I’m excited to share one of our family’s favorite writing exercises—journal-style reports—where kids write first-person diary entries as if they were someone (or something!) else. Because this is a great topic-related writing activity for kids of all ages and abilities, it works for kindergarten through high school; pre-writers or prolific; reluctant or motivated.
I love how this basic concept can be applied again and again throughout the year, no matter what you’re learning about! One particular year, when my kids were in 2nd, 5th, and 8th grade, we must have done this writing activity half a dozen times, spending 3-10 days on each topic.
Journal-style writing instead of dry reports lets all students write exciting diary entries as from the point of view of historical figure or animal. So whether you’re learning about ancient Greece or Egypt, the Reformation, the Civil War, or animals of the desert, consider this fun exercise for drawing more topic-related writing from your kids.
1. Read about the Topic
First, read an online article, excerpt, or short book on a particular subject (the Pilgrims’ experience aboard the Mayflower, how black bears fish for salmon, how Hebrew slaves made bricks for Pharaoh’s pyramids, how spiders spin webs). Read aloud to your younger child while allowing older children to read on their own.
This is not the time to read the entire story of Columbus! Instead, break long narratives like this into segments, reading just a portion a day—an excerpt about his childhood, perhaps, or his audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
If necessary, read several passages about the same subject to give a broader perspective or to provide more detail. An online encyclopedia article may have two or three sentences about a narrow topic. A book, however, may offer several pages or even a whole chapter.
2. Invite Struggling Writers to Narrate Their Journal Entries
Next, have a reluctant or pre-writer narrate the information while you write. Ask him to retell the story in first person. Remind him that he is the early Christian hiding in the catacombs of Rome or the lion hunting in the Serengeti. Encourage him to walk a mile in his subject’s shoes (or paws!), imagining what it would be like to be in this situation, this place, this moment in time.
Prompt a child by asking, “What did we just read? What was this story or article about?” Draw out of him feelings and experiences he may have if he were this particular person or animal. “How did you feel when you heard the guard’s footsteps?” “How did you know which zebra to pick?” Feel free to make a word bank from which he can choose vocabulary.
Finally, write down his narration word-for-word. Here’s an example from my then-7-year-old.
Today we went fishing! Mommy and me went down to the stream and she walked right into that cold water and watched the water with her sharp eyes. Then she swooped with her long claws. Then she catched a fish with her claws! And then it was my turn and I went into the stream and it was SO, SO cold! I saw a fish swimming near me so I swooped with my little paw and I missed. I just splashed water. But I tried again and on my second time I catched my own fish! Mommy was proud of me for learning how to fish all by myself.
From Bear Cub
Doesn’t that sound more fun than writing a report about how bears fish? Yet the important information is still there!
3. Plan a Series of Journal or Diary Entries
Journal-style reports make perfect sense when you want to interlace writing and history.
One year, my kids retold the Pilgrims’ journey in their own words just as if they had been Pilgrim children, choosing names for themselves appropriate for the time period—John, Faith, and Prudence. Every day we read something new about the Pilgrim experience—a snapshot to give them just enough to write about in a diary. Here’s what we read about each day:
Day 1: Persecution in England
Day 2: Journey to Holland
Day 3: 11 years later, preparing to leave for the New World
Day 4: Hardship aboard the Mayflower
Day 5: Land sighted!
Day 6: The men go ashore to find food
Day 7: Building Plymouth Settlement
Day 8: The harsh first winter
Day 9: Samoset greets the elders
Day 10: The first Thanksgiving
4. Let Confident Kids Write Their Own Entries
Older or more confident children should be able to write without help. My then-10-year-old daughter journaled as a Pilgrim, whom she called Faith.
Governor Bradford declared a feast to thank God for all He has done. We were all very happy. It has been a long, difficult year. We women had three days to cook and get prepared for the feast. Together we plucked and stuffed and roasted the fowl. We made stew in great pots. We also made sallet out of wild onions, lettuce, cucumbers and carrots. Meat pies were a favorite. We also had eel, many fish, and shellfish.
We invited Chief Massasoit. And with him he brought 90 braves! We didn’t have enough food so the Indians went out and brought back five deer! After the feast there was singing and dancing and games. It was a joyous celebration!
5. Creative Ways to Journal for Different Subjects
When we were homeschooling, I absolutely loved writing across the curriculum with my kiddos. Journal-style writing (instead of dry reports) was such a natural way to write about the very things we were studying for history, geography, or nature.
The possibilities for journaling — no matter the subject — are as limitless as your kids’ imaginations! Get started with these ideas.
- History study: Journal as an explorer, soldier, pioneer, or Egyptian servant to the wife of Pharaoh.
- Geography study: Create a diary for a raccoon, hawk, or blue whale.
- Nature or science study: Write as they “experience” the life cycle of a butterfly or a maple tree.
Children can journal for one day or ten. The point is to help them take in a small amount of information about a topic or event and make it personal. Over the course of several days or a week, the amount of information learned will grow. And in time, your kids will produce many memorable diaries stamped with their own personality and style.
Looking for a more structured program to incorporate writing writing across the curriculum with teens? WriteShop lessons can help middle and high school students learn important writing skills while offering flexibility of topics.
>> How to write across the curriculum with WriteShop II
Photo Credits: Andrew Russell (black bear), Stephen Wolfe (Civil War), courtesy of Creative Commons
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