Approaches to Professional Journaling for Teachers

If you are interested in keeping a professional journal, you probably have something in mind already that you want to write about. You may not need anyone else to offer suggestions, so I’m going to keep my suggestions to a minimum. Think about journaling things like this: (1) the day to day life of your classroom; (2) ideas for assignments; (3) responses to articles about teaching or about your subject area; (3) issues affecting education; (4) creative ways to cope with the stresses of the job; (4) wish lists for materials or equipment for your classroom; (5) observations of successful teachers’ approaches to the classroom; (5) books you’ve read for fun or otherwise.

As noted, you’ll have your own ideas. There’s no need to elaborate. I prefer to move on to the issue of how you keep yourself motivated. Like going to the gym, you know journaling is a good idea, but you probably aren’t going to do it until you find the exact inspiration you need. My suggestion is the buddy system. I’ve mentioned several times in other posts that blogging is a social activity. I might add that any kind of professional journaling that lasts will probably need to be done with some idea of audience in mind. Teachers are busy people. They are also very human in their need for feedback and encouragement.

Journal by all means. You need to do it. You know you do. But don’t set yourself up to feel bad when you don’t follow through. Find a way to make the journaling last. Create a buddy system. Find another teacher or a group of other teachers to journal with you. If you choose to journal via blogs, link to and read each other’s blogs. Leave comments on each other’s blogs. Make a comment in person the next time you see your blogger buddy. If you choose to journal the old fashioned way, set times to meet and share. Even if you meet your journaling group once a month for coffee after school hours, you’ve got a social system to keep you going.

You might also consider creating a group blog. If multiple people contribute to the same blog, it will be more active and will probably attract more traffic. This way too you only have one site to keep track of in order to read and respond to your group’s journaling.

Next, set realistic expectations. I know a lot of teachers who blog. I don’t know any who consistently blog every day. If you plan to blog every day, you’ll do it for a time, and then you’ll get busy, tired, and overstressed, at which point you will abandon blogging in favor of sleeping an extra ten minutes in the morning or watching old episodes of The Tonight Show on Hulu.com. It happens. Don’t let it bother you. Remember a neglected blog does not have to become an abandoned blog. It isn’t going to die like the plant you didn’t water while you were having your meltdown. It will still be there, and you can go back to it.

A realistic expectation for a busy person’s blog might be to update once a week. Find seven people to join your blog as authors, and you can have a daily blog that doesn’t demand more of your time than you plan to give. An even more realistic expectation is that the blog might not be updated more than once or twice a week even if it does have multiple authors. Find two or three people to blog with, and try to blog once a week. If you miss a week, just pick back up the next week. Even at that rate, before long you’ll have a substantial archive of articles built up. And it will all be good.

The main reason to blog or to journal by hand is to keep your teaching energized, but you might also energize your professional involvement by journaling. With your group, discuss ways to turn your entries into articles for publication, conference presentations, or workshops for other teachers. Those things in turn will expose you to new ideas and feed energy into your teaching.

Use your journaling to solve problems, not create them. Use it to think through classroom challenges and to solicit feedback from friends and colleagues. Use it to remind yourself of the parts that are working well in your teaching. Use it as an opportunity to share those successes with others. They’ll be grateful for the ideas, and they’ll give you some in return.

What you don’t want to do with your journaling, particularly in a public blog, is to use it as an outlet for complaints. Don’t complain about students or colleagues on a blog or on any other public forum. Just don’t do it. I’ve seen plenty of blogging teachers use their spaces to vent. They seem to think it is okay if they don’t name names, but it isn’t. It’s unethical to use a blog to make negative comments about students, with or without names. It’s also unethical to use a blog to reveal any kind of confidential information about students with or without names.

You wouldn’t be teaching if you didn’t care about students and want the best for them. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that your blog is public, though, when you’re only aware of a handful of friends speaking to one another. All teachers have at some point said to another teacher that a particular student did something annoying or even unforgivable. Maybe you do share that information in confidence with a close friend over a cup of coffee. It’s not worth sitting down to write about, though. Instead, you want to use your writing for the greater good.

Write about how you might make an assignment work better. Write about the challenges of adapting to an over-crowded classroom. Write about new technologies and uses for them. Write about how to manage a decent diet on a limited budget and schedule. Write about changes you think need to happen in mandated curriculums. Write about strategies for keeping up with your grading load. Write about teachers who were a big influence on your own education.

In all of that, and in all of the other great ideas you’ll come up with, journaling will give back to you everything you put into it and more. Make it fun. Make it useful. Make it your quite time, your reward for all the other hard work you’ve put into your day.

You’ll be glad you did.

Approaches to Journal Assignments

For teachers interested in assigning journals and trying to decide how to go about it, here are some common approaches:

(1) The general class journal: Students are just asked to fill up a certain number of pages or write a certain number of words by the end of the semester. They can write a variety of things as long as the writing is related to the class. In a writing class where writing itself is the objective, they might be allowed to write about anything on their minds. In a sociology class, they might right about anything they see, hear, or observe related to what they’ve been studying.

(2) The reading response journal: As you might guess, in this approach students are asked to write about what they’ve been reading for the class. They might write their way through textbook chapters or a combination of the textbook and supplementary articles. They might keep a reading response journal on a specific research topic, or it might just be on the general subject area of the class. In any case, they’ll be writing a combination of facts about what they’ve read and their own opinions on those facts. This is a good place for students to be creative. In a reading response journal, they can be encouraged to show some personality in their answers. These journals also make good sounding boards for class discussion. Assign a reading, have students write about it, and then go around the room asking them to read excerpts from what they’ve written.

(3) The double-entry reading log: This is a more organized approach to the reading response journal. In the double-entry log, students arrange their responses in columns. Typically, they might place facts about what they’ve read in the left-hand column and opinions or reactions in the right-hand. This is a good way to work through articles or chapters that might be more difficult for them to understand. The act of finding the most important points and articulating responses to those points one by one will help the students gain a deeper understanding of what they’ve read.

(4) The discussion topic journal (or the DT): In this approach, students are given guided topics to write about. Maybe the same types of topics that would be given on essay tests could be used as journal entries for the students to write about in a lower stakes, more informal manner. Discussion topic journals can also be good springboards for class discussion.

(5) The timed free writing journal: One way to encourage students to really think is to drop a topic on them and have them write about it on the spot. Writing teachers love timed free writings because they’re all about generating as many words as possible in the amount of time allowed, which is often no more than about five minutes. In this approach, no one takes the time to edit for grammar. They just put the words on the page, free association style. Timed free writes are wonderful ways to get past places where conversation seems to have halted in the classroom. Put the pressure on for students to write something, anything at all, in response to your topic very quickly, and by the time they are finished, almost all of them will have something to say. This kind of writing gets the juices flowing.

If you want students to keep a free writing journal for class participation, you might devote ten minutes of each class period to writing on a topic and then going around the room to hear what students have to say. It doesn’t take up a lot of time, but it does add a lot of energy to a lesson.

(6) The creative prompt journal: Another favorite with writing teachers, prompts meant to spark creativity are often used for timed free writes, but they don’t have to be. Students might also work on them on their own outside of class. Prompts might include anything from photographs to literary quotes to just random words or phrases. A history class, for example, might look at a picture of a Medieval village and write about what they imagine life is like in that village. This is different from reading facts and forming opinions about those facts in that the students are given free rein with their imaginations. And once their imaginations are engaged, they’ll be much more likely to take an interest in learning some facts.

(7) The multi-purpose class notebook: Lots of teachers like to assign a little of this and a little of that, which is really a very good idea. Consider giving a class notebook grade with separate sections devoted to free writes, discussion topics, and reading responses. It’s all good.

Note: The success of journal writing for class rests in the fact that it is low stakes writing. The trick is to have them organized enough that they are easy to grade quickly but not so organized that the thrill is gone. Journals should be participation grades in which effort really means something. They shouldn’t be graded from grammar, and they should have too many rules that are too rigid applied to them. If you just can’t help remarking on a student’s grammar in a journal, go ahead and make a comment, but don’t put red marks everywhere, and be sure to tell the student that you are only dispensing advice, not deducting points with your comment.

Options for Digital Journaling

Journaling is an excellent idea for all sorts of reasons. It’s easy to agree to that. But how do we make it a digital age project? How can we approach it in a way that gives us and our students more techie confidence?

First, you don’t have to go digital to journal. Write with pen and paper to your heart’s content if that’s what you want. Just so you write.

Next, journaling digitally is a good idea because it is, once again, a low stakes way to approach a skill set. If you are struggling to find more ways to bring technology into your teaching, electronic journals might just be your answer. And the two most obvious answers to how are word processing and blogs. We’ll start with them, but there are other approaches to consider while we are at it.

(1) Word Processing: Simply typing a journal is a fine way to go. This allows for copying in links and photographs and other extras as you go. It also makes it easy to do things like double-entry reading logs or color-coded topics if that’s your thing. It’s also private writing until you choose to share, which is more appropriate than public blogging in some cases. It’s simple. It provides an opportunity to practice typing, formatting, and low-key editing skills. Typed journals can be submitted electronically to instructors, saving on paper costs. They can also be printed out and bound if preferred. And, unlike spiral notebooks or composition books, reorganizing content by topic is a very simple matter. If nothing else, neatness and readability give the typed journal an edge over the handwritten journal.

(2) Online Word Processing: Google Docs or other online word processors have all of the advantages of locally installed word processors plus the ability to easily share. An instructor can be added to a Google Doc as a viewer or editor. This makes for an easy way to submit work electronically. Google Docs can also be published as web pages if a student wants to share all or parts of a journal with the class.

(2) Blogging: My preferred method of journaling is through blogging because this is a social process as much as an individual process. Blogs can be set to either public or private. A student could keep a private blog but invite the instructor and the peer group to be viewers or even contributors. The degree of privacy is up to the individual, but there’s a lot to be said for low-stakes public writing. It’s a bit like karaoke. It’s okay if you make mistakes, and the act of trying builds confidence which inspires more effort which build more skills. Blogs can also be individual or group efforts. They can be topic specific or general, and if categories and tags are applied to the posts, they can produce a well-organized archive of materials. The most popular free blogging platforms can be found at www.blogger.com and www.wordpress.com.

(3) Facebook Notes: Facebook has its own built-in blog platform with the notes feature. Remember that a large part of the draw of blogging is that it is a social act. If you or your students already have a social network established in Facebook or another site, there’s no real reason not to use it. Consider posting your own thoughts about teaching through Facebook notes. You may be surprised by the response you get.

(4) Ning: Ning is a site that allows you to create your own social network and invite people to it. The networks can be public or private. They also come with blogs and discussion forums. The blogs are shared within the the Ning site in much the same way Facebook notes are shared within a friend stream.

(5) Discussion Forums: If you post discussion topics to a discussion forum and ask students to respond, you are essentially asking them to share a guided journal entry. This also gives students a change to respond to each other and to read opinions from a variety of people. There are forums built in to Blackboard and other course management systems. There are also free sites that allow you to create public or private discussion forums. Just Google it to find the one for you.

(6) Micro-blogging: The micro-blogging site Twitter is hugely popular and may be the answer for the busy person’s journal. If you don’t think you have time to sit down and write whole paragraphs, try writing just 140 characters at a time. Just make a single comment as it occurs to you or make note of a particular article that you think might be useful. Tweeting about research articles is an excellent plan for students. Also consider having students Tweet their way through textbook chapters. Figuring out how to paraphrase key points in 140 characters might be just what they need to really take ownership of new concepts.

(7) Mobile-blogging: When making decisions about digital journaling with students, remember that they tend to live by their cell phones. If it can be accessed by an iPhone, Blackberry, or equivalent, it’s much more convenient for students, and even for their teachers. The most popular of the blogging and micro-blogging sites are prepared for this, offering automated mobile services. Where possible, try to think of ways students can phone in work and/or access class information by phone. Consider sharing your own materials and journaling with students through a public blog with built in mobile services.

Multi-Media Approaches to Journaling

(1) Audio Journals: I have a friend who once had a very long commute to work. He took a voice recorder in the car with him, and when he had ideas along the drive that he wanted to remember, he just talked into his recorder. Another friend would call her home phone from her cell phone and leave a message to herself on her answering machine. Sometimes there’s a good reason for audio journaling. It’s dangerous to write and drive. But beyond that, audio can take journaling to a new level. The examples I cite are exceptions. Most people think and write before recording themselves. Thus, for you wordies, audio journaling takes nothing away from the writing component in journals. They can be approached in several ways: (1) private recordings saved to a computer or voice recorder; (2) mp3 recordings posted to audio blogs; (3) recordings phoned in or uploaded to podcasting sites; (4) an iTunes podcast. Again, to decide an approach you need to decide what level of privacy you require, and if you want to share your audio journal, you’ll also need to know the most convenient way for others to access it.

(2) Video Journals: Like audio, video can take journaling to another level. And it’s easier to do than ever before. Most laptops come with built in web cams now, and there is a whole array of products in the $200 and under range that offer video recording capabilities, including YouTube ready video cameras, point and shoot digital cameras, and even the latest version of the iPod Nano. If using a web cam, look into creating an account with a place like Seesmic TV. If using a digital camera or some other gadget, one of the simplest ways to keep a video journal is to create your own YouTube channel. On YouTube you get to decide whether to make your video public or to share it with only a few people. Video journals could be great assignments for speech students or students doing current events projects. They are also a good way for teachers to share thoughts and lesson ideas with other teachers.

(3) Photo Journals: One of the most enjoyable ways to get a little extra writing out of students is to have them take pictures and write descriptions or responses. This can be done easily in a photo-blog. But you don’t even need a blog. Use an online photo hosting service like Flickr and have the students type in annotations or comments. They could even make Facebook photo albums with comments. If they are working on descriptive writing or studying local history, photo journals make fine sense.

(4) Scrap-booking: There’s a huge craze of scrap-booking going on now that I admit has missed me entirely. When I was a student, we did make scrapbooks as class projects, though. I made a Mississippi History scrapbook in my history class and a Plants of Mississippi scrapbook in my biology class. I was probably 14 at the time, but I learned a lot and had fun doing it. There’s no reason that kind of project has to be for younger students. If grandmothers everywhere are spending hundreds of dollars on scrapbook supplies for family albums, it can’t hurt a college student to give it a go. Scrapbooks do call for creativity from multiple directions. You have to think about design and witty captions to really get the most out of them. Depending on your subject area, you may have cause to assign a scrapbook as a project. Be aware that sites exist now to aid in building digital scrapbooks. Commercial sites like Shutterfly allow you to upload photographs and create your own online scrapbooks out of them. Of course they also try to get you to order slick printed copies of the books once they are created. And that’s okay. Some of your students might actually want to do that. As long it’s offered as an option rather than a requirement, there’s probably nothing wrong with having students purchase completed copies of their work. As an alternative, though, they could try making a scrapbook style website using something like Google Sites. Or they could make a scrapbook presentation of digital artifacts using PowerPoint. The possibilities abound.

Why Should Teachers Journal?

In the post about student journaling, I said that writing things down helps people to remember. That’s true, but for teachers I will add that writing things down also means we don’t have to remember as much. The journal can take care of that for us.

I hate to admit that more than once I’ve realized in the middle of an assignment that something wasn’t working right only to remember that the same thing happened the year before. If I’d written a note to myself at the time and gone back to review my notes at the end of the semester, I could have saved myself some trouble. Teaching journals can do so much to help us avoid repeat pitfalls. If I write down a problem, I’ll probably also write down a possible solution. That makes planning for the next semester so much easier.

Though I don’t always do it, I think every teacher should keep a teaching journal. Write down problems, but also write down successes. Write down brainstorms and write down poignant classroom moments. Your teaching will be invigorated by the time spent reflecting on it.

On my campus, a word has been floating around quite a bit lately: engagement. Everyone wants to know what we’re doing to keep students engaged. Maybe they should be asking what we’re doing to keep ourselves engaged. One isn’t going to happen without the other.

Have you ever had the experience of standing in front of a classroom right after asking students to start on a project only to have the whole room just sit and stare back at you? Maybe you haven’t, but I have. And when it happens, it’s usually because we’ve skipped a step. Students need to be led into creativity and originality. They can’t just perform creatively on demand. They need suggestions to bounce off of. They need to work through a series of smaller steps before being asked to take a larger step. They need time to get their brains in motion.

So do we. Our heads aren’t going to perform on demand any better than the students’ will. We need time to reflect and work our way up to our best ideas.

When they tell us to engage students, they are telling us to be more creative. No one does that on the spot. Even people who appear to be highly creative on demand do so because they are putting a lot of time and mental energy into thinking up new ideas. They can pop them out on the spot because they already had them cooking behind the scenes.

Your teaching journal is your place to cook behind the scenes. If you just devote a set time each day or even each week to writing down what’s on your mind–things that happened in the classroom, things that you’ve seen other classes doing that you’d like to try, students that concern you or make you proud–the time spent simply writing and reflecting in a low pressure situation will help you begin to generate new ideas.

My father, who is a retired school administrator, said that some people teach for 25 years and others teach one year 25 times. If you’ve taught the same year for as much as five years, you’ve done it too long. This isn’t the same world it was five years ago. The students aren’t the same, and they don’t have the same needs.

You might start your teaching journal by writing down differences you see in students from year to year. You might also read and journal about some of the books that have been published lately about the changes wrought in the world by the digital revolution.

You might use your journal as a research log. If there’s something you’d like to try, like podcasting or digital storytelling, start looking for ways other people have incorporated these techniques into the classroom and write down both the facts of what you find and your own reactions to them.

I use this blog for that. I post my thoughts publicly to share what I’ve learned with others, but I’m also doing it for myself. The more time I spend looking for new information and reflecting on it, as well as trying to explain it to others, the more capable I am of finding good ways to put it to use.

You might decide to start a blog or to find a group of like-minded (or at least willing) teachers to form a group blog with, or you might journal privately in a word processing document or notebook instead. Any way you go about it, the time devoted to thinking and writing about what you do and how you do it is bound to pay off.

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.