Why Should Students Journal?

Teacherly Tech is a blog. Blogs are essentially online journals, though blogging software can be used to create many types of websites. I want to use this online journal to talk about journaling, an act of meta-journaling if you will. But I don’t want to just talk about blogs. I want to get back to the idea of the journal itself, even the old school paper version.

Writing teachers and professional writers think a lot about the value of the journal. Children given diaries as birthday presents think about it as well. Bloggers certainly understand. We’re not really sure how many people beyond that ever devote much time to considering what journals can do for them.

I believe all teachers, not just writing teachers, should get on board with journaling, though. Keep a professional journal and/or a personal journal. Have your students keep journals. There are plenty of good reasons why you should.

For students, one thing we know is that writing facilitates learning. People are more likely to remember something after they’ve written it down, and they are more likely to understand it after they’ve had to think it through enough to write down opinions about it, which is what a student might typically be asked to write in a journal. We also know that students don’t do their best learning in high stakes situations. They memorize for tests, but all of that goes into short-term memory and doesn’t necessarily stick around. In lower-stakes journal writing done consistently throughout a semester or a school-year, students have more time to reflect upon and process information, making it more likely that they will internalize that information.

Journaling also improves reading, writing, and thinking skills. To write about a reading assignment, students have to pay more attention to it. They have to read more carefully. They are more likely in that case to look up terms they don’t understand or to ask questions about concepts that aren’t obvious to them.

Writing too is a skill that takes practice. Like learning to play the piano, it requires a lot of false starts and a lot of pure repetition of mechanics. Journals are practice rooms for writers. Without them, there’s little hope of success when a student walks on the stage of an essay.

Journals are also low stakes in terms of grading. We’ve been hearing about writing across the curriculum initiatives for the past few decades, and we still don’t always know how that plays out in reality. One thing I do know from personal conversations with content area teachers wanting to bring more writing into their own curriculums is that there is always a question of what to do about grammar. Psychology teachers don’t have time to grade for grammar and aren’t always sure how fair it is to grade for grammar when the student has shown proficiency with the subject area objectives. In fact, I’ve heard more than one person in more than one discipline say, “I tried for a while to assign essays, but the writing was so poor I just gave up.”

This is so sad. How can we expect the writing to ever improve if everyone gives up? The reason writing across the curriculum initiatives cropped up in the first place was that we knew students couldn’t write enough in one class to become proficient writers. It’s the kind of skill that requires hours and hours of persistent and consistent practice. One English teacher per year cannot oversee all of that. Students need to write in every class for the level of consistency required to become truly strong writers.

Yet it’s still true that it isn’t fair to put too much emphasis on grammar in every content area. The journal is a fantastic answer to this conundrum. It is low stakes, informal writing. The teacher doesn’t have to comment on grammar at all. The teacher doesn’t have to respond to much at all in a journal. It can be assigned as a participation grade that is only graded for effort. That takes the pressure off both student and teacher. Meanwhile, the journal accomplishes a lot. It has the students thinking and practicing multiple skills. It can also be used to facilitate classroom discussion and to assure that students are doing the reading assignments.

We all know tests don’t tell us the whole story. A student can fail a test because he broke up with his girlfriend the night before or because he zoned out momentarily and didn’t hear the announcement to even know there was a test. Real learning doesn’t happen as a one way street. You, as a teacher, can stand at the front of a classroom talking all day long day after day year after year without knowing who gets it and who doesn’t or for what reason. Testing provides only limited insight. A journal is a good way to get useful feedback on what the students are actually learning and how they are processing the material.

Whether you have students blog or keep handwritten notebooks, consider the journal. It’s really hard to go wrong with a journal assignment.

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