Logistically, it’s not easy for a teacher to converse individually with the students in her elementary school classroom as often as she’d like. Dialogue journals between the teacher and the students can bridge this gap. This form of communication occurs when students write back and forth to their teacher on a regular basis. As a fifth grade teacher, I found that journaling opened the lines of communication between my students and me. The boys and girls were able to ask questions, reflect on experiences, and clarify their thinking. I learned more about their interests and backgrounds. Journaling is especially effective in a culturally-diverse class; it’s proven to be effective as a language and literacy tool for non-native English speakers.
Each student simply needs a pencil and a composition notebook. Some years-when school supplies went on sale in August-I would purchase a notebook and a pen/pencil for each child as a ‘welcome to my class’ gift. My ulterior motive was that all students were then ready to write immediately.
Writing must occur on a regular basis. I found journal writing worked best for me at the end of the day. I would set aside 10 to 15 minutes of time Monday through Thursday. I think it’s important that the teacher writes in her journal during the time students are writing. There’s nothing better than acting as a role model.
The teacher needs a method in place for responding to each student’s writing. My students knew a notebook on top of the desk at the end of the day was a signal that I should read the latest entry and respond. At first, 90% of the notebooks were left out (a bit overwhelming), but that quickly waned. I was able to cruise around the room and write responses within about 15 minutes. I never took the notebooks home with me. You might choose to divide the class into groups and assign each group a specific day of the week. In that case, decide whether it will be mandatory or optional for students to leave their journals on their desks.
This is not the time for the red ink. Make no spelling or grammar corrections. The students need to know that they are completely free of critique when journal writing. This is the time to pour out thoughts. The teacher simply reflects good grammar and spelling. If a student writes, “My grandmother is viziting us tomarra,” you can reply, “I know you’ll enjoy visiting your grandmother tomorrow, Ben.”
Students should write anything that comes to mind. As a group, my class and I would brainstorm once a week about possible topics. These ideas were written on the board as suggestions for anyone experiencing ‘writer’s block.’ Students could ask questions about particular lessons, tell me about books they were reading, mention things they were wondering about, or discuss exciting family events…whatever popped into their minds. I would advise them to highlight words or ideas that they might want to explore more in depth at a later date. I also encouraged them to jot down a word or phrase during the day that might lead to a good journal entry. Once in a while, we would decide on a uniform topic of the week. For example, “This week, most of your journaling should deal with your thoughts on students being bullied at school.”
Although dialogue is typically generic, once students have gained your trust and confidence, you never know what secrets they might divulge through their journals. I’ve had students confide such issues as bullying and physical abuse. As teachers, we all know that our responsibility in those cases is to contact the appropriate authorities.
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