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"Journalizing and Empowerment"

Updated on November 16, 2016



Professional educators rarely debate the wisdom of assigning journal writing. More often, today’s teachers want to know “How do I do journaling well?” Their questions seem centered around the practical questions, “How do you grade or evaluate journals?” and “Do you assign topics or let the students choose?” (Burniske 84). In line with learning the “how to’s” of teaching journaling, most academics consider the exercise very valuable and an essential part of course study. Still, some instructors oppose this activity and brand it as impractical, contending, “There has been little use for prose which is meandering, colloquial, loosely-structured, often speculative, and highly personal” (Fulwiler 1). Defenders of journalizing must answer this concern.

This essay argues that students should keep journals for three reasons: (1) the practice helps them turn writer-based prose into the reader-based variety; (2) the practice teaches them how to communicate more effectively; and (3) the practice enables them to achieve “empowerment.”

Some educators disagree with the soundness of the practice of journal writing, arguing that it “is exactly the kind of prose teachers have learned to associate with haste, sloth, incompetence, immaturity, and maybe even anti-establishment radicalism—a certain irreverence manifested in gamey language” (1). While not directly discounting these possible associations, other instructors choose to stress the positive aspects to journalizing. For instance, they claim that it enables the student to get in touch with his feelings and attitudes toward life. Beth Neman agrees with Linda Flower’s insights when she admits that such writing is “frequently rich in private associations and personal connotations” (34). Even those teachers who object to what they consider haphazard journal keeping nevertheless do see some real benefit to the practice, commending the idea of “writer-based prose” as a way to help students remember events. Neman asserts that “writer-based prose—the language of journals . . . ” (34)—can be, in Flower’s words, “a masterful method for searching memory, . . .” (qtd. in Neman 34).

While Flower notes that “writer-based prose is natural and adequate for a writer writing to himself or herself . . .,” she concludes that “[it also can be] a dud for communicating that information to anyone else.” This drawback appears as the main argument of those who stress communication over unorganized expression. (And a very good one it is, for communication is an essential purpose in writing). Flower aptly summarizes her solution to the problem, arguing, “ . . . we should help our students . . . to turn their natural writer-based prose to reader-based prose when they need to communicate through their writing” (qtd. in Neman 34).

This essay argues that students should keep journals for three reasons: (1) the practice helps them turn writer-based prose into the reader-based variety, (2) the practice teaches them how to communicate more effectively, and (3) the practice enables them to achieve “empowerment.”

Drawback to Journalizing

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Let’s address the first point. As already noted, journals exemplify writer-based prose, and themes reader-based prose. For the sake of clarity, it is important to provide concise definitions of these two concepts. Both formulations come from the pen of Linda Flower: “Writer-Based prose is a verbal expression written by a writer to himself and for himself. It is the record and the working of his own verbal thought.” On the other hand, “reader-based prose is a deliberate attempt to communicate something to a reader” (qtd. in Neman 34). With skillful instruction, teachers can help their students transform their journals from rich, personal expressions that give them an “opportunity to explore ideas and feelings” into the practical, intelligible communication (Wilson 67). Dawn Wilson has developed a well-reasoned program that aims to accomplish this task. She believes that journal writing is a “skill-building, confidence-inspiring activity that can be a steppingstone to success on regular theme assignments.” Therefore, she works to helps her students “progress from journal entry to theme through in-class work that focuses on the processes involved in composing” (67).

Initially assigning casual and personal journal entries, Wilson daily directs her class to perform different operations upon their entries such as “add details,” “improve word choice,” and “change sentence structure”—all activities that train them to develop specific skills needed to write themes. Students compose final drafts of their entries upon which Wilson can then offer useful insights. The guidelines that she uses to assess their journals—“Did they use concrete details and specific examples?” and “Were they able to focus on a narrowed topic?” —enable her to develop her class’s writing skill (68).

Wilson recognizes that journal entries and themes constitute the “process and product” respectively. After helping her students both invent and build on more ideas, she leads them through the processes of “taking out the garbage,” selecting the entries that they want to use as their theme, and isolating the thesis statement. She has them generate more detailed information on the topic, outline their work, and write topic sentences before she believes that they are ready to compose the rough draft. Wilson acknowledges the need for her pupils to be willing to change what they have written. When they follow through with her directions here, she has normally found that their final drafts show development from the original entries (71). She notes that the process of turning writer-based prose into the reader-based kind is often painstaking, but points out that “our goal [transformed final essays] should always be in sight” (71).

Use Your Journal Daily

Effective Communication

Besides helping students turn writer-based prose into the reader-based variety, teachers should implement journalizing for a second reason: the practice (here specifically referring to the dialogue journalizing species) helps students learn how to communicate more effectively. One authority makes a critically important and foundational statement that establishes this benefit of journalizing: “Dialogue journals undoubtedly allow for the functional use of language” (Bode 569; underscoring mine). Staton concurs, “Dialogue journal communication has been defined as a ‘written conversation between two persons on a functional, continued basis, about topics of individual (and even mutual) interest’” (qtd. in Bode 568-9; underscoring mine). Within this interactive process, the learners become better communicators because they exercise and develop other skills in conjunction with writing. The procedure can succeed at any educational level, even in elementary grades, helping to strengthen and integrate various basic skills. Bode remarks that through journalizing “children are liberated to learn about literacy in an integrative manner” (570). This practice that teachers develop—please note: the instructor’s active modeling plays a vital role here, because it is “the access to the teacher’s mind, and to an interactive, personalized response” that makes the process work well (Staton 47)—“involves meaningful, functional reading and writing as a single whole, just as speaking and listening are a seamless whole in oral discourse” (49). The key word, of course, remains “functional”; teachers must make journalizing a functional exercise, or it may degenerate into an activity that detractors deplore.

Several examples that show what this writing tool can accomplish in a variety of disciplines and settings follow. For instance, Simpson notes that when the teacher shares his/her journal entry first, the “students practice listening and speaking—reciprocating in group discussions, and reading and writing critically—recognizing and evaluating their opinions and beliefs” (qtd. in Cobine 1). If the teacher leads with interest, the students will more likely have the courage to follow. When the latter actively participate, these various skills necessarily are afforded an opportunity to develop.

Roger Shuy corroborates Simpson’s view and communicates some very specific activities engaged in by a sixth grade class: “The students’ entries reflected the use of the following functions: reporting opinions, personal facts, and general facts; responding to questions; predicting the future; complaining; giving directives; apologizing; thanking; evaluating; offering; promising; and asking informative questions (qtd. in Bode 569). Certainly, all students benefited greatly from their involvement with journalizing, because it intimately connected them with many interpersonal communication skills that they will use in their adult lives.

Further confirmation of the multiple benefits to better communication derived from dialogue journalizing comes from Mink’s pen. He also sees a “merging of various [communication] skills,” a triumvirate of members supporting each other—course reading, journal writing, and discussion (Cobine quoting Mink 1). Not only are student reading abilities enhanced by the practice, but their writing and speaking ones as well.

A fourth and final example offers evidence of the considerable success in the functional use of dialogue journals that exists in the ESL classroom. Peyton writes, “Dialogue journals not only open a new channel of communication, but they also provide another context for language and literacy development” (46). A seminal study by Kreeft et al. demonstrates a number of “conditions for learning” that dialogue journals provide. The students interact about topics relevant to learning, focusing on interaction rather than form. Their reading skills gradually improve, and they receive “modeling of correct grammatical forms and the natural evolution of grammatical structures,” all “in a private, non-threatening way” (Kreeft, Shuy, Staton, Reed & Morroy qtd. in Holmes and Moulton 616). This work has led to the publishing of numerous other articles that focused on issues related to L2 populations (616-7). Again, modeling is a crucial aspect to the success of the project, and journalizing provides students with opportunities to interact with the language.

The teacher’s modeling provides students with someone who writes well, with someone whose style and mechanics they can mimic.L. S. Vygotsky, a foremost researcher, discovered that “learners mimic the teacher’s language guide until they internalize the structures that allow them to guide themselves” (qtd. in Holmes and Moulton 620). A remarkable transformation thus takes place when teachers participate wholeheartedly with the students in this “conversation in print”:

. . . students develop during a semester from self-expressive writers to expressively communicative writers . . .. By using a dialogue journal, students automatically apprentice themselves to the teacher, a mature writer—that is, not only do students write about topics of personal concern, but they also observe a mature writer’s response to these same topics and sometimes imitate this mature writer’s methods (Staton qtd. in Cobine 2).

Shuy also notes that students can mature more quickly as readers and writers, even though the teacher’s entries communicate at a higher level:

Analysis of the dialogue journals as a reading text shows that the teacher’s writing is usually more complex syntactically and more varied in function and more mature in propositional reasoning than is the basal reading text for that grade level, yet students understand the message and respond appropriately (qtd. in Staton 54).

Staton agrees that incremental increases in complexity challenge students to grow: “The teacher in his responding can progressively increase the complexity of his or her response, staying just ahead of the student. This creates a text which is continually challenging in terms of comprehension and inferencing” (54). Thus, the instructor, the “more knowledgeable other,” helps the student grow by first discovering what level he or she is operating on, then guiding the pupil to a higher understanding (Garmon 38).

Journal Keeping

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Personal Empowerment

Having seen that it is possible to turn writer-based prose into reader-based prose, and that “dialoguing” with teachers can enhance student communication skills, let’s examine a third reason why students should keep journals. Primarily, this practice enables students to achieve the personal “empowerment” that they need to function effectively. Instructors have zeroed in on this idea of empowerment through dialogue journal writing as a valuable way to help students become better individuals (Bode 568). Burniske recognizes the danger involved for teachers. He writes, “If we hide behind terse comments in the margins of essays, we miss the chance to communicate with students, adopting the stance that student writing is a one-way street” (87).

The empowerment that journalizing produces, however, is a two-way street. Research indicates the importance of teacher response. If instructors commit themselves to making full, thoughtful comments, and if they make their writing interesting for their pupils to read, then it is much more likely that the students will respond more elaborately (Staton 56). A commitment to dialogue journalizing enables teachers “to integrate reading and writing in a whole language approach,” empowering them “to meet the children at their own developmental level” (Bode 570). Obviously, if the teacher can communicate better with the students, the students will normally learn more.

The second “way” remains: How does dialogue journal writing directly empower individual students? An outstanding example occurs regularly in Leslee Reed’s sixth grade classroom. Dialogue journal writing helped Reed achieve her major goal for her class: ‘the development of their ability to be more autonomous in managing their academic and interpersonal life’” (Staton qtd. in Bode 569). Reed implements an unorthodox method with her pupils: she allows them to complain and ask nontraditional questions, even to the point of challenging the authority of the teacher (Bode 569). Bode agrees that the approach is effective, seeing it as affording “a greater symmetry of power” (569). It is another way to help the teacher to “understand the students’ perspective and thus empower her to act accordingly to supplement, change, repeat, or continue instruction and classroom activities.” She concludes, “Complaining and asking nontraditional questions are important aspects of empowering students” (569).

On another level, Garmon has researched how dialogue journalizing benefited his class of prospective teachers. In short, he discovered that the practice “empowered” his students in a number of ways. The top three categories include:

(1) Facilitating learning by helping them remember the course material, by leading them to think more deeply about the subject matter, and by accommodating those who learn differently (41-2);

(2) Promoting self-reflection and self-understanding by forcing them to make “connections between the course material and their own beliefs and experiences” (42), and by making them think about their future role as teachers (43);

(3) Providing an opportunity to express ideas about issues being discussed in the class. Some students appreciated that they had a place to write what they did not have time to say in class; others valued the chance to write confidential or even inappropriate ideas (44).

In still another challenging atmosphere—that of an ESL classroom—“journal writing empowers students to write about issues of concern to them and to seek answers through the journal as how best to deal with these issues” (Orem 75). Often a cathartic experience, it may very well lead to resolutions of difficulties through the intervention of instructors or other professionals. Students and teachers regularly dialoguing in this manner may develop strong personal ties that, in turn, may empower the former to gain better insight into problems and issues in their new environment (Peyton 47). Orem remarks that ESL students may transform their entire community if they can gain some control over their environment through journalizing (76).

Besides enabling ESL students to solve problems, dialogue journalizing also empowers them to grow in their writing fluency and motivation. One example of such growth occurred in a fifteen-week intermediate composition class within the English language program of an urban southwestern U.S. university. The students noted that because they could choose their own topics to write about – “a characteristic more often often associated with speaking”—they gained greater facility with the language (Holmes and Moulton 617). In addition, the freedom of expression inherent in journal writing released them from being tied down to using dictionaries and grammar and helped them to think spontaneously in English. With increased writing practice the students gradually increased their fluency in the language, especially when they wrote in a form more like conversation (618). In terms of increasing their motivation to learn English, the students pointed to the “uncorrected, ungraded format” of journalizing as a paramount reason for it. The less fear the students experienced, the more they desired to write (619).

Through the empowerment of dialogue journalizing, all kinds of students can develop more self-reliance and responsibility; the maturation of these personal qualities may well contribute toward their communicating better on paper and negotiating life more efficiently. The wise melding of the freedom of expression inherent in journal writing with the necessary ingredient of communicating clearly to an audience appears to find a promising solution, at least in part, through the practice of empowerment.

Effectiveness of the Article

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In sum, journal writing promises valuable benefits to the whole educational process. Dawn Wilson’s approach to turning her students’ personal journal entries—“writer-based prose”-- into finished theme papers—“reader-based prose”—demonstrates the usefulness of the practice. Once objectors recognize that journal entries are mere steppingstones in the writing process and that teachers can help pupils transform these unstructured thoughts and feelings into effective communication, they should readily acknowledge how vital this teaching method is.

Perhaps even more beneficial to both teacher and student alike is that species of the practice that promotes student “dialoguing” with his instructor. The better teacher-student relationship that journalizing helps to develop redounds to the overall harmony and progress in the classroom, and may even extend into other relationships. The better an instructor knows and understands his/her pupils’ feelings, attitudes, and issues, the better the communication among them. Student performance and behavior in and out of class—evidenced by their assuming greater responsibility for their lives—may well improve as the result of receiving and implementing the knowledge and wisdom of their mentors. As long as teachers can maintain their authority in the classroom, despite the challenges that may come from students who “complain and ask non-traditional questions,” they may implement Reed’s methodology and experience encouraging results. The maintenance of order through respect is crucial for success when the teacher al-lows this type of freedom.

The fact that students can develop into better communicators through the merging of various skills—reading, writing, listening, discussing—with dialogue journalizing serving as a critical supplement to other classroom instruction (including teacher modeling of correct grammatical usage, diction, vocabulary, and spelling) indicates clearly that the practice should continue and be increased. Administrators should see its educational value and not relegate it to the scrap heap as a waste of everyone’s time and the taxpayers’ money. Instead, all educators should recognize how vital its proper implementation is to the future well being of their students.

What is especially exciting about dialogue journalizing is that it is not locked into any one age group; students at every level of learning may benefit or be empowered in some way by its use. Teachers can implement this practice with those who are just beginning the writing process, as in the case of the first grader who is empowered to think critically about his surroundings and respond to a verbal question raised by the teacher (Bode 568). Through the teacher’s modeling, older children may “pick up” correct word usage, vocabulary, spelling, and grammar skills—skills that oftentimes come with greater pain using other, more conventional classroom methods. ESL students—in some ways similar to first-graders, in some ways dissimilar—can learn English more quickly because of the spontaneity and freedom from correction that they experience with journal writing. And even prospective English teachers—as Garmon’s studies show—respond with almost unanimous positive feedback to this teaching method (48). From young to mature, all may experience real growth by “dialoguing.”

This essay has argued that students should keep journals for three rea-sons: (1) the practice helps them turn writer-based prose into the reader-based variety; (2) the practice teaches them how to communicate more effectively, and (3) the practice enables them to achieve “empowerment.”

© 2015 glynch1


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