Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Auxiliary Topics for Students’ Journals

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

I love black cats. I love black cats. I love black cats.” This is how one of my fellow EFL student’s English journal entry started, and continued.  The same line echoed on for an entire page, and, believe it or not, that redundant block of sentences was actually submitted as a weekly journal assignment.  In all fairness, however, the prompt for the assignment, which read: “Write on anything you’d like.” (and which had been used all semester long) was sort of begging for it.  Perhaps not unexpectedly, that instructor’s journal entry comments showed little more creativity or compassion.  They took one of two forms- “Interesting entry!” or “Thank you for sharing!”.

I think that course must have set some kind of dye, because I had, as a learner of English, a kind of aversion to journal assignments afterwards.  Truth be told, I’ve had a kind of aversion to assigning journal writing as an instructor of English.

The big issue in my mind is how to make journal writing constructive. Some of the questions that have plagued me are:

“Do I grade them on those assignments?”

“Do I really ignore even the most glaring mistakes?”

“How often do I assign journal writing?”

“Do I make specific in-text comments, or do I make one summary comment at the end, or do I make both?”

“What topics do I use?”

“Do I in fact have time to read and comment on all entries if journal writing is just one of many components of the curriculum?”

Though I’ve answered each of these questions more than once, I can’t say that I’ve come up with many usable conclusions.  I’m still very much in the middle of the process of discovering what works.

However, I have determined one rather surprising thing: my students, on the whole, value journal writing not only as a safe, personal, and meaningful monologue (or dialogue), but also as a potential learning tool.  I think this is positive, and helpful.

Students clearly appreciate not having their journal writing corrected, but they also seem to expect to be taught, directed, or challenged.

Below are some alternatives to the prompt “Write on anything you’d like.”  As they must, they allow for the free flow of creative ideas, but they also direct students in one or two tasks as well as challenge them a bit.  I’ve substituted these topics now and then for prompts focusing on students’ narratives, responses to readings, or reflections on a theme.

Task-oriented journal writing topics: I’ve asked students to…

1. imagine that a classmate did not quite understand the meaning of, let’s say, an idiom that I used in class and explain it to that classmate in writing, thinking about how they understood it, about what examples they would give to illustrate the meaning, and about what helped them memorize the phrase; or

2. record progress on a group project they are working on, thinking about how much they have done, what the biggest difficulties have been, what aspects of the project have been fun or have given them a sense of pride; or

3. re-read their first or second journal entry and select a few sentences which they consider a bit weak and improve those sentences, adding more details, replacing some words with more advanced or exact vocabulary, or rewriting with the use of a “freshly learned” sentence structure; or

4. brainstorm and cluster ideas for their next paper, and ask me (in writing) any questions they have about that assignment; or

5. look for a short text (story in the textbook, a brief article, a letter to the editor) and imagine that they are a co-writer, think about what they might add to the text, and create a paragraph that could be inserted into the text.

Last semester I informally polled my students to check which three of our task-oriented journal topics they’d suggest that I use with my students next semester.  The winners were… (drum roll… drum roll…): “help a fellow student understand some material”, “improve your old journal entry”, and “co-author an article.”  I’ll gladly be following their advice.

Do you assign journal writing in your classroom?  What works for you?

Comments

Comment from shawn Jensen
August 3, 2010 at 4:41 pm

I do journal writing (quick write with a topic assigned) in the beginning of class for a couple of reasons, 1) students arrive late and this is self driven activity as I have the topic/subject on the board. 2) I use this as an icebreaker also and it gives the students time to jot down their ideas rapidly without worrying about grammar, punctuation or spelling. I ask if anyone would like to share it is not mandatory 3) I do not correct, I want them to just write, I tell them if they want me to correct I will, many do.

Comment from Ela Newman
August 4, 2010 at 10:48 am

Thanks for sharing your ideas, Shawn! I’m wondering about the topics you’ve used for those brief journal entry sessions. What are your or your students’ most favorite?

Comment from Claire
August 4, 2010 at 3:46 pm

I found dialogue journals have helped me connect with my students better. We have our own “conversations” and we’re not using everyone’s class time discussing something pertaining to one person. They are worth the time that goes into writing back to students.

Comment from Ela Newman
August 4, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Hello Claire,

I agree. Dialogue journals seem to be really liked by students, even by those who tend to dislike writing. One of my college professors used dialogue journal writing in his class and he was excellent at creating comments that were not only very real and natural, but often had a word or phrase that I was “forced” to look up. Or he’d use a grammatical structure that was slightly above my proficiency level. This is how I learned, for example, what “fickle” means, and that the verb “to be” can be used in a present continuous form.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Comment from Ela Newman
August 4, 2010 at 3:50 pm

You’re absolutely right. I’d also say that students tend to have much more to put down on paper if they are asked personal questions. I once had a very “sleepy” group for whom few topics sounded exciting enough. I asked them to write in their journals just for a few minutes, like you do, on the topic of “What’s bothering/irritating you today/this week?” It turned out to be an “energizing” prompt, which actually came in very handy once we went on to that day’s discussion topic: Pet Peeves. The group was much more awake. Perhaps the opportunity to “vent” had helped? Do you sometimes use your journal topics as a springboard for further discussion? I think that the shier or less advanced students find it helpful. Again, thanks for sharing your ideas with us!

Comment from shawn jensen
August 4, 2010 at 3:51 pm

I find that if they can write about themselves is seems easier, I don’t get that writer’s block look. “If you were President, what is one thing you would change, why? If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money? I am planning a trip to your country, tell me two places I need to go and why. What is your dream job, why? These are some examples of topics that I am sure all my students have thought of at one point in their lives.

Comment from juliana
April 6, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Dear writer,
I want to share and ask your comment and advice whether the research related to dialogue journal strategy/technique that I am going to conduct as follow are not run away from the essence of DJW and action research it self.
Here are my plan:
I want to conduct action research by applying DJW in classroom activity/instruction for improving students’ writing skill particularly in improving their vocabularies, language use (grammar), and mechanics (EFL students (Indonesian about 43 students), and I need your help to analyze it. Is it match with the essence of DJW? And can it called as an action research?

In the first cycle I will conduct the research into four meetings, and one day (last meeting) of the five meetings was the test session for analyzing the improvement of the students’ writing (just for vocabulary, language use, and mechanics).

In the first meeting, in Monday, I am going to do these following activities:
1. Explain little about the importance of writing to increase their interest in writing activity.
2. Inform about the genre that they will study, and explain it based on the model of the text that I will give to them.
3. Inform that they will work in DJW technique, and explain about it.
4. Explain the symbols that they will get on their paper/entries as the feedback, including respond from the teacher (I my self).
5.Write down three different topics that will be written in three meetings. Which one becomes the first, second, and third meeting topic is decided by students together.
6.Conclude about the material that have been recently studied.
In the second meeting, in Wednesday, I am going to do these following activities:

1. Ask students to write based on the topic decided in the last meeting (first entry/draft), for example; Facebook, Good or Bad (Discussion Genre “Decided by the teacher”)
6. After finishing their writing, I’ll ask them to submit their entries in order to get indirect feedback in terms of error correction of vocabulary, language use/grammar, and mechanics, and inform that they will get it back in the next meeting.
7. Conclude about the material that have been recently studied, and then inform the next title that will be write by them in the next meeting (for example, Television, God or Bad).

Third meeting, in Monday:
1. Turn back students entries, and ask them to pay attention to their entries for a few minutes.
2. Put one of the students’ entries to white board, and discuss about the error.
3. Give chance to students to ask about what they have not understand including about teacher’s feedback and response.
4. Ask students to write the topic/title that informed the last meeting (Television, God or Bad).
5. After finishing their writing, I’ll ask them to submit their entries, and inform that they will get it back in the next meeting.
6. Conclude about the material that have been recently studied, and then inform the next title that will be write by them in the next meeting (For example, Cigarette, God or Bad).

Fourth meeting, in Wednesday:
1. Turn back students entries, and ask them to pay attention to their entries for a few minutes.
2. Put one of the students’ entries to white board, and discuss about the error.
3. Give chance to students to ask about what they have not understand including about teacher’s feedback and response.
4. Ask students to write the topic/title that informed the last meeting (Cigarette, God or Bad).
5. After finishing their writing, I’ll ask them to submit their entries, and inform that they will get it back in the next meeting.
6. Conclude about the material that have been recently studied, and then inform them the next meeting will be the test session (topic just inform when the test session).

Fifth meeting, in Monday
-test session

@ Students’ entries were analyzed by using ‘jacobs’ format, but the teacher is just going to analyze about their vocabularies, language use, and mechanics.

The second cycle will be conducted if the 75% of the total of the students have not achieved the standard of the writing of the school (60).

@Teacher concern to vocabulary, language use, and mechanics because most students are low level of vocabulary, language use, and mechanics on their writing.

Need your comments, suggestion, and advice as soon as possible…..
Thanks

Comment from Ela Newman
April 7, 2011 at 11:12 am

Thanks, Juliana, for sharing your “reading journal project.” It looks like you have a very detailed plan! I’m afraid I can’t really offer too much advice here; the project description is quite lengthy. What I can offer “on the go” is perhaphs one suggestion about your plan to analyze only one student’s writing assignment “in public.” Perhaphs, more students would be involved and more of them would feel included in the process if you focused on issues occuring most often in the writing of most of the students in the group. You could, for example, extract sentences from various journals (either those with errors or those that are examples of good, clear writing) that seem to represent typical or frequently occuring problems in the writing of that particular group. If you’re going to provide your students with a list of editing symbols, it will help them locate the analyzed errors in their own writing and, consequently, will give them an opportunity to see the relevance of your discussion. Let us know how it all went!

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