Supporting Student Engagement During Journaling Activities

We use the following strategies to support student engagement during journaling activities.

Model Engaging in the Task

When we send students out to journal, we briefly do the journaling activities ourselves (even just for a couple of minutes), unless students really need our attention and support in that moment. Children watch what we do all the time. Our participation shows students that journaling is not just busywork we are asking them to complete. If they see parents, teachers, and chaperones eagerly grabbing their journals to take notes about a cactus or a sparrow, they will do the same.

Photography Credit: Eli Zaturanski

Check In with Individuals

While students journal, we circulate and try to check in with each student one-on-one and offer in-the-moment  reflections. We begin by asking  the student how the activity is going. Then we notice what a student has done on the page and share how this connects to the expectations we set out at the beginning of the activity. For example: “I see you’ve added hairs to the stem of the flower and used words to describe the hairs. That shows more information than a drawing or words alone.” These reflections can offer a boost of confidence and it reinforces the expectations of the activity. We also offer invitations for how students can push their journaling skills. For example: “I notice you’ve shown the stump from one perspective in your drawing. Is there some other point of view that you think it would be helpful to include?” or “I’m noticing you’ve used one label so far. How else could you include words on the page?” In contrast to a grade or evaluation after the fact (feedback), these “feed-forward” ideas can be applied to students’ journaling right away. 

Re-engage Distracted Students

As we’re circulating, we keep a lookout for students who are distracted or off task. Without reprimanding them, we’ll gently re-engage them by asking questions about their journal page or the part of nature they’re focused on. For example: “What else can you notice about your plant?” Or we try a more focused question that will lead them to make more observations, such as, “Is it that color green everywhere?” or “What does it look like on the other side?” Or, we’ll ask students, “What have you observed so far?” Then we listen to what they say. They’ll often share observations they haven’t yet recorded in their notes. We’ll respond, “Great! How might you write that down or show that information a drawing?”

Photography Credit: Eli Zaturanski

Offer Reminders

As students are journaling, we’ll make a few announcements out loud to the whole group to remind them of expectations and offer strategies for engagement. For example: “If you’ve been focused only on your drawing so far, be sure to include some writing and labels. If you’ve been mostly writing, be sure to use some drawing.” Or “Remember to ask yourself: What do I notice? What does it remind me of?” Or “Remember, let’s focus on observing how these animals are interacting with the environment, and recording our observations using words, pictures, and numbers.”

Manage Timing

Most of our journaling activities can be completed in 30 minutes to 1 hour, including instructions, journaling time, discussion, and wrap-up. When we send them out,  we let students know around how much time they’ll have to journal, and let them that we will call them back or blow a whistle when it is time to regroup. We typically offer students 10-30 minutes of time to complete their journaling, and we pay attention to students’ body language as a cue to when to call them back in. If students are focused on their work, we’ll let the clock run. If many students are becoming restless and distracted, our 10 minutes could end up being only 7. This flexibility is particularly important in challenging environmental conditions, such as strong wind, a cold snap, or hot weather. We’ll also offer time checks to let students know when half the time has elapsed and when they have a few minutes left and should start wrapping up.

Photo courtesy of the Bird School Project