Writing as Journaling

As we learn about teaching writing, I have had a lot of thoughts, as I’m sure you all have as well, on how I’m going to teach writing in my own classroom some day. This seems obvious, but aside from the overall idea of teaching writing, I’ve been considering specific ways in which I might get my own future students engaged with writing. One thought that keeps popping up is the idea of journaling. Journal writing is something that I never did in-school during my elementary or secondary years. In fact, I never journaled for a writing class until college, in some of the creative writing classes I took. I love the idea of journaling for class because I know that my own personal experiences with keeping a journal is what led me to truly like writing.

My creative writing professor during my undergrad at Central College (go Dutch!) insisted that we write in our journals a minimum of ten minutes a day for each day we had class, which for my Personal Essay class meant thirty minutes a week. Now that doesn’t seem like an awful lot of writing time. But I found that once I got writing, thirty minutes could pass by as I wrote one journal entry before I even noticed that the clock hand had moved. Some days, our professor would give us writing prompts, other days we had “free write” and could write about whatever we wanted. I remember our first journal entry assignment was this: Look out a window and write what you see. I remember sitting in the window seat of my townhouse room writing about the big oak tree right outside that towered over a sloping hill, where you could see our little path through the bushes, created by years of students taking a shortcut from Mentink townhouse to the Weller Center next door. Writing this one assignment, though my writing at first seemed forced as I got used to writing from a prompt, made me realize that it’s not just about saying “there is a tree outside my window and a building next door,” but rather about showing the reader (even if you’re only writing for yourself) what is there. I like the freedom that journaling gave me to investigate my own writing.

After that long spiel, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the point. Well, I’m not sure where I stand on journaling. I know it is something that I would love to implement in my own English classroom, but how? In one of our first meetings of Orientation to Secondary Ed., the professor read a few things from Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students by Kathleen Cushman. One of the things that stuck out to me, as a future English/language arts teacher, is that students said they enjoy keeping journals in class and that they look forward to their teacher responding to those journal entries without criticism or a red pen for correcting. This kind of reminds me of what we’re accomplishing in our writing partnership. As soon as the professor mentioned this piece of advice, I knew I wanted to use it in my classroom someday. Though my creative writing professor never read our journal entries (he did check during one-on-one conferences to check that we had done them), I like the idea of teacher response to journaling. However, this is where I begin to question myself. In a reading for another class (I can’t recall whether it was for Approaches, Practicum, or Language & Learning), one writer mentioned that yes, you should have students keep a journal in class, but you as a teacher should never read or respond to those entries in any way. The contradiction here interests me because I wonder what led that particular article’s writer to say that. If it weren’t for the fact that the former advice about responding to journals actually came from students, I could probably convince myself that it were simply a difference in ideology formed by different classroom experiences. But this conundrum has repeatedly crossed my mind in the past weeks.

What is best? Is it invasive to read students’ journals? Obviously they would know ahead of time your intent to read and respond to their writing. Does this knowledge have a negative impact on the things they will write about? Will their writing seem contrived when they know they are writing to an audience, the teacher? Or will that knowledge encourage students to improve their writing, even when the teacher is not criticizing, but rather responding to the content of the writing? If a teacher decides not to use response as a part of student journaling, will the students take the assignment seriously?

I know that with the flood of insight and knowledge on methodology, I should expect differences in opinion among teachers. I should probably expect a whole lot of difference since each of these teachers whose articles we read, whether for this class or another, have had different classroom experiences; what works for one teacher might not work for the teacher down the hall. So my question to you is: what do you think? How do you feel about using journaling in the classroom? Will you use it in your classroom? And if so, how?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Writing as Journaling

  1. Madella

    I know what you mean. It seems like there are a lot of opinions out there about how to approach journaling in the classroom. I would like to use the practice in my future classes because I think it helps center you and will set up the day for a more productive class as well as get the students in the habit of writing.

    While reading your post, I kept thinking of the movie Freedom Writers when the teacher says if the students wants her to read their journal, to place it in the locked cupboard and she will read it. I think it is nice to have the option to have someone read it, but I don’t necessarily like the idea of requiring it. Sometimes there will be posts that are personal and a student may not feel comfortable having someone else read it. That being said, sometimes you want a reader.

    On your question of whether the content would change if the student knew the teacher was going to read the journal, I think back to the difference between reader-prose and writer-prose. Perhaps it is good to have a mix of private and teacher read-text so the students can begin to learn the difference (and see the difference) in their own writing.

  2. Randi, Thanks for such a thought-provoking post! For many reasons, journaling is a difficult classroom activity, and you’ve describe many of the difficult questions that are at the heart of the controversy!

    I’ve been on a Marcus Aurelius kick this week, and I’m thinking that my own blog post will have to involve the Fifth Good Emperor. Aurelius was full of advice, and here’s one bit I come back to often: “Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?” There are many approaches to journaling, and each has its own nature–or in other words, each approach *does something* particular because of what it is at its core. At its core, journaling can be a means of control and a means of surveillance, or it can also be a means of undermining control or surveillance. Journaling can be productive and generative; it can also be pointless and numbing. Teachers who construct classroom activities, like journals, that start with first principles (in Aurelius’ terms, the thing itself or the nature of the learning that should be accomplished by the teacher and the students) will have more success!

  3. Randi,
    Way to go!! I love your little meditation on your own journal, complete with the details you wrote about, as an illustration of exactly your point. Yes, I think it’s hard to “legislate” journals when we want the purpose to be independence. And I’ve also been thinking about the value of blogs–much like what we wanted journals to do (albeit not the same as private records of our thoughts, observations, collections)….and the opportunity, like this one, for response…..hmmmmmm, a new dimension. I remember many kids (like Matt notes) who wrote “I don’t know what to write in my journal” over and over and over and over again. Not exactly productive or generative. And yes, we can’t make blanket judgments on people’s journals, or grade them,and sometimes it’s hard to respond. Madella’s point about the reader-based and writer-based “mix” to try to work toward in a class is also important. I believe it’s really an individual thing we need to figure out as we go….to make the nature of the learning matter (as Matt and Marcus Aurelius say)….as yours did for you.

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