Over the past few weeks we have posted excerpts from Leslie Rapparlie’s new book Writing and Experiential Education. This excerpt explores the value of journaling in education and practical suggestions for integrating journaling into your work with students.
Now that we know that writing helps create meaning and leads to the greater understanding of all life experiences, in and out of the classroom, showing students that this is true will help them beyond their time in a program or course. Unlike episodic experiences, programming that occurs over a longer period of time—a semester-long service-based course, a summer internship, or a month-long kayaking trip—can use journals as one way to do this and to support learning. When using journaling, students commonly prepare reflections after each day’s events or in response to material reviewed or learned. “Journaling activities ask students to do the following: (1) express their feelings at a given moment; (2) record what they see, hear, smell and touch; or (3) probe the emotional and intellectual significance of their responses to readings, landscapes, people, and experiences” (Brew 3). Writing in a journal forces a student to think deeper about an experience or an aspect of the experience and, generally, the student already knows how to access that writing style, even if it is only viewed as a diary, it is still familiar. Journals “provide students with a space where they can take risks; think differently; and, at times, write more honestly than they could if their thinking were public. The journal also allows a record of their thinking, a sort of road map that charts where they’ve been and where they are as thinkers, students, and writers” (Burke 181). Additionally, at a young age many children journal or draw to express themselves, so unlike more “traditionally” academic writing, journaling is viewed as approachable and easy, which is oftentimes positive.
As an instructor considering the use of journals, be aware of how and why you plan to use them. For example, if you decide that journals will be collected, know that students regularly temper their writing so they get a good grade or avoid punishment for saying anything “inappropriate.” However, on the flip side, reviewing journals insures that students stay focused on the writing task that was provided. When deciding if journals should be collected or not, judge the desired learning outcome. If the goal is simply to encourage more writing than usual or spur thought that will lead to discussion, then collecting journals may deter that outcome. However, if it is necessary to see if the students are understanding material or if you want to respond to students directly (perhaps if working with a particularly at-risk group), then collecting journals may be more valuable than insuring that students feel freedom in writing.
Ideas for Creating Useful and Effective Journals:
• Consider if it is more useful for students to have an open-ended prompt or a guided prompt (this could be visual or written). What skills or insights do you want them to gain from this writing? Craft appropriate prompts or guidelines.
• The journal should “promote fluency of thinking and writing…[serve] as a place to think about a subject to be discussed, a text you are studying, or aspects of your own life…[and promote] experimentation as a means of learning to write or think in new ways without the fear of judgement” (Burke 181).
• Allow journal entries to be “informal” in the sense that students are paying less attention to cosmetic components of writing and more attention to content, their ideas and thoughts. It is also helpful to allow journals to be personalized through words, art and color.
• Offer students a variety of ways to approach their writing including, but not limited to: letters, poems, clusters, lists, questions, stories (personal or fictional), quotations, brainstorming for assignments, explanations, definitions, drawings, sketches, lyrics, observations and/or responses to current events. Permit students to use more than one mode in a single entry. In sum, allow students to think of their journals as “container[s] for selected insights, lines, images, ideas, dreams and fragments of talk gathered from the world around [them]” (Burke 188).
• Consider asking for a specific word or page length that allows students enough space to explore what you want them to, but also asks them to be concise enough that they have to be thoughtful and purposeful with their thoughts and language.
• Tell the students upfront if you will read their journals or not as well as if you will ask them to share their journals with their peers or not and/or allow them to play a role in making this decision.
• Carefully think about how often to assign journal entries and how long students will keep journals (Biedler suggests that more complex thought comes from consistent exposure to this type of writing but too many requirements can be overwhelming or stifling).
• Consider where and when students will write in their journals and how that may shape the final product.
• Decide if revision is important as it may allow students time to reconsider ideas, but only do this if it contributes to educational goals.
If it’s true that “you can’t write and not think,” then the more journaling involved in any educational experience, the more long-lasting the lessons will be (Burke 152).