The reading journal asks that students express in writing their own personal interests and insights and build on the skills they already intuitively possess: the ability to observe, to listen, to take notes, to reflect on their notes, and to ask questions that are borne out of a sense of genuine curiosity.
Liken the reading journal to a fieldwork journal. Moving from the assumption that, for the anthropologist, wherever you are is a potential site for fieldwork, you can encourage students to use texts as fieldwork sites by keeping journal and pen handy whenever they read from their texts, copying down interesting passages, freewriting responses to particular sections, and raising questions. These notes will be invaluable when students move on to writing analytical, research, or literary interpretation essays.
Giving students space and encouragement to record their personal thoughts and reactions to the reading can also free students up to locate their own specific points of engagement with the text—even, or especially, if they initially react to the text negatively.
These suggestions are directed toward reading literary texts in particular, but you can apply them to other kinds of texts. You might ask students to include the following kinds of notes in their journals, adapted, of course, to the particular text they are reading or to the particular kinds of assignments surrounding the reading of the text:
1. Personal thoughts and reactions
Try not to censure your reactions to the text but to include more than "I liked (or hated)" type of statements. Be reflective; think about why you may be responding the way you are. Leave room for recording later reflections on the same topic/event/character. One way to do this is to take notes on the left hand page of notebook and reserve the right-hand page for later additions, comments, questions, and so on.
2. Comments and questions on plot, narrative structure, point of view, characterization, or setting
Refer to the following kinds of questions to help guide your responses:
Plot: What is the main conflict? What are the minor conflicts? How are all the conflicts related? What causes the conflicts? Where does the climax occur, if there is one? Why? How is the main conflict resolved? Which conflicts go unresolved?
Narrative Structure: How does the story move? What kind of narrative device is employed to move the plot? That is, are the characters on a journal through geographic space? Does the narrative move chronologically? etc. How does this structure seem to reflect or comment on others elements (i.e. characters and themes) in the text?
Point of view: Who tells the story? Can you trust the narrator to tell you the truth about events, characters, and settings of the story? Why has the author chosen this point of view? What effects does it have on other elements of the story?
Characterization: How are the characters portrayed? Are they flat, round, dynamic, static? Do they change? How and why do they change? What do they learn? What problems do they have? Do they have traits that contradict one another and therefore cause internal conflicts? Do they experience epiphanies? How or what? How do they relate to each other? Etc.
Setting: Where does the action take place? (Think not only about geographic location but also physical space: indoors, outdoors, small rooms, palatial homes, etc.) What does it look like, sound like, feel like? What relationship does place have to characterization, the plot, themes, and the narrative structure? At what period in history does the action take place?
Many of these questions about elements of fiction come from Griffith, Kelley.
Writing Essays about Literature: A Guide and Style Sheet, 5th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998.
3. Observations on context
Record your observations and questions about the locations or the historical period depicted in this text. As you read pay attention to and take notes on what you "observe" about such things as:
- gender relations
- interior and exterior space (architecture, the city/countryside)
- the family
- social class and social mobility
- consumer culture
- social control, discipline and ideology
In your note-taking, when jotting down short quotations and paraphrases remember to cite page numbers. You will undoubtedly use some of these later when writing essays. (Indeed, your notes can even help you to choose a topic or a research question.)
4. Library research notes
You may have many questions about the text (and a specific research topic that will come out of the text) that the text, as a primary source, will not answer. Thus, you may be researching primary and secondary historical materials to help deepen your understanding about the context within which the work takes place. You may compile your notes and bibliography in your reading journal throughout your reading/researching process.
Putting Reading Journals to Use in Class
Directed Freewrites: You may allot time prior to each class discussion for freewriting on a particular passage, character, scene, question for analysis, etc. This is often a good way to stimulate class discussion and gives students practice in writing short analyses and reflections to which they can refer back.
Journal Swap: This can be an alternative to class discussion that gets all students participating and that gives them practice in sharing their writing, on a relatively informal basis, with their peers. Ask students to draw a line down the center of a page in their journals and to freewrite a response to a particular passage, scene, character, etc. on the left side of the line. (They may do this either during, or prior to, class.) Next, have students pass their journals to the person next to them. Each person should then respond to his or her peer's freewrite with his or her own freewrite. There are many variations on this exercise. For example, you may ask students to pose a question in their own journals. They will pass them on to receive a partner's written engagement with their question. You may want students to pass their journals on several times in order to have many different voices participating in their journals.
I notice, I wonder statements: Use these two phrases to prompt students to articulate their unique interests, questions, speculations that often lead to paper topics. You might ask students to write two sentences in their journal at various points in reading a text: the first, beginning with "I notice," the second, with "I wonder." This can work well in combination with the journal swap wherein peers can respond with their own speculations. "I noticed this too, but I wondered if . . ." Or "I didn't notice that, but I did notice this related thing. Like you, I wonder if . . ."
Individual/Affective Responses: Because students, like all readers, will inevitably have their immediate personal and emotional responses to a text, you can put them to productive use rather than avoiding or trying to silence them in the service of more "serious" or "analytical" responses. In fact, their initial emotional responses can often provide them with valuable insights if they can apply them critically. Again, ask students to draw a line down the center of a page in their journals. On the left side, ask them to record their immediate emotional response to the text, being as specific as they can. That is, they cannot just say, "I hated this." Encourage them to describe their reaction as vividly as possible (i.e. "This novel really made me feel uncomfortable, like I was wandering around someplace I where I didn't want to be.") When they are finished recording their reactions (give them about five to seven minutes), ask them to exchange journals with a partner. Next, ask them to read their partners' responses to the text and in the right hand column write their own responses. They should not simply agree or disagree with their partner; instead ask them to think about what specifically from the text may have evoked such a response. They should, thus, refer to specific passages prefacing their comments only with "I notice . . ." and "I wonder . . ." (For example, "I noticed that the first thing the narrator does is 'take a leak' in the bushes.' I wonder if this is why you felt uncomfortable.")