I am pretending to write something down” if they don’t know what to write!
Sourced from and featuring content from Gravity Falls

Every time I would have a free-writing assignment on the board, I would make sure the rules would always be corresponding alongside the prompt. These rules will start becoming the norm for your students and they will become adjusted to this type of writing very quickly. Do not be shocked when students are hesitant to write or take part in this activity because it will be new to them, unless they have partaken in it within previous years. This will all be part of the process and all your students will soon become responsive to this activity, since it will be a normal part of their ELA classroom participation grade.

Even though free-writing assignments can be seen as an escape from traditional writing assignments that administration would want to see more of, there are plenty of standards that can be applied to this form of writing.

Next Generation StandardApplication to Free-writing
6/7/8 W1F- Maintaining a style and tone appropriate to the writing taskThis standard sets the tone for the expectation of the writing assignment for the students. Even though students are given the opportunity to write through their own perspective on various topics, they still need to understand that they are in an academic setting and an educator will be reviewing their work.
6/7/8 W3C- Use a variety of transitional words, phrases, and clauses to convey sequence, signal shifts from one time frame or setting to another, and show the relationships among experiences and events,This standard is especially useful when students are asked to write about an experience or memory that they have. Transitional words and phrases are essential to academic writing, such as narrative or informative writing, and free writing can express students’ comfortability with these phrases. Within my own experience, I was able to differentiate scaffolds for transitional words and phrases based on students’ free writing pieces that I had read. If a student was comfortable with using these phrases in a low stakes writing piece, then they would have the knowledge to utilize it within their high stakes writing assignments. Certain free-writing exercises can be used as formative assessments, in terms of their comfortability with topics or subjects already learned in class (i.e. transitional phrases)
6/7/8 SL1c- Pose questions that connect the ideas of several speakers and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant evidence, observations, and ideas,This standard applies particularly when students are asked to share their work aloud. Since free-writing can be a personal writing piece that some students do not feel comfortable sharing with their entire class, I only ask them to share a sentence or word that stands out to them and truly represents their entire piece of writing. Other students at this time are able to engage with the students who share their free-writing piece with the class and build on it with their own ideas or comments.

When Students Get “Stuck

During a free-writing exercise, students are asked to be silent and continue writing during the allotted time period that they have been given, but there will be several times that students will be stuck on what to write and may voice those concerns aloud while others are writing.

Some tips to aid in those moments :

  1. Create a ‘Thinking Jar’ for your students and keep it in an accessible location. Within this thinking jar, keep slips of paper or craft sticks with different topics of interest for your students. (i.e. ‘write about your best friend and what makes them special’, ‘write about a moment in your life that you wish you could repeat’, or ‘write about your favorite teacher and why they are your favorite’)
  2. Have multiple prompts on the board available for students, in case they are not comfortable with writing about the assigned prompt.
  3. Allow students to pick a song of their choosing and their writing has to be tied to the mood of the song.

Building Free-writing into Academic Writing

Free-writing has always been a controversial assignment to include within certain school populations. As from my own experience, administration was hesitant to include free-writing within our unit of study because of the lack of engagement that some students would face with this type of writing. Students were extremely hesitant when free-writing was first introduced to the classroom, since it was of a new nature to them and they did not think it held any value within the classroom. As students became more comfortable with the idea of free-writing, their writing started to expand. Students that had written two sentences during their first free-writing exercise were now writing up to a page in the five minute span that was allotted during this activity. This was the exact goal that I had wanted my students to achieve, since a lack in the flow of ideas was a major problem students were facing in this day in age.

Students have been accustomed to receiving sentence frames to assist their writing process. The major problem that I had observed was the lack of consistency after students were given the sentence frames. Most educators hear the words, “Where do I go from here?” or “I need help, I don’t know what to do now.” This is where free-writing can assist students in increasing their flow of ideas and not doubting the ideas that do come to mind when a writing assignment is given to them. Students are alone with their thoughts and are not criticized for the allotted time that they are free-writing. They come to terms with understanding that their ideas will not be judged and there is no wrong answer. When students are given high stakes writing assignments after several free-writing exercises, their stamina for writing tends to increase and they feel comfortable continuing those sentence frames being provided to them.

Free-writing does not necessarily have to be a “Do Now”, rather it could be used for other areas within the classroom. Before students begin writing essays or traditional writing assignments (informative, explanatory, or narrative writing), students could be asked to brainstorm their ideas on the topic being presented. When students are asked to be alone with their thoughts for ten to fifteen minutes on a topic that they will have to create a much larger piece from, their ideas are able to come to the surface and educators will have the time to conference with these students on what their path will look like during the writing process. Using free-writing in this type of form goes way beyond a low stakes writing assignment and becomes a building block to a form of academic writing.

For example, one of the units that I have worked on with my eighth grade students was ‘Rites of Passage’. Their performance based assessment, at the end of the unit, was to write a compare and contrast essay on two of the characters that we focused on during the unit. For one of their free-writing prompts, I had asked my students to write about each characters’ rites of passage, in their own words. Using a whole class share out, I was able to record over fifteen similarities and differences between these two characters, in which students used as a building block for a larger assignment.  


These are some of my favorite resources that I have used for engaging prompts:

Ali Hale’s 48 Writing Prompts for Middle School Kids
Visual Writing Prompts for Middle Grades Students
100 Not-Boring Writing Prompts for Middle- and High Schoolers

Lastly, make sure you have fun with this type of writing activity and create a comfortable environment with your students. This may be one of the few times during the day where they are able to express their creativity and voice their ideas on topics they may have doubted themselves on before.

Using Journal Writing to Build Critical Academic Skills

by Ricardo Romero

When thinking about how to teach students critical skills that are considered to be academic in nature, teachers tend to rely on methods and assessments that, within the context of ELA, are highlighted as the “traditional” format of building such skills. These can include the five-paragraph essay, short, responses, think-pair-shares, etc, which can all be effective within their given bounds, but also share one thing in common with each other that prevents all students from being able to express their ideas and potential through their own voices: they are apart of the colonized educational system that limits student freedom, expression, and creativity in favor of a “formal” method of skill development, specifically for students of color. Again, this isn’t to say that these methods are ineffective or should be avoided completely when building key academic skills, and in some way they are a good means to assess students’ mastery and abilities. However, in order to allow more students to build, practice, and demonstrate mastery over content we must look towards other means that are more liberating if we hope to decolonize education as it stands in its current form.

One particular medium that is often overlooked in its ability to help students build key academic skills is the journal. This may draw some blank stares or questioning looks from those that use journaling within the first few minutes of class in order to get students settled in quickly as a precursor to one of the methods mentioned above, but journaling can be used to build critical academic skills in ways that an essay can’t. This is due to the personal nature of the journal; the touch, feelings, and emotions that are spread across the page when one is truly free to be themselves without oppressing structures, rules, right and wrongs is incredibly powerful. Imagine being able to use that power to help students learn how to identify a central idea, characterize a protagonist and antagonist, use textual evidence, and many more skills that we expect our students to learn in preparation for their future academic careers. Allison Fahsl and Stephanie McAndrews state that, “[Journaling] can be used to activate prior knowledge, engage the imagination, depict character roles, solve problems, utilize critical thinking skills, and practice writing skills in context” (2012). Perhaps the most significant aspect of journaling is that it’s organic, real, raw, and free of judgement. It also gives all students the right to show their true thoughts outside of the context of a prompt or question.

One area of journaling that is particularly beneficial in teaching critical skills to students is the self-reflection journal. Self-reflection is an area that many people have difficulty engaging in since it requires one to look and analyze himself/herself. Roger Hiemstra states in his article, Uses and Benefits of Journal Writing, that, “There also is the potential for a journaling technique to promote critical self-reflection where dilemmas, contradictions, and evolving worldviews are questioned or challenged” (2001). It is here where we want our students thinking to go: questioning the world they know, why things are the way they currently are, and how their own thinking is developed through the way they view the world. Self-reflection journaling can take the form of a personal diary, a dreambook or log, or a spiritual journal. These types of journals can help students build analytical skills, critical thinking skills, and writing skills. These types of journals are typically personal and aren’t shared a loud unless a student volunteers to which will normally make students more willing to engage in this type of work rather than an essay any day of the week since they are given opportunities to express themselves, their feelings, and their personal ideas that they may not be comfortable sharing with others. This allows for teachers to assess their students’ written work within the permission given to them, switching the power dynamic between teachers and students. Although not best for summative assessment, the self-reflection journal is still a powerful tool.

A type of journal that can be used for summative assessments are simulated journals which give students the opportunity to engage with a text in a new and powerful manner that can decolonize the way that canonical texts are engaged with. These can be written from the perspective of new characters that students create which gives them the ability to modify the text in a way that a close-reading wouldn’t be able to do. It also helps them to master analytical skills, comprehension skills, critical thinking skills, and writing skills. Simulated journals also shift the power dynamics similar to how the self-reflection journal does in that it shifts the power dynamics, but this time instead of shifting power from a teacher it shifts the power from author to student. Looking at a text through a particular view of the world makes the text have more meaning for a student, but it also shreds the text and puts it back together according to how the student sees fit. Where canonical stories normally focus on white characters with little to no mention of prominent characters of color, simulated journals allow students to alter the text completely.

These are just two of the ways that journaling can help other pedagogues think about and understand how to build critical academic skills while using non-academic styles of engagement. When thinking about how to decolonize education, curriculum, and the classroom, journaling isn’t a simple means to help students settle into their seats at the beginning of a lesson: it is a game changing tool that can have powerful implications if implemented properly. It requires a teacher to rethink what they know, how they assess students’ work, how they view their students, and how much power they are willing to give up.