1.13 – In-Class Writing: Topic Journals (English Lesson)

Topic Journals are an excellent way to gauge students’ Reading and Writing skills, through in-class writing opportunities. Topic Journals will focus on text-to-theme, as well as text-to-self or text-to-text connections. By providing students with in-class writing time, you will be honouring their efforts, while ensuring you have a strong demonstration of abilities.

English Course Pack: Unit One – Literacy Skills

This assignment is part of the The Full English Course Park. This piece is part of Unit One: Literacy Skills, which focuses on creating a strong foundational understanding of literacy skills, PEE paragraph writing, and embedding quotations as textual support.

If you would like to say thanks, consider buying me a coffee. But that is neither required, nor expected.

1.13 – In-Class Writing: Topic Journals

Step One: Explaining Topic Journals

Topic journals should be completed multiple times throughout your course. Some teachers choose to provide monthly opportunities, while others focus on using them once a week. Regardless of how you choose to implement topic journals in your program, you will need to ensure you provide students with a strong understanding of the requirements when you first present this task.

Introduce Themes

At the back of your classroom, you should have a variety of coloured journals, filled with lined paper. On the front of each journal you will have written a one-word theme. They can include:

  • Beauty
  • Disillusionment
  • Empowerment
  • Emptiness
  • Heroism
  • Immortality
  • Jingoism
  • Love
  • Oppression
  • Progress
  • Technology
  • Wisdom
  • Youth

You should ensure that there are at least 30% more journals than you have students. For example, if you have 30 students, there should be at least 40 different journals with different themes written on them.

Explain the Connections

The assignment sheet clearly explains the different steps involved in writing a successful topic journal:

  1. Select a topic journal with a theme that connects to a text you have read during class time. This includes any short stories, articles, as well as texts you have read during personal reading time.
  2. You will be writing a formal series of paragraphs exploring the presence of the theme in your selected text. You must include specific examples to support your claims (i.e. quotes, selections from the text)
  3. Once you have explained how the theme is apparent in your selected text, you must connect your ideas to the world, yourself, or another text. Once again, make sure to include specific examples. 

At minimum students will be writing two full paragraphs – one that connects a text they have been reading in class to their selected topic. A second that connects their theme to themselves or another text.

Review the Rubrics

Students are free to read the full rubrics. However, the Marking Scheme information on page one breaks that down into bulleted points that may be easier to digest.

Step Two: Allow Students to Select their Journal

At this point there will be a rush to the back of the room as students try to get the journal with the topic they want to write about. In future classes, you will let students know when a topic journal will be written, and many of them will be lining up at your door, early, in order they can grab the one they want before anyone else.

Once students have selected their journals, and returned to their seats they should open the journal to the first blank page and record the following information in the top right corner (likely a box created by the two margin lines):

Course Code
Teacher Name

Students will recognize that these journals will act as living documents that other students can read in following classes, semesters, and years. Ensure students are fully aware of this prior to them writing their possibly-person connection.

Step Three: Write the Topic Journal

At this point, students should have the full period to write their response. There is no “word limit”. They are looking to write one to two full pages – as much as they can, in the time provided. If they finish ten minutes prior to the end of class, encourage them to look back and edit their responses.

Students who “are finished writing” in ten minutes should be reminded that the intent is to use this class as a sustained writing challenge and that they should continue to explore their ideas.

Remember: Students can connect their theme to a text you have selected for them, or a personal choice reading text they have been engaging with throughout your course.

Optionally: For students who prefer to work digitally, they can use the Assignment Sheet which, if completed using Google Docs, will timestamp their writing, so you can still ensure it was completed in class.

Students are aware that digital submissions will still require taking the correct journal, and that responses will be printed out and added to the journal.

Step Four: Submitting the Topic Journal

All students must turn in their topic journal by the end of class. I suggest having a stack of sticky notes near your submission pile, and encouraging students to attach the sticky note to the page they wrote on. This will make finding their response easier.

Step Five: Evaluating the Topic Journal

It is important that you do not write in the topic journals. These living documents are for students only. Descriptive Feedback should be provided on a separate page, or digital note. If you would like to mark up the students’ work, please photocopy their pages and use the copies for that purpose.

The Impact

By the end of this process, students will have demonstrated strong literacy skills. As this is a one class chance to write and submit, all students will also have provided some evidence of learning. Additional topic journals can replace existing marks as students become more familiar with the tasks, and timelines.

Topic Journals are also effective lesson plans that are meaningful for students, and effective for collecting demonstrations of learning, when you need an emergency lesson for an Occasional Teacher.

As the topic journals will always live at the back of your classroom, and as students will always be aware of how to complete this full period task, you need only tell the supply teacher to spread out the journals, and tell students that it will be a Topic Journal Day.

English – Unit One: Literacy Skills

English Course Packs: Full Units

Unit One: Literacy Skills
Unit Two: Poetry (In Progress)
Unit Three: Literature Circles (In Progress)
Unit Four: Creative Writing & Choose Our Way Tales (In Progress)
Unit Five: Essay Writing (In Progress)
Unit Six: Culminating Tasks (In Progress)

Written by…

Michael Barltrop has been teaching since 2006, integrating comics, video games, and TTRPGs into his classroom. He has been the head of English, Literacy, Special Education, and Assessment & Evaluation and Universal Design. Feel free to reach out through Twitter @MrBarltrop!

Feel free to support the website hosting by buying him a coffee or sharing this post on facebook, twitter, or whatever social media is trending these days.

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