By Adrin Fisher
When I was a girl, I always had a diary. I remember one in particular. It was red and white, with a cover photograph of Annie, beaming in her “Daddy Warbucks” dress. Many years later, when I was going through a rough patch in college, someone suggested that I keep a “Blessings Journal.” Rather than record activities, you list three good things from the day. That’s all. Simple. Quick. Transformational.
Daily journaling is a discipline that few undertake, but quickwrites in the classroom seem more common. In the PLC I facilitate in my school, we’ve been reading some of the most prominent current voices in teaching English, Kittle and Gallagher. In their books, particularly in 180 Days, they have “notebook time.” They ask students to collect, study, and then imitate techniques writers use as well as to generate their own thinking (2018, p. 35-36). They differentiate their writer’s notebooks from a standard classroom journal by creating different sections for collection and writing. Done in this way, the journal becomes a tool for reading engagement and skill development.
Journaling was not a big part of my education. As a student, I only had two teachers who required journals. First, my greatest and most favorite teacher, Linda Orr Morgan, had us purchase steno notebooks for AP English. She gave us prompts and pages to fill, and then responded in her distinctive handwriting. Because I looked up to her, I felt honored that she spent time reading my thoughts. Later at WVU, I had Dr. Cheryl Torsney for an American Lit survey. She collected responses to Whitman and Rowlandson and wrote back. Again, I was baffled that a professor cared about what I had to say. The fact that both of these teachers required, and most importantly RESPONDED TO, the journals of their students amazed me. I felt valued and validated.
Even so, requiring and reading journals didn’t enter my own teaching practice for many years. After I’d been teaching 7th grade Reading and Language Arts for a while, a fresh first-year teacher took over the co-teach section. I remember watching Stacey Angelo pull one spiral notebook after another from a crate. She said, “It’s no big deal. I just read the entries and write ‘LOL’ or add a comment or question.” She collected journals every Friday and read them all. Because of her enthusiasm, I began doing journals too. And like my teacher-mentors, I read them all. And since that day, about fourteen years ago now, I’ve done them with every student, every year.
A caveat: I do not have students journal every day. That’s too much for me. Many days, we are doing Daily Grammar Practice as bell ringers, or we’re handing in essays, or getting out laptops.
Another caveat: Grading journals is time-consuming. I drag a crate home and spend a few hours over the weekend going through and responding. Unlike Stacey Angelo, I don’t pick them up every week—but sometimes I wish I did. I have found that somehow, anything over ten entries seems to double the grading time. It’s a trick of the mind, but a significant one.
One last caveat: In my classes, journal grades are based on completion. I ask for a half-page of thinking and I never correct grammar or usage. And the half-page mark is subjective too, as it depends on handwriting size and spacing. It’s kind of fun to take a break from the laser focus of correction in favor of just listening in. Because I’m essentially grading participation, this is a low-point value assignment—normally, 5 points per entry.
I’ve had many, many teacher-friends—including my husband—tell me I’m crazy for grading journals. So, why do I bother?
Well, first of all, I do it to provide a way for students to engage the material. To begin Hamlet, I ask students to write about ghosts. Partway through Act 2 of Macbeth, I ask the kids to talk about “the domino effect.” In A Separate Peace, I wonder how they feel about competition between friends. In The Canterbury Tales, I ask them to imagine which pilgrims they’d invite over for dinner. Best practice demonstrates that students respond out loud more precisely and more confidently if they respond in writing first. And this method fits squarely in Hunter’s anticipatory set model.
More importantly, I use journals as a way to get to know my students. In a recent article on Edutopia, teacher Sarah Yost writes about the importance of knowing her students. The three strategies she presents are ones that I, too, have used for many years. This journaling thing, though, is the icing on the cake. My students reveal their thinking. They name their heroes. They tell family traditions. They share superstitions. They connect heavy metal songs to literature. Sometimes they share secrets—ones that I have to follow up with—or talk about conflicts. Sometimes they’re silly. Often they are writing—just writing—in their own unique voices.
Writing like this is a simple way to help develop an authorial voice. Kids aren’t worried about grammar or spelling or supporting a thesis. Journaling gives them space to just be, for a few quiet minutes in an otherwise frenetic high school day.
Journaling supports content generation. When preparing to take on dual-credit English 12 with a local university this year—a first for my school and a first for me—I met with a couple of professors. One said that she gives class time to write informally, as she’s found that college freshmen have trouble filling pages. To be sure, my dual-credit students have complained that I’m not telling them what to write about or how to write about it: it’s up to them to choose the models that work for their pieces and then think of ideas, and then support their ideas. So, of course, I’ve required journals during this first semester. And I’ve read every word.
I love it. I don’t look forward to the stacks of journals. I complain to my husband. Some entries are really boring, and sometimes the handwriting is indecipherable—even to English-teacher eyes. And I always have a zillion other things to do, lessons to prep, dinner to cook. But then there are the entries that make me laugh or push me to think or make me angry or open a window into these teenage lives. Because high school can be hard. Life can be relentless. I learn so much about these kids through reading and responding to their journals. I hear their voices. I value them. I’m a better teacher—and a better person—because of it.
So, when you’re thinking about impactful instructional strategies and you’re weighing cost versus benefit, I would encourage you, teacher-friend, to do it. While you may choose to land on the side of “ungraded practice” like Kittle and Gallagher, you may also choose to try my way: read it all, goofy ideas and improper syntax and creative spelling and all. Resist the urge to mark corrections and take the opportunity to ask them questions, to laugh, or cry or commiserate or suggest books or movies or restaurants.
And if you already make journaling a habit with your students, I thank you.
Remember that hearing your students’ voices is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
Remember that as a trusted adult, your response matters.
At a holiday party last weekend, my uncle, a retired school bus driver, told me about a girl who used to ride his bus. She used to sit up front because she didn’t have many friends, and he’d give her candy and chat as they drove along. She’s in her 30s now, but she came to visit recently. She told my uncle how much his kindness meant to her. How her grandfather whom she’d loved had passed away when she was a kid and how, simply talking to her and giving her candies from his jacket pocket, my uncle comforted her. Uncle Richard just shook his head as he told the story, amazed that she remembered such a simple thing. “You just don’t know,” he said, “how you’re making a difference every day.”
What a gift you have, teacher-friend, in your capacity to touch students’ lives meaningfully. All it takes is the willingness to respond.
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Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you grace. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of essays, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or teaching Shakespeare “like a boss,” you can find her reading, tree bathing in a wintry park, writing in her current composition book, or re-watching the Star Wars saga with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin