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