Magic Words: the Power of Journaling in My Students’ Lives

Photo credit: thecampingjournal.com

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?”

“How?”

“They WRITE.”

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.

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12 thoughts on “Magic Words: the Power of Journaling in My Students’ Lives

  1. So lovely. I think you’re making a difference in their worlds.

    I teach composition, too, and I’ve noticed how uneasy my students are about writing. I’ve also noticed that, although they’re shy about writing, they aren’t shy about showing who they are when I assign personal essays. It’s always humbling and uplifting to read them.
    Teaching writing is one of the greatest privileges in my life–it looks like you feel the same way.

    • I agree–narrative writing is such a great way to increase students’ comfort with writing and motivation to write. And yes, I happen to think that you and I have the most fantastic job in the universe. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog!

    • Can you remember the days when I was so excited about becoming an elementary teacher?? I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life now besides working with young adults.

  2. Emily,
    I loved the inside view you provide with the details of introducing journaling in your English classroom. It’s amazing the metamorphosis that takes places between when they start and the end of the school year. It delights me to see young people benefiting from a daily journaling practice. There is so much to learn and discover about themselves and their worlds in the journal pages. I appreciate your enthusiasm and care for your students and the journal writing process itself.

    I have chosen your post, Magic Words: The Power of Journaling in My Students’ Lives, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 1/2/12 for all things journaling on Twitter.
    I will post a link on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in Refresh Journal, my weekly e-journal: http://www.refreshwithdawnherring.blogspot.com/.

    You’re welcome to join us for #JournalChat Live every Thursday at 5 EST/2 PST (if it’s fits outside your teaching schedule!) on Twitter; our topic this week is The Voice of Journaling: Yours!

    Thanks again for such a poignant and insightful view of journaling with your students in the classroom.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter

    • Dawn,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by, read my post, and provide feedback. I’m also greatly flattered that you chose my post as your “pick of the day”! Your journaling blogs look wonderful; I look forward to perusing them in greater depth in the coming days.
      Emily

  3. Emily, I really enjoyed reading about how your students’ attitudes about writing changed over the course of the semester. You have given them a precious gift that will stay with them for the rest of their lives—whether they continue journaling or not (and my bet is that a good portion of them will return to it at some point).

    • Amber, thank you so much for stopping by! My great hope is that they will indeed continue to journal throughout their lives.

  4. Pingback: Blogtalk: Journaling in the Classroom — Writing Through Life

  5. It’s been years since I taught English but reading your post today brought back memories of young faces bent over spiral notebooks and the joy I felt in the early ’90’s as I followed Nancy Atwell’s suggestions in her book about reading and writing in the classroom. I think it was called “In the Middle” and the premise was simple, if we want our students to read and write, we need to give them opportunities to read and write, and we need to model it for them as well. You are right, we all have a story to tell. That’s what I told them. I love hearing people’s stories and I am going to enjoy following your blog. Found it this morning looking for a quote about a thousand gifts-not the Ann Voskamp book, but something else. Still I am glad I stumbled on your blog. I saved a quote on grace from your review of her book . I may use it someday with your permission in my own blog. I hope you are still teaching and your students are still writing! I am so glad to know there are teachers like you in our classrooms today.

    • Hi Pat! I’m so happy that you found my blog too and that you share my passions for reading, writing, and teaching! I think people are so fascinating. I love to listen to stories. Please feel free to use a quote from my Voskamp post. Yes, I am still teaching and writing and thinking and growing, just like my delightful students (of course, I teach different students now, but there are ways in which teenagers never change).

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