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Community Journals
(Language Arts, Local Geography)

by Tacy Trowbridge


In American Family, Cisco creates a multimedia Internet journal reflecting his thoughts and feelings about his family and community. Help your students notice more about the world around them by keeping a journal about their own communities. Like Cisco, they will develop their observational and analytical skills as they record observations of daily life. Students will work together in pairs and as a class to look for patterns and make sense of what they have seen in their communities.

Grade level: 7-10

Estimated time: This activity takes two 30-minute sessions with additional time outside of class as students observe their communities on three different occasions.


  • develop and sharpen observational skills

  • communicate and present observations in more than one media such as through writing, sketches, pictures, video or sound recordings

  • gain a better understanding of their communities

  • work with a partner to compare and contrast their results (think, pair, share)


  • Student journals

  • Cameras and sound recorders (optional)

  • Computer with Internet access (optional) to read online journals

  • Computer with multimedia software (optional)

Related National Standards

This lesson addresses national content standards found at

  • Language Arts Standards: Writing

    • Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

    • Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

    • Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions

    • Gathers and uses information for research purposes

  • Language Arts Standards: Media

    • Understands the characteristics and components of the media

  • Geography Standards: Places and Regions

    • Understands the physical and human characteristics of place

    • Understands the concept of regions

  • Life Skills Standards: Working with Others

    • Contributes to overall effort of a group

    • Works well with diverse individuals

    • Displays effective interpersonal communication skills

  • Life Skills Standards: Thinking and Reasoning Standards

    • Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences

    • Understands and applies basic principles of hypothesis testing and scientific inquiry

    • Applies decision-making techniques


  1. Talk with your students about journals. Students should consider various kinds of journals, motivations for writing, and the difference between public and private writing. "How is journal writing different from a newspaper article or a story?" "What can you learn from reading a journal?"

    Use the following web resources to provide models and examples for your students:

    Copper River
    Guy Hand describes a trip on the Copper River for the radio program, Living on Earth. By visiting this web site, you can hear his audio journal, read the text with annotated sound effects and see two photographs.

    Dry Tortugas
    NPR's Alex Chadwick relates a radio expedition from the Dry Tortugas, islands near the Florida Keys. Notice how he incorporates description and interviews in this audio journal. (RealAudio program, 3:58-3:59)

  2. Begin with a brief discussion about this project and how to conduct live observations. "What do you notice as you ride the bus, walk, or drive through your neighborhood?" As a class, brainstorm ideas of what kinds of things to look for and record. Is your class interested in people, activities, businesses, weather, sounds, advertisement, environmental problems or art? Will it be important to record the time, day of the week and date? What kind of media should students use to record their observations? Will they keep a written journal, draw sketches, take pictures, collect artifacts or record sounds?

  3. Assign three different occasions for students to spend at least 30 minutes observing their communities. Help brainstorm multiple possibilities for students such as watching from a window, observing people on a public bus or subway, sitting in a restaurant or business, or spending time in a local park. As always, it is important to consider their comfort and safety. Whether they do this alone or in pairs, each student should take notes, sketch, and even take pictures during the observation. Later, each student should write a narrative journal entry.

  4. Once the journals are complete, spend thirty minutes analyzing the results. Ask students to read and look over their own work and to write down important or interesting ideas. Then have students work in pairs to compare and contrast their journals. Lead a class discussion in which students can share their results and learn from each other. "What did you conclude or learn from these journals? What did you learn and what did you confirm about your community? What are the important issues in your community?"

  5. Give students an opportunity to reflect on this journal project. "What did you learn? What surprised you? How will you use these skills in the future?"

Extension Ideas

  • Did your students identify particular problems in their communities? Help them tackle some of these problems. Look for support and help from other organizations, individuals or families.

  • Find a local setting to display student work. This could be a public setting in your school, a public library, a local coffee shop or an art gallery. Help your students prepare their pieces and choose what to include. Consider what these journals will communicate and how best to highlight particular themes.

  • Compare your community with the community you see in American Family.

Assessment Recommendations

  • Evaluate the richness of student observations. Use the guidelines you and your students discussed at the beginning of this activity. Have they included all of the required components? Do their journals include details, images and analysis that help paint a picture of their community?

  • How well did students work in their pairs? Were they able to listen to each other, to share their ideas and to make accurate and thoughtful comparisons?

  • Did students learn about their communities? Listen carefully in the concluding discussion or ask students write down a conclusion to this activity.

After teaching in local schools for ten years, Tacy Trowbridge currently helps teachers integrate technology into curriculum in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a B.A. in history from Wesleyan University and a master's degree in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford's School of Education.

Off-Air Taping Rights: Pre K-12 teachers in the United States may videotape “American Family” and use it in the classroom for one year after the original broadcast date. This program premieres on January 23, 2002 with weekly episodes through May 2002 and rebroadcasts after May (check local listings). For more information on teacher resources to accompany PBS programs and on PBS extended taping rights for educators, please visit PBS TeacherSource.

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