You know how when you read something extraordinary, something that really touches your soul, you instantly have a burning desire to share it? I’ve been doing a lot of that kind of reading lately, and I have to share. It’s not the latest New York Times bestseller or viral blog–it’s a bunch of 14 and 15-year-old kids writing in composition books. Most people wouldn’t expect teenagers’ journals to be very deep, but I think that is one of the misconceptions adults have about teens.
Lest you think that I’m a weird sort of snooping teacher, let me just say that these are journals that the kids write in as a class assignment. They write in them every single day. When I first told them at the beginning of the semester that they would be writing in a journal every day, you should have heard the weeping and gnashing of teeth. You’d think I had just announced that we would all be stapling our hands to our desks at the beginning of each class (I can name a few kids who might have preferred that to writing). A couple of the more introverted students who already knew about the magic of journaling smiled quietly to themselves, but no one seemed to notice.
The first week or so was simply torturous. Despite my painstaking instructions the first day of class (“Just use the prompt as a springboard,” “Write whatever comes to mind,” and “Put the pen to the paper and don’t stop writing”), I would write a prompt on the board and inevitably several hands would shoot up.
“Mrs. Wilson, I can’t think of anything to write about.”
“Mrs. Wilson, I can’t write about this prompt.”
“Mrs. Wilson, I’m not a writer.”
The last one always rankled me the most. “You ARE a writer,” I would always reply. “You write all the time.”
“Yeah, but I’m not a good writer.”
“Do you know how bad writers become good writers?”
They really hated that response.
I have to admit that for a while, I really doubted myself. Was this a good idea? Would it yield tangible benefits or was it the dreaded busy work that I always tried so hard to avoid?
Somewhere along the way, the complaints began dropping off, and then they disappeared completely. Each day the kids came into class, sat down, and immediately took out their notebooks and began to write. It was a peaceful start to class, and I thought I started to detect hints of eagerness as each student turned to a fresh, clean page, took out a favorite pen, and bit their lips in concentration as they created memoir, fiction, poetry, or just random musings on life.
For the last journal assignment of the semester, I had the kids reflect on how they had grown as a writer this semester. They turned in their journals, and I started to read, starting with the last entry. Nearly every student started out the refleciton by saying how much easier writing had gotten, and how quickly ideas flowed. One girl wrote that when she saw the name of the class (“Composition”), she thought English was going to be her least favorite subject this year–but that it turned out to be her most favorite subject. I saw adjectives like “fun,” “exciting,” and “cool” connected to writing. I think that if my December students could come in and speak to their August selves, I would encounter a lot less whining.
The other journal entries were fascinating and heartbreaking and hilarious and beautiful. I told students that if any entry was too personal, they could just paperclip that page, and I would respect their privacy and skip it, which I did.
I was astonished by what they let me read.
I read about relationships starting and ending, family troubles, parents divorcing, mothers and fathers dying, friendships failing, betrayal, jealousy, bitterness, joy, frustration, and triumph. I read about the whole gamut of human emotions. What stood out the most was the kids’ brutal honesty and direct approach to life–most of them don’t have up the thick filters adults have. The writing was (of course) not polished but full of raw emotion and potential, like an uncut diamond.
I had the privilege of seeing who my students really are, behind the facades they often wear. And I must say, I really like what I saw.
On the first day of class next year, when I tell my students that they will be writing in a journal every single day, I will not be dismayed by the moans and groans.
“Just you wait and see,” I’ll say quietly to myself. “Just write.“