Journaling in the Classroom and the Art and Freedom of Expression

Teachers tend to worry more about the silent student rather than the loquacious student. The student who constantly participates in class makes it clear, through their expressions, that they are either interested in the subject, interested in a higher grade, interested in themselves or all of the above. But the silent student remains a mystery that gives rise to a number of questions that do not readily get resolved, such as, does this student remain silent out of fear, anxiety, or indifference? Have I, as the teacher, created an atmosphere where my student is afraid to speak? And even if you directly ask the student why they don’t participate you might not receive a genuine answer, or at the very best, a cryptic one. A possible solution to the silence can be found in journaling.

Initially when I was exposed to the idea of journaling at an Ayeka (Soulful Educators) retreat I was skeptical. I had heard from various teachers at the retreat that by encouraging the students to journal on a regular basis, the students were more verbal (both in terms of quality and quantity), became clearer writers on their tests, more confident, more willing to take intellectual and creative risks and overall seemed more engaged with the material during classroom discussions. There are fundamentally two approaches when it comes to journaling in the class: 1. Teacher gives a prompt (or prompts) and the students write down their thoughts in reaction to the prompts or 2. Students write down whatever they are feeling, either with regards to the lesson, or past lessons, or how they relate to the text at hand. In other words, the students are either given a very specific type of question to react to, or they self-generate a question. Regardless of which one they choose, they write their thoughts down in a notebook specifically designated for their journal. After talking extensively to the senior educators at Ayeka and researching the benefits of journaling for students of all ages I decided to experiment with journaling with one of my classes, specifically my 11th grade Chumash class. I had chosen that class because I had several students who rarely participated in class but did very well on quizzes on tests. They clearly were learning the material, but for some reason they chose not to speak during class. 

For our first journal entry I employed the “Imagine the Better” prompt that Ayeka has developed. This approach has 4 parts: a. Self-assessment b. Imagine the better c. Obstacles that impede your development d. Self-advice. I adapted this for my Chumash class and wrote on the board the following: 

“Please assess yourself, on a scale of 1-10 (1 being the worst, and 10 being the best) with regards to your current relationship to God.” I then gave them one minute to write down a number.  

Then I wrote on the board "Imagine that number which you wrote down was two points higher. What would that look like with regards to your relationship with God?" I then gave the students three minutes to describe what that relationship with God would look like, and then I wrote down on the board, “What obstacles are preventing you from reaching those two points higher?” I then gave them 4 minutes to write down their answers. And then I wrote down 
the final question, “What small piece of advice can you give yourself right now to help you get to that higher number?”  I then gave them 5 minutes to write down their answers. After that, I broke them into groups of 3 or smaller to share their answers with their peers. And after that I asked anyone if they wanted to share their responses or share any surprises they heard. Inevitably, half the class raised their hands to share their responses, and they were all surprised to hear that their peers are struggling with the same things they are. I then offered them to type up their journals on google docs, and asked them to share it with me if they felt comfortable. I assumed that perhaps a quarter of my students would choose to share their journals with me.

When I arrived home later that night, out of 20 students, I had 18 journal entries to read. I had decided that I was not going to comment on grammar or syntax, or be critical in any way, shape or form. I decided that my comments were going to be positive, and I was going to find a way to praise each and every student. Though this took some time (admittedly I have shortened my comments as I now use journaling in all of my classes) it was worth it. Within two weeks of journaling in this class, every single person was participating in the classroom discussions multiple times. In fact, it became a common occurrence that the bell would ring in the middle of a student’s comment, that would inevitably lead to impromptu journal entries that night. 

Initially I thought it was the novelty that was exciting them to write, but I gradually realized that my students were enjoying an opportunity to discuss and analyze their ideas in a non-judgemental setting while receiving nothing but positive reinforcement regardless of what they had written or how they had written it. One student explained it in his journal as follows: 

[...]I realized that the beauty of journaling is that I can formulate my ideas and opinions along the way. Writing is like having a conversation with myself which just went along at its own pace. I didn’t start writing with preconceptions about what I was going to write but rather argued out my thoughts as I wrote them on paper. One aspect I really enjoy about journaling is the lack of constraints. I don’t have to follow a specific format and I have no reason to hold anything back. Often essays for school have to be orderly and formatted correctly but this sometimes causes me to leave arguments which might not fit appropriately. In contrast, when journaling I can do a “brain dump” of all my ideas in my head and then sort through them to come to an opinion. Also, often when I finish an essay I disagree with many of my arguments, and I end up submitting a paper I don’t fully support. I also find that for school many students write essays based on what they think the teacher wants to hear. One problem with writing essays like these is that you aren’t really formulating your own ideas and opinions, and are unwilling to change these opinions especially after starting to write the essay. High school students don’t feel that they have the time to rewrite entire essays even if they change their opinions about the topic. However, when journaling I feel I have the opportunity to simply continue writing my new ideas and argue with my past self. I think this is one reason why for the first time I found writing enjoyable. I often find writing too subjective because different teachers will have different opinions on what is good writing. Some prefer specific formats, others creative ideas. I also felt that at some level one could argue whatever he or she wanted since there was never a right answer which made me uncomfortable. I am more used to math problems in which although there are often many ways to reach an answer, there is a clear distinction between a right answer and a wrong answer. While writing my journal I don’t have to worry about a format or about a grade so I am free to write how and what I wish.

With his permission I was allowed to share his journal with fellow faculty members, administrators, Ayeka participants, and anyone else that I felt should hear his voice. He gave me carte blanche to share every aspect of his journal. And he wrote, like 90% of my students, on every conceivable subject ranging from the conflict of the Creation story with Evolution to his personal views on politics, reading and playing sports as a religious Jew in a non-Jewish setting. What was exciting for me was the fact that this particular student, who wrote over 35 pages in his journal, had rarely spoken for the first three months of the year. He was one of the quiet students sitting in the front row copiously taking down notes, though never verbalizing his thoughts. After his first set of journal entries, I began to see a change in his overall demeanor and participation in class. He became more enthusiastic, more verbal, speaking with more adjectives, and his writing became meaningful and poignant. I was sad to say goodbye to this class at the end of their junior year, as I knew I would not be teaching them for the following year. That sadness continued over the summer up until faculty orientation in August.  On the first day of faculty orientation I received several summer journal entries from this class. I thought for a minute that I might have assigned them a summer journal entry that I had forgotten about so I asked them if that is why they had taken the time to write additional entries.  I received many responses, but my favorite one was from the former quiet student who wrote,

At the very beginning, I wrote my journal for you, but now I write for my soul and my  mind and  share it with people who care about my soul and my mind. I plan on doing this for many years to come.

So now I employ journaling in all my classes, and whenever fatigue sets in after reading 30 journal entries and I want to go to sleep, I think of those precious words my quiet student wrote and I keep on reading.