I’ve been keeping a diary since I was 12, when, after a few false starts, it became a daily routine. By the time I was in my late teens I knew that this was a habit I’d keep for life; now, I find it unimaginable to think how I would function without it.
I’m not obsessive about it: I don’t take my diary on holiday, and I might miss the occasional entry after a late night.
For some people, it’s the act of diary-writing that is so precious – that feeling of confiding in someone, treating the diary almost like an intimate friend. For me, the really valuable thing is being able to read my diaries back. This helps me to spot patterns – ‘Oh, I always feel like that at the end of January!’ – which can bring a sense of relief. It’s also very handy if you’re involved in an argument with someone about the details of when or how something happened! More than anything, I just love being able to go to my diaries and look up what I was doing, thinking and feeling on any particular day.
I gain such satisfaction from keeping a diary that I’m delighted when I can spark that interest in others. 12 years old seems to be a fairly typical age for starting a diary, so I’ve often tried to chat to the children in my life about it at around that age, in the hope that they too might be bitten by the diary-writing bug.
But it’s not something I’ve ever particularly explored with my students.
And then the pandemic arrived. And all of a sudden we had to set two weeks’ worth of work for our classes to do independently at home before we (and they) could regroup for the Easter holiday. In thinking what to set for my Year 9 classes I was aware of two things: firstly, that an awful lot of the work they were being set was likely to need to be completed online; and secondly, that they were living through an epoch-defining historical event that they would be talking about for the rest of their lives.
For both of these reasons, setting my students the task of keeping a personal journal during this period felt like a really good project. Although obviously I had to set the work through my school’s remote platform – the students would need to go online to find out what to do – the first task I set was to find or buy a notebook – ideally one which reflected their personality or that seemed to them like a lovely or special object to write in. It felt important for these journals to be actual artefacts, rather than electronic documents. Assuming that most of my students would not be regular diary-writers, I explained to them that I wanted them to develop the habit of writing in their journals about their daily lives at least twice or three times a week if possible (and more often if they liked), but I also set a few short tasks each week for them to do. These were tasks that I hoped would help them to engage with the physical and natural world around them, as well as encouraging them to see the current situation from different perspectives.
Diaries are best-written, I think, when they are written without fear of anyone else reading them, and when they reflect the specific, everyday detail of what’s going on at the time – however trivial or dull that might seem.
So I’ve told my students that I won’t be ‘marking’ their diaries – that they are entirely personal to them. However, I have encouraged them to photograph snippets from them that they are happy to share, and to send them to me. It’s been fascinating to read what they have written so far, and I am struck once again by the resilience of so many young people in the face of quite extraordinary circumstances and restrictions.
I hope both that these journals will become precious artefacts for my students to look back on when they are much older, and also that for some of them, this kindles a regular diary-writing habit that will last them a lifetime.
Here are some of the tasks I’ve set my students to do in their journals:
Write today’s date at the top of the first page. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes and just free-write without thinking too hard about it. Write about this weird last week. Write about the changes in your life, your hopes and fears, what you’ve noticed most in the world around you, in terms of what’s stayed the same and what’s different. After your timer has gone, read back through what you wrote. Think if there’s anything else that a future you (in ten or twenty years’ time) might find interesting about what’s going on right now. Spend another 20 minutes adding anything else you want to.
Find something to stick in your journal. This might be a poem or an inspirational quotation that you find. It might be a feather or a petal that you pick up outside. It might be a ticket to something that you can no longer go to. You decide. It’s up to you if you want to add a note next to this or not.
Go outside – if you can do so safely. Otherwise, look out of a window. Write a journal entry from the perspective of a living creature you can see, for example a butterfuly, ant or robin. What does the garden or street look like from this creature’s point of view?
Find a poem either online or in a book which can provide you with inspiration at this time. Copy it by hand or print it out and stick it into your journal. Illustrate and/or annotate it with your response to it.