Journaling by Whatever Name

In my first year as a teacher I was given a curriculum text, created in the mid-west as I recall. It gave us a sequence for the literature we would read along with worksheets, suggestions, follow up assignments and tests. I was glad to have this as I came utterly unprepared for grade 8 and that schooling system. It was not Great Neck.

I had long believed that reading a particular genre could be reinforced by also writing in that genre. This went pretty well when we read poetry as the students could drum various rhythms on the desk and try to match words to the rhythm at least until my neighbors complained about the noise. And we could play rhyming games as well. I coupled them up in adjoining rows.


“Darrell.”(The class laughs.) ‘That’s pretty close, Mr. Moss.”

“It certainly is.”

Similarly they enjoyed the drama pieces. I think they knew I had a special fondness for theater, and it wasn’t long before I could invite some to tryout for a play in the spring. But when it came to the essays and indeed to any sort of thematic writing, they were stumped. They could tell stories, but they couldn’t write them down. What to do?

I decided I should teach grammar. So we started with nouns and verbs. I gave them tricks; rules I called them. If you can put the word after The it’s probably a noun. If you can say He and the next word ends with an s, it’s probably a verb. Easy peasy. And they got it. And they took grammar tests and they aced them. The only problem was that their writing didn’t improve.

Frustrated I asked a colleague, “What should I do?”

“The best you can.”

I couldn’t argue with that, but it wasn’t a very satisfying solution. I don’t know why I thought it would work, but it didn’t. It turned out that grammar scores do not correlate with good writing. They just forgot to tell us in the many teachers ed courses I took for certification.

And then I got a break. The curriculum text said to read The Diary of Anne Frank. This puzzled my students. What were they supposed to write about now? We generated a list of possible topics in class. 40 of them. They wrote the list down and bought a new book just for that. We discussed the rules. Were they supposed to turn it in? Yes. Would they be graded on it. If they did it and tried to get into words what they had to say, that would be fine. It wasn’t a test. It was more like a workbook. We would call it a Journal to emphasize that they didn’t have to write about anything they didn’t want to. It was about their journey. Well suppose they wrote something down and then decided they wished they hadn’t. You could tear it out. But suppose they wanted it there, but not for anyone else to see. Staple the pages together for that part. I won’t look I promise, but it would still be there for you.

This was the first insight of my career. For a start I began to learn who they were. They hadn’t come by the same route as I did. I went to Broadway; Jackie Robinson was my favorite Dodger. But now I began to see them in context. This was where they were from. And after I while the stories came and I could travel with them in their lives as they grew into dimensional human beings.

No-one had ever suggested Journal writing to me. No one had used it in my education. No one had suggested it in education courses. No one used them in the school I taught in. It became a staple of my work. And when I served as a union rep to help plan a ‘Supervisors Day’ we invited other districts to join us and we had a thousand cars parked in response to the 20 workshops we were offering and in one I discussed the use of Journals in the classroom. And the word spread and a few years later the Board of Regents suggested they might be useful in English classes. And then they required that they be used and then they required they be used in every grade from 7 to 12. . . I’m not making this up.

But in my class what happened was the students learned to write. And they were excited about it, precisely because they were writing about what mattered to them. It changed everything. And the words came with the tears and the joys; the fears, the frustration and the triumphs. Hallelujah.

{An Aside: Grammar scores are not quite the same as learning something about how words flow. Kindergarten students coming from an English speaking home know about 2/3rds of all they need by first grade. But if a different language is spoken, the figure reduces substantially. In other words children learn language by ear. And when we are young we can learn a second language early. Once we get older it gets harder and by about 25 or so, the pathways just don’t form as they used to. So for those who bop around Europe, it’s not hard to go from one langauge to another. But in America we tend to avoid crossing a certain street or a hallway even into a group who speaks another tongue. Jets and Sharks remember? I must confess that I never learned Spanish and yet I taught many Spanish speaking students. I’m not proud of that.}

This is my journal. That’s what blogging is. How did I get the site up so quickly? I saved a few of them.

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