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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Want to Take Over My Class? Be My Guest!

Vivian Maguire

Tenth grade English teacher from El Paso, TX
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Nine years ago, I was starting my first teaching job as an ESL English teacher. Though my students were very well behaved, when it came to reading or speaking aloud in class, they would shut down completely.

I had to motivate my students to write or speak about anything. That's when I came up with the guest journal. I asked my students bring an object from home and then explained that they would tell us about their item and give the class a topic to write about. It would be a literary show-and-tell, I explained. To motivate them further, I told them that the guest journalist would lead the class in the prompt and share-out, while I would sit, write, and share like a student.

At first, getting volunteers for the guest journal was slow, but soon every student was scheduling a day for his or her presentation. As an ESL teacher, I was thrilled to see how the guest journal pulled my students out of their protective shells and enabled me to engage them in all of our class activities.

Finding Their Passion

A couple of years later, my husband was accepted to graduate school in Austin, Texas, and so I took the first local teaching job I was offered at a middle school in South Austin. Upon coming to the school, my new principal warned me, "This is a pretty rough school." She was not kidding. On my first day, when I tried to greet my students at the door, they either smirked or shook their heads in disbelief. They outright refused to read aloud or participate in class. I had never encountered students that were so obstinate.

When I tearfully expressed this to my husband one night, he said, "Maybe it's time to bring back the guest journal." I thought he was joking. But after a few more days of their indifference, I decided that I had nothing to lose. I had to bring back the guest journal, if only for myself and the few remaining students in those classes that still actually cared. As I explained the guest journal, to my surprise, several students sat up straighter and looked interested.

Predictably, the guest journal began very slowly. Yet, sooner than I had anticipated, even the most reluctant students began volunteering to share. One girl who had walked out of my class at the beginning of the school year volunteered to rap for the class before asking us to write about our own passion.

As I wrote, I smiled into my page. These students who had fought to derail my lessons at the beginning of the year were now actually enjoying the class. I will never forget the look on the principal's face the day that she walked into a classroom that was attentively listening to a girl read from her notebook. At our next faculty meeting, she brought up my activity and expressed how impressed she was that I had been able to connect with my students through writing.

Developing Their Thinking

When we left Austin two years later, I found a teaching job at an Early College High School. I introduced the guest journal once again, but to increase the rigor, instead of an object, my students were to bring in a news article for discussion and then ask the class an open-ended question relating to society.

My students began presenting on varied topics from vaccinations to foreign policy -- and I noticed a great change in their writing. Now that they were reading the news on a regular basis to search for journal topics, they had a great deal more background knowledge to pull from for their academic essays.

As my students brought various news articles to present, I realized how helpful the news guest journal could be for other content areas like history, health, or science. Because schools are now advocating for writing in every course, the news guest journal is an opportunity for teachers to introduce course-related articles to their students while motivating them to write.

No matter how busy I get during the school year, I always come back to the guest journal because it gives me a chance to show my students that writing is not just a task, but also a venue for expressing their thoughts and ideas. The reason why the guest journal is so successful with all kinds of students is that it gives them back their agency. They feel that the class is theirs for a moment -- and they should, because the purpose of our classes is to develop our students' thinking, not our own. The guest journal is so valuable because it teaches my students to be excited about their writing, and it reminds me who my class really belongs to.

I've created instructions on how to use a guest journal in the classroom. How have you gotten your students excited about writing? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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Inspiring Student Engagement

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Vivian Maguire's picture
Vivian Maguire
Tenth grade English teacher from El Paso, TX

Thank you very much Rachel Wise and Laura Thomas! When I started the guest journal, I had no idea how much it would mean to the students. Students that felt kind of ho-hum about my class were suddenly excited about coming to English. I am so glad that I started it, because it made my students love writing. It also, like you said, made them feel like their ideas were important and that they mattered. With the news guest journal, my students learned a lot about current events and began to read the news on a daily basis. When I first introduced the news journal, one of my students said that he thought the news was boring. By the end of the year, all my students realized that not only is the news not boring, but that it is essential to know what is going on in the world. Being informed is being empowered. I am so glad to share my story with other teachers, and I hope that they will try this too.

BrianDeWald's picture

I agree that students should write in all subjects. I run a freewrite exercise where kids are challenged to write continuously for fifteen minutes. I always give the prompt, but this idea sounds much better.

Vivian Maguire's picture
Vivian Maguire
Tenth grade English teacher from El Paso, TX

I used to give them writing prompts too Brian, and they answered them like they were writing for an assignment. When they choose the prompt, they are so much more eager to share their true thoughts on a subject. Also, my students rarely read what they wrote in their journal, but turn and talk to the class about what they think. It really fuels college-level discussions in class. I keep the writing to three to four minutes though, that give them enough time to express their thoughts and support it with reasons or insight.

BrianDeWald's picture

I'll give it a try. I can see where a shorter time writing will result in a more focused discussion. I can also see where giving them the control over the prompt will go in directions they more easily want to go, which will help me understand their way of thinking.

Just to be clear, they write 3 to 4 minutes and then read it aloud?

Vivian Maguire's picture
Vivian Maguire
Tenth grade English teacher from El Paso, TX

Yes, the student that is presenting gives the class the writing prompt and also times the class for 3 minutes. I have an online timer, but some of the students like to use their own phones. Then, the student will call on students that volunteer and I give a journal grade to students that share. Not all of the students need to share in one session. My rule is, that each student needs at least one journal grade per week. So, they only need to share from their journal once per week. The student is also allowed to call on me, so when I am called, I share as well. The guest journal is also voluntary. I schedule students ahead of time to present on a given date. If no one volunteers, I have another activity ready. Students that volunteer get extra credit from me the first time they present. If they want to present again, it is not for credit the second time. You would be surprised how many students volunteer even though they cannot earn any more credit.

big fan's picture

Can you please give a few examples of how I can do this in my high school algebra class?

BrianDeWald's picture

I take it that students have a notebook devoted to this activity. I'm wondering how you would think if students were to post their responses in forum format where they can also comment on others' writing through written response and also would be able to comment about the discussion stage.

Vivian Maguire's picture
Vivian Maguire
Tenth grade English teacher from El Paso, TX

Big fan, if you want to have your students share articles about math, there are many websites online that publish articles related to math news. There are new mathematical discoveries being made all the time, particularly when science is involved. You could have your students discuss statistics or have your students do a mathematical study in order to predict the result of how much things will change, like how much sea levels will rise based on what we are seeing in other parts of the world. You could have your students report on the rate of global warming and what their predictions are based on what they are seeing in the news. Challenge them to find articles that demonstrate the importance of having good math skills. Have them write their own word problems in groups and present them to the class to solve (you might need to check them first). Maybe you could have the students volunteer to take over your class for a math lesson. You could give them extra credit to work out a new problem and then teach it to the class. You could even have the students give feedback on his/her explanation (perhaps in their notebooks). I hope this is a little helpful, I have not spent much time figuring out how to use this in Algebra, but I will talk to some of my math teachers too to see if I can get more ideas. Thank you for your question.

Vivian Maguire's picture
Vivian Maguire
Tenth grade English teacher from El Paso, TX

Brian, it's funny you should mention an online forum. I just started having my students post their responses to a prompt on Schoology.com. Just create an account, and then your students can sign up with an access code you will receive. It's free, and it's just like Facebook, in the sense that you can make a post, students can reply to your post, students can "like" each other's posts and respond to each other. It's really fun and it allows students to share on a wall as opposed to just on paper. I still use the guest journal, but I also like the idea of changing it up by having a social media discussion.

Tara Temprano Rossi's picture

Guest Journaling is an effective way to motivate students to write and to share. I teach them how to create thought provoking prompts first, to avoid the prompts no one can really respond to and it is very successful. What a fantastic idea!

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