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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Importance of Student Journals and How to Respond Efficiently

Burdened by expanding curriculum and multiplying high-stakes assessment requirements, some of my respected colleagues might be forgiven for not integrating student journals into their courses. The most common objection: "Who has time?"

"What instructor doesn't have time for student journaling?" is my typical reply, a non-answer that halts further conversation by employing a rhetorical cul-de-sac familiar to high-school debaters. To atone, I'll summarize research on journaling, identify my favorite reflective writing formats, and describe a labor-saving method of teacher response.

Classroom Journaling Is Essential

The benefits of students integrating journal writing across the curriculum are amply documented. From a teacher's perspective, there are few activities that can trump journal writing for understanding and supporting the development of student thinking. Journaling turbo-charges curiosity. The legendary Toby Fulwiler, author of The Journal Book, writes, "Without an understanding of who we are, we are not likely to understand fully why we study biology rather than forestry, literature rather than philosophy. In the end, all knowledge is related; the journal helps clarify the relationship."

Vary Student Journal Formats to Enhance Content-Specific Thinking

Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson's 42explore presents implementation advice and describes different journal formats. Introducing a range of reflective genres can encourage students to generalize about their content attitudes. Every subject area "pot" has its own reflective "lid," allowing teachers a peak into the metacognitive soup of students' misconceptions and insight. For example, here is a format that supports scientific reflection: "Today I observed... I predict that... I also measured... I concluded that..."

One of my favorites, the microtheme, supports comprehension, extends thinking, improves confidence, and bolsters writing across the content areas. I've run into different versions. In one, students write a summary to a reading, lecture, demonstration, or experiment on the back of an index card. Teachers collect the note cards and write responses to the students on the other side. Microthemes quickly activate thinking before whole-class discussions.

But, while essentially all reflective writing formats yield benefits, there is a problem...

Who Has Time to Grade Journals?

For years, I've taken home crates of journals on the weekend and responded with a Theseusian intensity that has crushed classroom preparation time and personal leisure, and has exasperated friends and family. To lessen the time costs, I tried skimming journals. My token analysis, however, signaled students to submit journals that were equivalently weak ("If he doesn't care, why should we?").

So, how do you implement journals, make them a priority, and reduce responding time?

An Efficient Journal Response Strategy

Premised on the notion that students should assess their own writing, Terri Van Sickle, a virtuoso instructor and writer for Crystal Coast Parent Magazine, teaches her classes to use a rich and organic process of open-ended reflection that works well as a culminating journal activity.

Whether your students write in daybooks, two entry notebooks, or academic journals, you can use the following instruction sheet to help students self-reflect.

I allow a full class period or more for students to follow these instructions. Many adolescents wrestle with critical reflection and therefore may need more individual help or modeling.

By primarily focusing my commentary on students' starred passages and reflective letters, I acquire a snapshot of the students' understanding of course content and save 3-4 hours on every set of 30 semester-length journals. Even though I only collect journals one time per semester, I can meet students' eyes, knowing that I haven't neglected journal segments that they wanted me to read.

Coda: The three best albums to write reflections to:

1. "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis
2. "The Last Temptation of Christ" (Soundtrack) by Peter Gabriel
3. "Unleft" by Helios

-- Todd Finley's Twitter address is @finleyt.

Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Chris_NGLC's picture

Do you think students would be more inclined to journal on their own time if they were using some sort of online tool that allowed them to easily edit, save and even share their work?

Peter Skillen's picture

[quote]Do you think students would be more inclined to journal on their own time if they were using some sort of online tool that allowed them to easily edit, save and even share their work?[/quote]

Yes. I think so. However, it does take the resolve of the educator to support these effective uses. It is also necessary for the students to be engaged in the problem space with passion, enthusiasm and motivation about an authentic, student-driven inquiry.

My involvement in creating collaborative, scaffolded online journal writing environments has shown that teachers are hesitant to use so much time for journal writing when so much curriculum 'needs to be covered'.

Please read Scaffolding for Deep Understanding and The Construction Zone . I would love your feedback.

Sincerely,
Peter

Lynn Olson's picture

I, like many, have created rubrics that students use to assess their own journaling. Unfortunately, it tends to focus on effort not content. I like your ideas for encouraging student metacognition of content and their relationship to that content. It provides a deeper and more substantive approach than the one I have been using. Thank you for an idea I will definitely employ with my own students.

Amanda Bosarge's picture
Amanda Bosarge
Prospective Teacher, English Ed. student at the University of South Alabama

The concept of open-ended reflection seems like an effective way to cut down on the time spent reading the journals. I wonder if blog journals could be a creative way for students to post their reflections of the course content while also learning how to blog and use html code. Students would also have access to online resources and may be able to establish a personal online learning network to enhance their understanding of the material. Students might be more interested in the assignment when given the freedom to search for websites that relate to the curriculum. Technology has become such an integrated part of our students' lives. Maybe we should venture out and use it in the classroom.

Victoria Morrow's picture

I think that's a fantastic idea Amanda! You could also implement a classroom blog and give a different student an assignment once a week or once a day to make an addition. You could encourage them to get creative with their entries, asking them to try poetry entries or use accompanying photographs or artwork.

Brian Laakso's picture

As I have been developing a new music technology course for our urban high school, I have students blog anonymous comments to the class website to give feedback after each unit we do. They evaluate the material, the focus project, and the thematic unit in general.

Their anonymous honesty last year helped me shape this year's coursework when retaught to new students -- I even dropped / changed a couple units when I realized that they were completely irrelevant to the students!

In this way, students help me understand what they need, they practice writing, and most importantly they help improve future students' experience in the class.

Brian Laakso
McKinley High School
Canton, Ohio

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