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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue D ::: December 1999

What's Right Rather Than Wrong

Using journals to teach writing and to build self confidence

by Rebecca Garland
I teach adult literacy at Dorcas Place, a community-based organization in Providence, RI. My class runs 20 hours per week and is comprised of approximately 15 women, ranging in age from 18 to 60 and including both native and non-native speakers of English. To be eligible for my class, a student must be on welfare, must be a parent, and must be reading and writing at around the fifth grade level. Many students bring to class a history of failure in the public school system and a resulting sense of inadequacy regarding their academic skills. They have difficulty recognizing their academic, and even personal, strengths.

I was concerned by this lack of confidence because I suspected that it might have a negative impact on my students' ability to learn. When working on goal-setting activities, many were unable to articulate what they were good at or even what they enjoyed doing. They looked at me blankly when I told them that the classroom was a place where we could all learn from each other. They assumed that since I was the teacher, my job was to tell them the answers, and their job was to listen. They accepted almost everything they read as truth, even articles that made sweeping negative generalizations about welfare mothers. Since learning occurs best when the students are actively engaged, I was concerned that their lack of confidence would result in passive attitudes that would hinder their progress.

How could I help my students recognize and celebrate the wealth of experience and knowledge they already possessed? How could I help them to use this knowledge base to become more actively engaged in their own learning? I thought that one entry point might be through the telling of their life stories. If I could help students to write about the details of their lives and to develop an appreciation for their own personal histories, perhaps they would begin to place a higher value on their own experiences. Most formal writing assignments brought on anxiety in my students. For this reason, I wanted to avoid essays or autobiographies. I was looking for a medium that would allow students to relax and let their stories flow naturally. I decided their journals would be an ideal place to begin this process.

For years, journal writing has been a daily ritual in my classroom, followed by a time of optional sharing. I usually write a guiding question on the board to elicit students' reactions to texts we have read or topics we have studied, or to help them relate what they are learning to their own lives. They write their responses in special books, knowing that no one will read them without their permission. Sometimes they choose to share with the class. Sometimes they give them to me to read and respond to. Other times they choose to keep private what they have written. The fact that students were already comfortable with this medium was one reason I decided to use the journals. Another reason was the personal nature of journal writing. By definition, I felt journals would be conducive to personal storytelling.

New Focus
I began by changing the focus of the guiding questions from what students were thinking presently to their past experiences. Before, questions had been geared toward eliciting writing about students' preferences, values, and goals. Now, I made them a place for students to explore their personal stories and the stories of their families. Every morning as the students came in I wrote a question on the board about some aspect of their lives. I asked for stories about their births and about their children's births. I asked them to write about how they got their names and how they chose names for their children. I asked them to write about a happy childhood memory, and a sad one. I asked them to write about family traditions and stories. I had them write 15 things that they remembered from their lives, short little details that came to them only when they were writing fast without thinking too much about it. I was hoping that by exploring their personal histories, students would begin to appreciate the richness of their lives and develop the confidence they needed to approach their studies in a more proactive way.

Three indicators would tell me that this new journal focus was indeed helping my students to become more self confident. First, I was hoping to see an increase in students' willingness to express their opinions about class content and structure. Second, I was looking for an increase in their ability to offer alternatives. Third, I was hoping to see an increase in students' willingness to lead the class, even teach each other. I wanted concrete evidence that students were beginning to take a leadership role in how the class was run and in the content of their learning. This would tell me that their confidence was indeed increasing.

The first hurdle to arise from these assignments was one I had expected and encountered many times previously: students' anxiety over spelling. When students first come to my class, I ask them to tell me the characteristics of a good piece of writing. They invariably respond by saying it must have everything correctly spelled, periods in the right place, and use proper grammar. They never mention content, the most important part of any good writing and the part where they could immediately excel. This class was no different. They told me they couldn't write because they couldn't spell. They were very anxious about writing and reluctant to put even one sentence on paper until they could spell it perfectly.

Years ago as a new teacher, I spent a lot of time trying to convince my students that spelling was relatively unimportant. I repeatedly told them not to worry about spelling or punctuation; they could go back later and fix that. Their ideas were precious and could not be retrieved once lost, so I emphasized the importance of getting their thoughts down first and to correct spelling and grammar later. I soon learned that I was wasting my breath. Even as I was telling them this, the erasers and the White-Out were appearing on their tables. They surreptitiously looked words up in the dictionary and tried to get the correct spelling from classmates and other staff members. They stopped in the middle of sentences and completely lost their trains of thought to get a word spelled right. They were obsessed with writing perfectly the first time, even though they knew that their journals could be private.

With this class, too, I realized that I needed to find creative ways to combine direct instruction in the mechanics of writing with an emphasis on the importance of content. I decided to try integrating lessons on spelling and grammar into the journal assignments. I first obtained permission from the students to share selected writings from their journals with the class. Then, I chose examples from these entries to teach spelling and decoding sequentially, using the phonics-based Orton-Gillingham approach. For teaching other aspects of writing mechanics, such as punctuation, I used a combination of teacher-made worksheets, prepared materials from commercial textbooks, and journal entries. I retyped some of their entries, leaving out all the punctuation, and they had to fill in the missing parts. Finally, I experimented with teaching paragraph structure using a hand as a model and a metaphor. The thumb represented the main idea, the three middle fingers the supporting details, and the pinky the concluding sentence. After they became comfortable with this model, I required them to use it when they wrote in their journals. Teaching writing skills directly, while constantly referring back to the content in their journals, allowed students to practice their new skills within a context that was meaningful to them. They were happy because they were getting spelling and grammar instruction; I was happy because the materials used were their own.

Painful Topics
A second difficulty that arose from these personal journal assignments surprised me, although in retrospect it was completely understandable. Some students found the topics painful. They told me that nothing good had happened in their lives. They said that writing about their lives made them remember hurtful things that they wanted to forget, and they didn't want to write about their pasts anymore.

Their negative comments disconcerted me. I thought the personal histories they were creating in their journals were wonderful. How could they not like them? Then I began to see their comments as a sign that they were beginning to take control of their learning. For the first time, they were openly critical of an assignment, one of the behaviors I was looking for. I reminded myself that, hard as it might be, the students were doing what I wanted them to do. And I needed to encourage them. So I responded by asking them what they would like to write about in their journals instead. This was hard for me because I liked what we were doing and I didn't want to stop the autobiographical journal writing. But I had wanted them to suggest alternatives and, uncomfortable as it was, I was prepared to accommodate them when they did.

A class discussion arose: people argued for and against continuing this type of journal writing. Many acknowledged that writing about the past could be painful. But they added that it could also help people come to terms with painful experiences. The result was that people agreed that we should continue, but they stipulated that nobody had to write if they didn't want to. There would always be the alternative journal suggestion: "Write me a letter. Tell me what's on your mind. I will write you back."

As time went by, the students became more comfortable with writing about their lives. When people voluntarily shared out loud, others found the courage to do so, too. They began to get ideas from each other. They seemed to enjoy most the stories about day to day events because the details were so much fun to listen to. What emerged were intimate snapshots of daily life, rich with detail. The results were so much better than I had expected. Some examples from different students are in the box on this page. These are the writings of people who told me they had nothing to say.

I kept telling them that their writing proved they had much to share, and I began to notice changes. First, their obsession with mechanics started to diminish. If they couldn't figure out how to spell a word, they did the best they could and kept going with a minimum of fuss. They began writing longer entries. And they shared what they had written much more willingly. As their confidence increased, the students started acting differently in the classroom. People were getting to know each other through the journal sharing. The class was beginning to develop a real sense of community. And they began to take more of a leadership role in the classroom. They began to tell me the things they wanted to study and to insist that we take the time to study them.

One result that I had not foreseen was that they became fascinated with each others' cultures. They started by asking each other questions about their countries of origin. This curiosity led to the idea of holding "Culture Days" each Friday. On these days, each ethnic group in the class took turns sharing food, clothing, music, and other customs from their culture. Among other things, the class ate pastelles and other delicacies on Puerto Rican Day, watched a video of an African-American family reunion on Black Culture Day, modeled German clothes, and saw the wedding of one of my Cambodian students on video.

I also began to notice changes in students' behavior in their personal lives as well. One student got a restraining order against an aggressive partner. Another had herself and her children tested for learning disabilities. Two got their drivers' permits. Four applied for and got employment. Obviously, these changes cannot be attributed solely to the writing the students were doing. But I am certain that the writing was one important factor in a series of things that contributed to their beginning to appreciate themselves more fully and to have the confidence to make positive changes in their lives.

A Success
I consider the personalized journal writing experiment a success. The stories the students wrote provided a motivating context to teach writing mechanics as well as to increase student confidence. Students no longer argued when I asked them to take more of a leadership role in the class. There was a sense of increased pride in themselves and their cultural identities as they shared with each other aspects of their heritage. And the journals were valuable for their own sakes as well. The stories of the students' lives were wonderful pieces of their personal histories: treasures for them to share with their children. I gave them the assignment to write their autobiographies using the journal entries.

Did the use of the journals as a medium for personal exploration help students to make measurable academic gains? On standardized tests, students made the same grade level gains as students did in classes where I had focused journal writing on more generic topics and taught spelling and punctuation using commercial materials. So the journals were effective in helping students learn the mechanics of writing. In addition, the journals taught them something that my other journal approaches had not. They taught students to value their own history, and to communicate this history to others. My students grew in self confidence and self awareness, as demonstrated by their increased willingness to be more proactive in the classroom and in their lives. They learned to listen to and care for each other in a classroom community as the sharing led to increased understanding and empathy. I would encourage teachers to try some of these assignments as a way to shift students' attention away from what's wrong with them and to emphasize what's right.

Why I Like Writing in My Journal
by Chhoeup Chhoeun

I never wrote in a journal before. At first I didn't like it because I don't feel like writing about my life in a journal. It is not a good life that I have. But when I started to write I felt comfortable. I wrote about my life the good and the bad. When I wrote in a journal I got a lot of things that I thought in my mind out of my head.

My teacher had me write about where my name came from. I came to the US from Cambodia when I was six. My sponsor to this country gave me the name. The name that I have is the same sound as my father's name. Before my sponsor named me when I was six, I don't know what they called me.

The teacher also asked us to write about my kids. I have three beautiful daughters. Also a memory from when I was young. It was when I met my first boyfriend and we went to the carnival and we walked around in a park. Also something funny that happened to me when I was young. When I threw a snowball at my brother and it hit him in the butt. Then I took him inside and tried to put him in the shower.

We wrote about 15 things we remember. I wrote I remember when I said goodbye to my dad in Philadelphia when I moved to Providence. When I wrote in my journal it helped me a lot because it was sad.

Also I wrote about my culture Cambodia. The way we dance and the way we dress. The way we go to the temple and then put powder on our faces on Cambodian New Years. I danced for the class at the Christmas party. I wish I could visit my country now to see what it looks like.

I like to write about my life because I can get some things out of my mind. It helped a lot because I could get some problems out. When I wrote in the journal, that's when I started to realize I need to make some changes in my life. Move on in my life. Now I'm living upstairs so I don't have trouble with my sister and brothers. I'm still having trouble with my boyfriend, but I have hope that things will change.

Now I write a lot in my journal when I have something in my mind. I write a lot of poetry.
I never wrote poetry before, but now I do.

click here for:
Samples from Students' Journals

About the Author
Rebecca Garland has been teaching ABE and pre-GED classes at Dorcas Place for eight years. She has just begun a doctoral program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she plans to study the effects of trauma on adults' ability to learn. She lives in Providence, RI, with her two cats.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL