For my junior and senior high school classes, when the numbers are right — and by that I mean low enough — I like to have my students write in journals once every week or two. The general setup is simple: take an A4 notebook and cut it in half horizontally to make two A5 notebooks. Give these to students. Journal entries can either be described by an A5 handout that I make, give to students, and they glue into their journal, or by writing a 1-sentence topic description on the board and asking students to copy it down.
Here are some topics good for junior high school students.
- What did you do for Golden Week?
- What did you do for winter vacation?
- What was fun at the Culture Festival?
- What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you last week?
- What club do you belong to?
- What club do you want to join in high school?
- How many people are in your family? Who are they? Draw a picture.
- Draw a picture of your room and then describe it.
- Where do you want to visit? Why?
- Write about a band or singer you like.
- What is your favorite subject?
- What’s your favorite movie?
- What are some things you want to do in high school?
Here are some topics for high school students. Any of the above topics would work, as well.
- Where is your favorite place to go shopping?
- Where do you like to study? Why?
- What do you want to do for summer vacation?
- Pick a day during break and write about what you did.
- Did you do everything you wanted to do over summer break?
- What is your favorite school event?
- If you had three wishes, what would you do?
- If you had a million dollars, what would you do?
- Have you ever traveled abroad? Where did you go?
- When you traveled abroad, what were some things that surprised you?
- Do you want to study abroad in the future? Why?
- What do you want to do after you graduate high school?
- Where can one find the most delicious ice cream in Tokyo?
- What seasons don’t you like?
- What is the most fun, travel by train, car, bus, or airplane?
- Sometimes it is said, “High school is the most important time in your life, because these three years determine the course of the rest of your life.” What do you think?
- What would you do if you got lost in an unfamiliar city?
- Tell about a time when you lied to your parents or teacher.
- Tell a scary story.
- Tell several jokes.
The first thing to think about with journals or any sort of composition is that content matters most. It takes a lot of work to write, and if students don’t feel like they’re communicating anything, they’ll write less or use the same style or pattern over and over. Originality will be lost. As teachers, we can do a lot to keep things lively. First of all, we assign specific topics, and where needed, we provide lots of examples. If we give students some example sentences, paragraphs, or themes, maybe they can find something interesting to say that would otherwise have proven elusive. Indeed, though at first it seems counterintuitive, asking students to do journals without specifying topics will lead to suboptimal responses, precisely because students don’t know what to write! Second, and just as important, when we collect the journals, we should be responding to the content. How much time the teacher spends on grammar and spelling varies according to circumstance, but generally speaking, more time should be devoted to responding to the student’s words (and if there are common grammar errors, they can be addressed separately in class or using other homework assignments). There are other ways of keeping things interesting, too. Students (or teachers) can draw or glue pictures in the journals and use these as a focus. Students (or teachers) could write using different colored pens and pencils, as well stamps or stickers, to make each page colorful and visually appealing. Finally, the time it takes to read and respond to everyone’s journals is a significant factor. The teacher needs to read and respond to everyone’s journals, so it would be bad if too many students were writing too often. But if we keep the journal homework to a reasonable level, the teacher and students can learn a lot and enjoy the writing process.