I’m excited to share with you how writers journal prompts have become a key to success in my classroom.
I think most of us would agree that teaching writing can be really challenging, especially at the high school level. By the time our students arrive in our classrooms they have already developed so many skills, habits, and opinions related to writing and they’re all at such varying ability levels. This makes it really tricky to meet students where they are to fill in learning gaps and help them reach new heights.
One thing that has helped me support my writers, regardless of their skill, ability, and confidence levels is a structured writing routine using journal prompts.
Ideas for Writing
According to literacy education pioneer Don Graves, “Writing taught once or twice a week is just frequent enough to remind students that they can’t write and teachers that they can’t teach.”
Take a second and read that again.
Years ago, when I first read that quote from Graves, I thought, “Whoa! Teaching writing once or twice a week! Who has that kind of time?! And even then, that’s not enough?!”
I was not teaching writing explicitly multiple times each week. I was lucky to get in one writing unit per grading period!
But after some more research and reflection, I realized that saving up all of my writing instruction solely for when we got around to our narrative, informational, argumentative, and research writing units was partially why I wasn’t seeing more growth in my students’ writing. I realized I needed to be embedding more writing instruction and practice into each day even if we were in the middle of a novel unit or a poetry unit.
To change this up I had to reprioritize some things in my curriculum and restructure my approach to class time. I was afraid to lose some of the more “fun” lessons I looked forward to each year, afraid I was an imposter who didn’t know enough about writing to teach writing daily, and definitely afraid that my grading pile would grow to epic proportions.
However, once I set aside those fears and made the changes, I saw such growth in my students, I knew those changes were worth it.
Here are some ideas for daily writing instruction and practice that have helped my learners grow:
- Focusing on a mini lesson instead of an extended lesson
- Using mentor texts to scaffold writing strategies, techniques, and processes
- Providing students with writing prompts and journal topics to choose from
- Creating small writing groups to promote community and peer feedback
- Grading less but giving more feedback
- Encouraging sharing from student journals/writer’s notebooks daily
Creative Writing Prompts
Students do their best writing when they choose their own writers journal prompts, the genre or design, and have an audience in mind.
In high school writing a large emphasis is often placed on “test” or “college” readiness and so choice is often cast aside in favor of teacher directed essays and activities intended to mirror writing expected on state assessments, college entrance exams, and collegiate level research based writing. We can create readiness for all of this while also honoring students’ voices. One way to do that is through creative writing prompts.
A good creative writing prompt gets students thinking outside of the box but also is uniquely tethered to the writer in some way. The student writer feels a connection to the prompt and just can’t get their ideas on paper fast enough.
Here are some writers journal prompts I love to use in my classroom:
✍️ Tell a story set inside of a bubble.
✍️ Think of one of the happiest moments in your life. Tell the story of that moment from the perspective of someone else who experienced it with you.
✍️ Brainstorm five careers you might like to have some day and choose one from your list. Then write about why someone wants to quit that career.
✍️ How do you order a pizza? Wrong answers only.
✍️ Look through the items in your purse, book bag, gym bag, etc. Pull out five items and explain the significance of them.
✍️ You receive a PM from an unknown entity. Write about what happens next.
✍️ What if Tik Tok didn’t exist?
✍️ Title your story (or poem, or play, etc) “Anti-_____”. Fill in the blank and write the story.
✍️ What invention would you “uninvent?”
✍️ If you could create an “Earth 2.0,” what would it look like?
Another fun creative writing prompt I like to use in class is to show students a picture and encourage them to write from the picture. I usually give accompanying prompts to help scaffold the activity for students who may not generate ideas very quickly, but I always leave it up for students to write about whatever comes to mind when they see the picture.
What to Write About In a Journal
When you first introduce the concept of using journals or writer’s notebooks in my class, you might have hands shoot up right away from students who are filled with anxious questions.
Unfortunately, we’ve conditioned students to think there’s a right way to approach writing (thanks a lot, state assessments!) and students are crippled by the notion that freewriting, creative writing, or journaling of any sort is going to be some kind of “gotcha” moment. The most frequently asked question is “What do I have to write about?” They want the prompt and they want it now. But giving students everrrrrything throughout the writing process stunts creativity and growth. Writers must take risks. Eventually I want their ideas to surpass frameworks.
To avoid this, I like to spend some time giving students parameters and expectations for their journals/notebooks.
Here’s what I tell my students about what to write about in a journal:
🗒️ Write about what you know
🗒️Explore what you don’t know or understand
🗒️Use the space to make sense of yourself and the world around you
🗒️Write a little or write a lot, just keep trying to write for the whole time allotted
🗒️Write about anything. Students are not forced to share their journals with anyone in the room.
🗒️Your life…think of your journal as a living history!
🗒️Goals, dreams, and wishes for the future
🗒️Fears, insecurities, and those really crumby feelings we all have but aren’t fun to share.
Topics to Journal About
Topics for journaling provide student writers with needed scaffolding but allow for more freedom and challenge students to think farther outside of the box than prompts often do.
You can give general topics to students and have them brainstorm more specific ideas in each category. Another idea is having students journal in response to news headlines or use them as a springboard for creative writing.
📔Gender identity and gender roles
📔 Popular Culture
📔 School, local, state, federal, and global policies
📔 Human nature/humanity
📔 Current and historical events
📔 Daily life
Need an entire year’s worth of journaling ideas? Check out my digital journal bundle!
Writing Journal Prompts for the Common Application
We know that when students feel connected to the topic their writing improves. They’re more articulate, more invested, and more willing to take necessary risks (and feedback!) to get better. This year, I’m teaching seniors, and every senior English class is required to assign the college essay or personal statement.
The Common Application is one of those “double duty” type writing pieces – needed for class, but required by the real world.” I encourage students to examine the writing prompts for the Common Application and try out several of the prompts in their journals. This is low-stakes practice that allows them to try on the prompt and apply the skill from that day’s mini lesson. They may decide it isn’t working for them and abandon it, which is totally okay!
Yes, you can even do this with underclassmen! Senior year will be here soon enough, and can you even imagine the genius that a college admissions essay a student spent four(ish) years writing would be?! 😉
Over the years, these have been the most popular prompts my students have selected from the Common Application to try in their journals (you can bring these into your classroom and don’t even have to mention they’re used for college essays…just see what they create!).
🎓Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
🎓Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
🎓The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
🎓Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
🎓 Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
Ready for More Writers Journal Prompts?
I just know once you start bringing writer journal prompts you’re going to be blown away by the results. It truly is a game changer. If taking on daily writing in this manner seems overwhelming, if you’re thinking “Oh my gosh, Lindsay, how am I going to have prompts and topics for 180 days of writing?!”
Have no fear!
If you’re ready for even more writers journal prompts than the ones I shared today, you need to check out my creative writing journal prompts that are all digitized and ready to be used today (or tomorrow if you’ve already had your planning period today, you know, whatever works for you!)
Do you use a really, really awesome prompt in your classes? Drop it in the comment section below! I’d love to add it to my repertoire!
Hey, if you loved this post, you’ll want to download a FREE copy of my guide to streamlined grading.
I know how hard it is to do all the things as an English teacher, so I’m excited to share some of my best strategies for reducing the grading overwhelm.