Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Journaling across the Disciplines
Fresh from teaching this past month, I am reminded once again that daily journaling is central to loosening and energizing the creative flow in students. Every class I teach, whether literature or writing, begins with journal writing. This writing is a nonstop, free-flow of thoughts for ten minutes, sometimes called free writing. As each course begins, I observe students often starting this process of journaling with the attitude that they can’t think of anything to say. By the end of the course, they are complaining when I call time because they have more to say.

Why does this free flow of ideas, this free flow of conscious (and unconscious) awareness get cut off? Must students lose their belief that they have something to say during the schooling process? In the 1970s and ’80s, when free writing emerged as a writing strategy useful in the classroom, this unstructured process was seen as a breakthrough in developing both creative and critical thinking.[1]

This more organic approach was sometimes accompanied by some disdain for grammatical knowledge as well as for teaching the old five-paragraph model for an academic essay–minimally requiring an introductory paragraph with thesis, three supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The result of free writing and journaling was both exciting and chaotic. Students became more plugged into their writing, but the necessary revision and editing didn’t always follow.

Eventually, recognizing that writers have difficulty revising and editing without grammatical knowledge, writing teachers brought grammar instruction back into the picture. Writing instruction could now benefit from the understanding of writing as a process, from the free flow of journaling to skills learned from instruction in grammar and logic; as a result, students became more self-sufficient in their own writing process.

With the educational concept of scaffolding, the five-paragraph model could be integrated into the teaching process as a scaffold to teach logical support for a thesis, but writing pedagogy now also now acknowledge more organic structures that may govern the writing process as well, and free writing allowed those structures to emerge naturally. For example, structure may occur as a result of the connections between a set of evocative images or from a pattern or repetition with variation. These structures can have as much persuasive power or more than logical, deductive reasoning.

Even with this integration of organic strategies into writing pedagogy and the acknowledgement that journaling opens up the creative well, journaling is still often the first element omitted when time runs short in a class. Journal writing is sometimes seen as merely expressive or as an opportunity to vent or as a record of life events and emotions. A period of free writing can, of course, follow any of these avenues (and with rich success) but such writing can also lead to so much more, as I have repeatedly seen in class after class.

I strongly believe that every class, no matter the discipline, can greatly benefit from ten minutes of free writing. So many benefits accrue from this period of writing at the beginning of a class. Journal writing at the beginning of each class can create numerous opportunities for learning, allowing students:

1) to explore new concepts learned in a previous class session,

2) to reflect about what they already know about topics being introduced next,

3) to identify parts of the discussion they don’t understand so they can begin to frame questions,

4) to discuss appealing points studied thus far,

5) to generate ideas for papers and projects to come, and

6) to tap into their own creativity and simply see what comes up.

Once the ten minutes are up, everyone shares. If the class is large, then sharing can occur on rotation. Faculty need to experience the journal writing process with their students, responding to the same prompts provided to the students and sharing afterwards. Everyone learns in this situation, professor and student alike.

Responding to journals is almost effortless.The daily sharing is the first tier of response. Students learn from one another’s efforts during this activity. For the final response, journals need not be corrected for grammatical and mechanical correctness as one would do for formal writing; rather, the journals can be read for engagement with topic and focus. A brief comment at the end of each entry, recognizing the point being made or maybe even connecting with it in a personal way, is effective to acknowledge the significance of the student’s thought process. The journal receives an overall grade for completeness and engagement at the end of the course.

One final thought: Time spent on daily journaling and sharing as well as time needed to respond at the end of the course is minimal when considered against how this kind of writing allows students to integrate and own the knowledge they are learning. One doesn’t need to be a writing instructor to develop and apply this kind of teaching strategy. One simply needs to be willing to write and read.

[1] Major, Wendy. “Freewriting: A Means of Teaching Critical Thinking to College Freshmen.” Retrieved May 09, 2011from http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/composition/major_freewriting.htm

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