I make my students journal. I am not unique among teachers and by far the norm among my National Writing Project kin. I know many teachers who successfully use writing journals to foster creative and personal writing as well as reflective writing in their classes as well as a tool to track lessons and ideas. In fact, my friend and NWP colleague Vickie Moriarity likes to use thematic journals (created by the entire class) to explore issues important to her middle school students. This type of journal is sometimes called a Dialogue Journal. In fact, NWP teachers so love their journals and notebooks that they have taken it to the next level by hacking our notebooks.
While I began my college career requiring my students to use the more traditional composition notebook that so many of my colleagues use, I long ago moved to electronic journals. While we often do some writing by hand in class (for low-stakes writing such as bell ringers and exit slips to encourage students to prepare for our class discussion and/or reflect on what we have learned/discussed that day) and we create a reflective class blog extending those in-class writings and preparing our more high-stakes writing assignments, my journal assignment is a little different.
I require my students to keep an electronic self-assessment journal every semester and I have found three benefits from this assignment in addition to the obvious benefit of simply giving students more writing experience. First and foremost is the reason I created the self-assessment journal assignment – they offer weekly mini-conferences with my students. This semester I have 75 students in addition to running the Morehead Writing Project. The logistics of regular individual conversations with that many students while doing the rest of my work is paralyzing for me (maybe you are made of sterner stuff) and so I decided to use the power of technology.
Students just post to the electronic journal every week (I use the journal function in Blackboard but there are many other tools you could use for this) about three topics: our class topic, their progress (or not) in the class, and their progress (or not) at Morehead State University in general. These journal entries do not take them long to write and only take minutes for me to read, but there are so many benefits of this regular contact with my students. This is formative assessment at its best. I can see what and where and when my students are learning or struggling — and I can respond with just-in-time intervention. Plus, because I ask about their general progress and struggles I learn a great deal about their lives (both on- and off-campus) and can offer support and intervention — or point them to campus resources. It is also a safe place for students to ask questions about assignments, class, college life, and more. Quite simply, self-assessment journals help me get to know my students as well as their goals, struggles, and successes. Even in a face-to-face class it is a challenge to connect with each student personally while also covering the content and self-assessment journals make that goal easier to achieve.
As a result of the questions and comments in the self-assessment journals, I also learn a lot about my classroom practices and assignments. These journal posts are a great source of feedback for me as a teacher. I can quickly see if I need to stop and review, readjust our timetable, or rethink an assignment. I can also see which lessons, activities, and assignments really engage my students. That type of ongoing class feedback (formative assessment for me) is priceless to me. Even better, I can thank students as they identify the areas where I need to improve and model the type of self-regulated learning I desire for my students.
Yes, I want my students to become self-regulated writers and thinkers and that is other major reason that I started this assignment. I want my students to think about their lives and goals and how their habits can help and hinder the achievement of their goals. Self-regulation allows students to “become masters of their own learning processes” (Zimmerman). I only have my students for one semester and then they must be able to continue their growth as well as manage the transfer of the skills they learned in my class to new contexts – a process largely determined by their self-regulation. Through the self-reflection journals I hope they will learn the value of self-regulation and reflection.
I began assigning self-assessment journals as an exercise to help support my students in a number of important ways – including offering low-stakes writing experience, the opportunity for private conversations with me, formative feedback throughout the semester, and developing reflection and self-regulation skills. However, along the way I have found the assignment benefits me in important ways including getting to know my students and receiving class feedback throughout the semester.