We’ve Been Using Our Journals: What Now?

Re-planting in the greenhouse

Re-planting in the greenhouse


I have a greenhouse, where I begin plants from seeds. It’s pretty experimental…I try to be courageous and grow new things every year. Some things thrive and some don’t. Once things are growing, I take stock of what is useful. Can I make soup from these tiny eggplants? Are these tomatoes good for sauce? Should I combine a few things for a salad?


The sketches and writing in the pages of our journals are just like the things growing in a greenhouse. We pour our thoughts, and sometimes our hearts, into these pages, collecting our memories and ideas like seeds, forming them into pictures and words like little sprouting plants. When we take the time to really look over what we’ve done, certain topics stand out as stronger and worthy of our attention. So we work on those: we re-write, revise, publish, and share. When someone eats a meal I’ve made from the food in my greenhouse, I feel it was all worth it. Likewise, when I re-work a sketch and some words from my journal into a finished, presentable piece of art and writing, I feel all those entries were valuable.


This is the time of year to reflect on what we’ve done and go forward with a plan. As writers in the classroom, journals can provide the rich soil from which we discover our growing voices.

  1. Put aside time for your kids to read quietly through their own journals (and do it yourself). What sticks out as something you’d like to spend more time working on?
  2. Pair your kids in teams of two, so they can read to each other from their journals and begin to hear what others might want to know more about. Give them questions to ask each other that will cause them to stretch their thinking. Teach them to take notes so they are sure to include the information they need.


In the next couple of weeks I will include some examples of revised works from children’s sketch journals. In the meantime have a wonderful winter break!

Annotations: A Visual Record of the Reading Experience

When we think of visual design and books, we might consider children’s picture books, or comics. If we have happened upon an exhibit on or offline, we might recall illuminated manuscripts.  We have such a wonderful history of visual texts and the contemporary examples for readers of all ages abounds — think Dr. Seus, Simms Taback, Rosemary Wells or Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi or even Tom Phillips.  Easily accessible, all these words and images can seem distant from any kind of classroom practice.

Years ago in conversation with a friend during a seminar on reading and writing, we discussed a method of annotating texts.  From this delightful conversation, I began to experiment with colors as a way of marking texts.  So, for example, if I were to ask students to annotate parts of the text that seemed difficult I would request highlighting in a particular color with some comment.  As you can see below, the text/ the essay becomes it’s own visual record.  I can’t tell you how many texts I’ve seen highlighted in yellow with little or no explanation.


Student Annotations 2



Annotative student work on Henry Petroski's The Evolution of Useful Things
Annotative student work on Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things


I don’t think the exact assignment or annotative directive is always the key. Even with similar instructions the annotations above are different.  The key is the framework and to think of annotation as a visual record of the reading experience.  Defined in this manner, what a person, a teacher, a student, a reader chooses to annotate and how is open ended.  When I taught our ESOL transitional class I secured the funds to buy students a copy of one of the books we read.  Once the text was theirs, they were free to ‘mark’ the text, to visually interact with the text, to tell the text what they see, feel, think, and/or remember.  When we have a text and the text is ours, annotating becomes our visual record of the reading experience. Here’s a page from my own text:

Odyssey annotation

Strong readers often mark texts and this visual work is deeply linked to the reading experience. Considering annotation as a critical and creative activity, we can design and practice this skill in a multitude of ways.  And, once again, as we link student’s visual experience into their ever growing language arts skills we strengthen their ways of interacting and communicating with the world.

–James Shivers

A Message for Teachers on How to Exist

Kick the Can memory from Darcy's journal
Kick the Can memory from Darcy’s journal


The other day my friend and colleague, Cyra Levenson, said, “Until the teacher has a voice again, no student will either.” I realized that while I coach how to teach writing to children, I have been neglecting to focus enough on the fundamental need for teachers to have a writing voice.


There are always great things happening in education, but for a long time now there have also been constraining mandates taking up more and more of our time. I felt suffocated towards the end of my time in the classroom, and today as a teaching coach I hear too often from teachers that they don’t feel like professionals when so much is decided for them. This needs to change. Obviously, you did not go into this job for the salary–so you deserve to feel happy in your job, as you educate the next generation.


Teachers: this is where I get bossy. If you don’t have a journal, get one. You need to exist on paper. Draw and write in it every day…not just about your students, but about yourself. Who were you as a child? How would you teach your younger self? What made you want to teach? What are your school memories? What do you love to do today? Write about anything.  Join a writing workshop for teachers like the Summer Institute at the Yale Center for British Art (http://britishart.yale.edu/education/schools-and-teachers), or travel – there are teacher/writer workshops out there (like this one in Santa Fe: http://eefstc.sfprep.org/the-way-i-see-it/).

Reading a Degas painting from Darcy's journal
Reading a Degas painting from Darcy’s journal


Share your writing with your students so they see your process, your struggle, your courage, and your voice. And then, watch your students exist on paper too.


When we see ourselves as researchers and learners, we gain a deep understanding of the larger picture. We develop strategies to overcome the oppressive red tape and get down to what matters: learning to love learning.