When I was in the fifth grade, I kept a journal for class. My teacher would give us fifteen minutes to write whatever we wanted. I pretty much only wrote about baseball — and the Giants, in particular. For me, those fifteen minutes felt like freedom. They felt like a break from school. It felt like we were getting away with something.

Fast forward seven years to my senior year in high school. In Ms. Waller’s AP Government class, my interactive notebook was a place where I found my voice and wrestled with what I believed about the world.

Again, I fell in love with the journaling process. I drew political cartoons and sketches of ideas. I made webs and concept maps. Often, I wrote lines of poetry or stream-of-conscious opinion pieces that I later revised for student newspaper editorials. My journal felt deeply personal and creative. It was a space where I found my voice. I remember Ms. Waller would leave all of her comments on sticky notes as if to say, “this is still your space. Thank you for letting me add my thoughts in a temporary way.”  This was my world spilled out in ink.

That year changed my world forever. I have spent most of my life keeping a journal. It is a critical part of the creative process — whether it involves writing a story or helping build a technology platform or sketching out ideas for research. It’s also where I reflect on how things are going and remind myself of what matters. It is a non-stop dance between curiosity and creativity.

I mention this because I’ve seen people mock journaling. I’ve seen people say, “Turning in a notebook is nothing like the way things work in the real world.” I’m pretty sure I’ve criticized bad student blogging as being nothing more than “digital journaling.” It feels old school and perhaps even archaic. However, when implemented well,  journaling can tap into curiosity and spark creativity.

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The Creative Power of Journaling

With the click of a button, I can send my work to the world. It can feel empowering. I tap a screen and suddenly my ideas can reach a larger audience. Within hours, I can gauge the success of work by looking at pageviews and social shares.

But what if that’s not always ideal? True, the audience matters. After all, I co-wrote the book Launch. I believe in the power of human connection and the empathy that it can create. But so does solitude. There’s power in disconnecting and creating art for an audience of one.

See, when I’m publishing to the world, I’m thinking about how my work will be perceived. In my most insecure moments, I want people to love what I made. I’m sharpening my ideas. I’m reshaping my words. At times, I grow risk-averse.

I start caring too much about what other people think.

And it makes me less creative.

But when I’m alone, I can make mistakes. Big mistakes. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. This is why I journal. My journal is a forest filled with scribbles and sketches and wild ideas sprouting everywhere. I can go anywhere and nobody knows. I can dance and sing and yell. I can wander and wonder. I can take a creative plunge into the unknown. Everything is an experiment.

That’s the power of journaling. It’s this secluded space of creativity. And this space, as low-fi and personal and constrained as it may be is often the exact thing I need to take creative risks.

When I journal, I have fewer choices but more freedom. It’s a blank white page.

Five Ways to Get the Most Out of Creative Journals

There are no rules, formulas, or recipes for the perfect student journals.  That’s kind of the point. A journal is like a playground for the mind. It’s a messy sandbox where you get to make and explore. However, here are some things that have worked for me, both as a maker and as an educator.

#1: Choose an audience of one.

The cool thing about writing for yourself is you can be bold. You can make glorious mistakes that nobody sees. You’re not shipping it anywhere. So, jot down ideas of things that sound crazy. Collect your scraps of thoughts on that novel that feels ridiculous. Often, the “dumbest ideas” become your favorite creative work. I remember sketching out the visuals for what I wanted in an education book. It felt drastically different visually than any other teacher book I had seen. However, when I showed my co-author, A.J. Juliani, the sketches, he said, “Let’s make this the style for Empower.” Another time, I began writing out a story. I had fragments written out, along with character sketches and a general outline. This eventually became Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard. Another time, I drew out the UX and UI for a student-centered blogging platform that eventually became Write About.

The same trend is true of student journals. They need to begin from a place of true ownership. Let them choose the topics, the length, the style, and the approach. Treat it less like an assignment and more like a tool used to tap into creativity and curiosity. For example, in an inquiry-based research project, they might take notes or create sketchnotes in their journals. In a design thinking project, they might use it to generate questions, process their research, sketch out their initial ideas, and reflect on their process. Or they might just do a daily free write or use it to jot down some key ideas as they read a novel. But the more it feels personal and authentic, the more likely they will use the journaling process – not just in class but in their lives as well.

#2: Use it for more than just words.

Doodle wherever you feel like it. Draw arrows. Make diagrams. Create little icons. The beauty of a journal is in the simplicity of the medium. You’re not constrained by a complex user interface. The lack of options makes it a blank canvas for creative work. As a teacher, you can ask students to try out mind mapping and sketch-noting. You might have them sketch out a phenomenon or an organism in science. They might create their own flow charts or graphic organizers to make sense of new ideas. They might draw cartoons or create frames of comics to process a key idea. But it doesn’t have to stop there. You might incorporate elements of interactive notebooks by having students cut out items and tape them in. So, a page in the notebook becomes a short flipbook. They might find an excerpt from a magazine that they tape in and then annotate and visualize ideas in the margins. They could paste in a random article and make blackout poetry in the style of Austin Kleon.

The point is, a notebook doesn’t have to be a device for something linear and text-only. It can be visual and connective as well. By working within the constraint of the journal, you can use paper, pens, pencils, and colored pencils to create something entirely new.

#3: Create your own organizational strategy.

Journaling is a dumping ground for ideas. But it’s also a space where ideas grow and expand. In other words, it’s not the same as a diary. I use my journal to plan out projects, write poetry, craft stories, and reflect on how I’m doing. It’s also where I keep lists, such as podcasts I want to check out, books I want to read, or random topics I want to study. I love the concept of the Five Minute Journal but for me, journaling is much more flexible. It’s a messy area where creativity happens.

Because journaling is so multifunctional, people often create their own organizational structures. For example, I have an area for entirely new ideas. It’s a space for video ideas, podcasting ideas, book ideas, lesson ideas, etc. Sometimes, the space is a web. Other times, it’s more linear. However, the sole function is to capture random ideas of things I want to create. I also have an area for practical stuff. When I’m working on a specific project, I find myself thinking about practical things that I might need to do. So, I have a specific area of my journal labeled “Crap that needs to get done.” I add to that list so that I won’t be distracted while I journal. I also have a specific spot for lists of things I want to check out (topics, books, movies, journal articles, t.v. shows, podcasts, etc.) For what it’s worth, I’ve come to terms with the reality that I will always have too many books that I want to read compared to the number of books that I actually read.

In addition to the separate spaces, I have an organizational strategy.  I number each page in my journal and keep an index at the back. I use sketch icons to create a visual organizational process that makes it easier for me to find things. However, I’ve seen other people use a left side / right side process for their journals (words on one side and pictures on the other, or notes on one side and reflections on the other). I know of a person who uses colored pens and color-codes titles based on themes. She also uses colored lines and arrows to signal the purpose.

As a classroom teacher, it helps to expose students to all of these organizational strategies. If possible, see if you can borrow journals with multiple styles and ask students which approach fits them the best. You might be able to find some videos where artists, authors, and engineers talk about their approach to organizing their journals. The key, though, is to let them figure out an approach that works best for them. I’ve seen teachers that require a specific table of contents or number system. While it’s okay to have students follow a template, the goal should be helping students take ownership of the journals by figuring out their own way.

#4: Go cheap.

I remember buying an amazing Moleskine journal and I couldn’t touch it. When I wrote something, it was stilted. I didn’t doodle anywhere. Even my handwriting changed. It became quasi-legible. This is the same phenomenon I experienced as a kid when someone gave me a fancy art kit. Suddenly I couldn’t sketch anything at all. I know of many avid journalers who would disagree with me on this point. They love the feel of a quality journal. They geek out on paper type and they are fiercely loyal to a specific brand of pen (which, in my case, is true — Uniball or bust). But the idea here is to reduce risk-aversion.

The “go cheap” concept is more about an idea than the specific materials. It’s about giving yourself permission to put things into the journal that might feel dumb or half-baked. If you say “I’m not an artist” you can still sketch in your journal because journals are inherently cheap. They’re meant for first drafts and pre-drafts. As a teacher, this also means reducing student fear and risk-aversion. You might make journals a pass/fail assignment or make them entirely optional. You might say, “I’m going to look at your journal but I’m not grading the content.”

#5: Make It a Habit

Journaling is a habit for me. But it didn’t start out that way. It began as a habit formed in school and then continued into college. Even now, I try to make it a habit to write every single day. I keep the following flowchart to remind me to write, even when I don’t feel like it:

In the same way, students will use their journals more often when it becomes a daily classroom habit. The process doesn’t need to be laborious. You can set aside short five-minute or ten-minute segments for student journaling and vary it between structured and unstructured.

Ask students to keep their journals with them for experiments, projects, and assignments. I pretty much carry my journal everywhere. I’ve learned that it can seem rude to bust out a laptop in the midst of a meeting. But a journal? That just looks studious and old school. In the classroom, it can help to ask students to carry their journals around with them in multiple subject areas and throughout multiple kinds of lessons. When this happens, it becomes a way to make connections between content areas and between school and life.

My final thought is this: just go out and buy a notebook. Get a cheap composition book and a few decent pens. Then have fun. Run wild. It’s a playground.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

5 Comments

  • Kim says:

    I would love your thoughts on using journals in higher education, and how best to implement them. I am a new (part time) prof, and striving to implement novel approaches. Next semester I will be teaching some combination of US geography, intro to human geography, and geology. Any suggestions on how to incorporate journals into these subjects? Thank you!

    • Wow. Kim, your query reminds me of a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien. Its gist goes something like this: Every place has a name. Every name has a story. And every horizon, and every past, implies more and broader stories. (Obviously, this is not an exact quote; you can find the exact quote at Tolkien, J.R.R. (1945.) Letter 96. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. First Edition, 1981. Carpenter, H. and Tolkien, C. London: George Allen & Unwin. P. 125. https://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/the_letters_of_j.rrtolkien.pdf.)

      When I think of geography, I think of names and the reasons they are used. I have had professors and teachers who have made projects out of such inquiries. I see names as one novel source of creative journalling.

      Journals make for great geology sketch-notes as well.

      • Kim Mihell says:

        Oh that gets some ideas rolling, thank you! If I teach geology next term the sketch notes are a great idea too. Hopefully courses will get finalized soon and I can really dive into planning.

  • Thanks for sharing your tips, Spencer! I am running running a teacher wellness pro d and your article will be shared amongst the teachers.

    You inspired me to start journaling. I am only a week into it, but I like the feel of it so far. And I like your approach: find yourself, find your style, and DO IT!

    Soon my students will be journaling and (hopefully) other teachers at our schools.

    Thanks for all you do!

  • Kendra Thayer says:

    I love this idea, and I am a U.S. History teacher and want to bring this into the digital world…I teach at a public on-line school. I already have a ton of ideas of how/what I would have them do, but any suggestions for platforms for them to do this on so they have their freedom of creativity? I didn’t know of Word, Google Docs are practical, or if there is a magical site?? I appreciate any advice.

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