If your students are struggling to connect with their learning, journal writing is an excellent way to make that happen. I saw this firsthand. Because my high school students are constantly bombarded with messages from the media, which they might not recognize or understand, I decided to create a film and writing elective. Once I chose the movies, I came up with journal prompts that would allow students to reflect on each movie and express their thoughts.
Getting to Know My Students
One of the first movies we watch in the class is The Graduate. I lead a discussion about the main character's alienation and how the movie's soundtrack accurately mirrors that feeling. For their journal assignment, I ask students, "What songs would make up the soundtrack to your life? Choose three songs that reflect your life. Attach the lyrics, and explain why these songs reflect who you are and what you experience. Support your analysis and reflection with evidence from the lyrics."
Further reading: How to Create a Curriculum That's Unique to You
This particular assignment is a great way for me to learn more about my students. When Ali, a very shy and quiet student, chose songs from 80s acts like Bon Jovi, Poison, and Guns N' Roses, I knew I had a great conversation starter because I'm also a fan of those bands. Ali and I now have something to talk about, and he was quite impressed that I saw Guns N' Roses open for Aerosmith in 1988. When Alina wrote about enjoying punk bands and songs of rebellion, I was able to get a glimpse into her psyche. I soon learned she was an activist for change who cared deeply about her world.
Connecting with the Films
My students then watch movies that have a coming-of-age theme. Some are from the 1970s (Breaking Away and Saturday Night Fever) and 1980s (Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club). My journal prompts for these movies ask students what events mark the coming of age for today's teens and what marked their own coming of age. Students are able to see that their angst isn't much different from teens "back in the day," but they also recognize a great deal has changed. One student wrote: "Unlike the teens in The Breakfast Club, I have to work 30 hours a week to support my family. I guess I came of age when my father was deported, and the responsibility to take care of my family fell on me."
Since many of my students are immigrants and refugees, we also watch Bend it Like Beckham, a movie from 2002 about a Punjabi girl living in London who wants to play soccer. To help my students connect with the characters, I give this journal prompt: "When people immigrate to another country, should they assimilate and adopt the ways of their country, or should they hold on to the traditions and culture of their home country?" With today's political climate, this journal entry allows students to express their feelings in a safe, nonjudgmental way. Many students write about how they have to "straddle two worlds"—their home life/culture and their school life—and I've been told that writing about this dilemma is very therapeutic.
Sparking Interest in Social Issues
Journal prompts have also led to discussions about important topics, such as gender inequality. Fatal Attraction launched this type of analysis. After Dan, a married lawyer with a small child, has an affair with a career woman named Alex, he wants little to do with her—even when he learns she's pregnant with his child. The entire movie vilifies Alex, the single, working woman, while sanctifying Beth, the stay-at-home wife, and Dan, the "innocent, fun-loving" husband, who's painted as Alex's victim. When I ask my students to journal about the movie, I'm often surprised by their almost-immediate recognition of the movie's attempts to manipulate them and how Dan is almost completely exonerated. Journaling enables students to explore their often-conflicted feelings about gender, relationships, trust, and betrayal. One of my students, Nasrine, later told me that writing about this topic in her journal launched her interest in gender studies, and she went on to major in that field in college.
Planning Your Prompts
Students often reveal deep feelings in personal journals and diaries. Make sure your journal prompts are always based on the book, historical event, etc., that the class is studying. A colleague once asked her students to write about the worst thing that had ever happened to them. She was not equipped or trained to handle some of the responses she received, and many students needed to be referred to our school's social worker.
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Journal writing is a powerful way to get to know your students. It also provides a meaningful opportunity to connect with learning and a chance to explore topics in a safe space. No matter what course you teach, journal writing can help your students form a deeper understanding of subject matter in a way that is truly student-centered.