English teachers love journaling, which is the J word in our A-Z blog challenge. To be honest, I’m no different from other English-type teachers. I love it too.
When I taught a freshman writing class, journaling was one way I got students to write, something most of them actively resisted, and I made it part of my warm up work every day. I learned early in my career that the list of “helpful journal prompts” I had received as a young teacher was anything but helpful. Asking students about “the person who most inspires you” resulted in “IDK” or “my dad” or “my girlfriend because when we’re together I can’t stop…”
At this point, I stopped reading. I didn’t want to know how that sentence ended.
So I set some ground rules. The entries had to be a minimum of four sentences of explanation or description. Furthermore, I randomly called on students to share their writing with the class. Students who felt their response was too personal for general class consumption knew they could let me know ahead of time not to call on them, but this rarely happened. For most freshmen, there is no such thing as “too personal to share.” Here’s a list of some of my questions:
“Which character from Frozen are you most like?”
“Do you think boys or girls have it easier at our school?”
“If you could eat only one food for a month, what would you eat? How long would it take before you were sick of it?”
“Describe the person who you consider to be your enemy. If you share it with class, don’t use the person’s name.”
“How does your mom or dad usually embarrass you in public?”
Interestingly, I noticed that positive questions dealing with subjects like hobbies, heroes and dreams didn’t yield much in the way of writing. But if I asked about movies students hate, the most boring class they'd ever had, the worst food they'd ever tasted, these subjects would net several paragraphs.
Teenagers feel passionately about what they love and what they hate, and they embrace any opportunity to proselyte for their passion. A single question about whether or not Kanye West was a genius drew battle lines. The 7 minute warm-up took 17 minutes that day as students debated the merits of Kanye’s genius or lack thereof. Another day, when I asked students to write about their enemy, one girl felt that not only should she tell about whom she hated most, but she had to give me the backstory of why she hated her. She wrote six pages.
One of my ground rules was that I had to write my own entry to the questions and share it three times a week. I wanted the students to see that writing was often difficult for me, too, and that I also had embarrassing stories to tell. This wasn’t so the students would feel closer to me; it was so they felt less embarrassed about their own lives. I told them about walking into a door while talking to my then crush. All the girls covered their faces in response while the boys yukked it up.
A prompt that caused the teacher next door to walk in and ask us to quiet down was “if someone likes you but you don’t like them, how do you tell them you’re not interested?” The students were full of helpful information (“I’m not allowed to have a girlfriend”) and not so helpful information (“pretend you’re blind when you walk past him in the hall”). Advice was debated, scorned, debated again and scorned again.
Journaling was probably the best thing I did. It brought the students together for those few minutes and humanized every person in the room. Students later told me it was always their favorite part of class. That made me feel good, but not so good that I ever made the mistake of asking which was their favorite teacher or class.