Writing Ourselves for Others: Graduate Students and Professors Writing to Each Other

 

            Journal writing has a long history in language classrooms and has attracted increasing interest in a range of educational settings over the past decade (e.g. Peyton, J. 1990 & Staton, 1988). According to Fulwiler, Haviland, and Whitehill, journal writing has been used to “help students explore their thoughts and feelings in a low risk format and to promote more active modes of learning” (cited in Capossela, 1992, p. 248).

          In writing instruction, one specific area of concern is dialogue journal writing in which learners and teachers make on-going comments. Dialogue journals are referred to as written conversations in which students and teachers communicate on a regular basis. Students write as much as they choose, and the teacher writes back, responding to questions, introducing new topics, or asking questions (Vanett & Jurich, 1990). Dialogue journal writing is the use of journal for the purpose of carrying out a genuine writing conversation between students and teachers (Staton, 1987). In dialogue journals, students can write about topics that are important to them. They can tell stories, ask questions, or just converse with the teacher or writing partner. Both Perham (1992) and Perl (1994) believe that these response journals have the power to build a community of learners through the process of critical co-reading and co-writing. McLaughlin (1993) believes that although the benefits of using dialogue journals have been described in various ways in literature, there is a need of more clear research to determine the specific skills and writing behavior that can be facilitated during dialogue journal writing.

Research Questions:

In an attempt to determine the specific skills and writing behavior that can be facilitated during dialogue journal writing, I proposed the following study in which I would like to find answers to the following questions: how do teachers and students in today’s classroom feel about dialogue journal writing? Do they see dialogue journals as a worthwhile and meaningful addition to their classrooms, or simply unnecessary task? Through this study, it was my intention to identify teachers’ and learners’ views of the implementation of journal writing within the classroom and whether they perceive it as beneficial to teacher instruction and students’ learning. It is expected that this study will be able to determine the specific skills and writing behavior that can be facilitated through the process of writing dialogue. The results of this study may serve to raise students’ awareness of the benefits of dialogue journals, which, in turn, may help teachers in their decision whether or not to include dialogue journals in their classrooms.

Research Methodology:

         This study includes questionnaires and interviews as data collection tools. The study consists of the analysis of questionnaire responses provided by two graduate-level course instructors who have implemented dialogue journals within their class instruction. Another questionnaire was given to ten students who have used dialogue journals before. Along with the questionnaires, semi-structured interviews with one instructor and three learners have been conducted.

        This research has received the approval of the ethics committee at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language studies at Carleton University. All participants were given pseudonyms in order to assure their anonymity.

Data Analysis:

      The data in this study is analyzed in a manner that is common to qualitative research, that is, by inductive analysis.

Findings and Discussion:

        The major findings related to journal writing in this study include issues around the following themes: (1) the benefits of dialogue journals (cognitive, affective, social, and pedagogical) for both teacher instruction and student learning (2) limitations in using dialogue journals. The following two sections will discuss the benefits and limitations of dialogue journals.

Benefits of Dialogue Journals:

       One of the often-mentioned benefits of dialogue journal writing is the increased communication between students and teachers. Since most teachers do not have time to converse at length with individual students each day, regular written interaction increases student-teacher contact time considerably. In general, both teacher participants and student participants in the study expressed many advantages of using dialogue journals.

1)      Learners’ perspectives on Dialogue Journal:

       The overwhelming majority of the students in the study expressed their feeling that the dialogue journal provides them with the opportunity to express themselves openly and in private, without being embarrassed about the nature of their concerns. Students suggested that through dialogue journals teachers can help learners to make connections between academic and personal issues. Dialogue journals also provide students with a way to become connected to their writing, to be involved in the writing process, and, as one of the students’ participants expressed, dialogue journals help him to “discover [himself] by thinking on paper.”

2)      Teachers’ perspectives on Dialogue Journal:

      Similarly, the two teacher participants, Black and Smith, have found that the dialogue journal interaction has a positive influence on their relationship with particular students. Some students, who tend to say very little in class, write creatively in their dialogue journals. Without the journal, the teacher would know little or nothing about them. In addition, Black believes that due to the nature of dialogue journals in allowing students to ask questions and write in different topics related to their interests, dialogue journals can provide input for planning future lessons. Discovering students’ interests can assist teachers to adjust curriculum to meet the students’ needs and concerns. This is evident in Smith’s comments when he says, “I am a better teacher because I read, understand and appreciate my students’ frustrations, joys, problems, and success that they express in their journals.”

Limitations of Dialogue Journals:

        Although responses to the use of journals by both teachers and students have been mostly positive and enthusiastic, there are some limitations as well.

Lack of motivation. The lack of motivation among students is one of the potential drawbacks in the use of dialogue journals. This is an important consideration especially when the journal is imposed by the teachers. Therefore, students may not be motivated to write if the teacher dictates to them the topic, the length and the deadline for submission of the dialogue journals. Students are more motivated if they have more control over the dialogue journal writing.

Appropriation. The presence of the authority figure may influence how writers perceive and write the journal. As similar problem is the assessment issue. Orem’s (cited in Kerka, 2002) comments on a major debate surrounding journal writing: should learner journals be assessed and if so, how? In the case against assessment is the argument that it intrudes on learner privacy, inhibits thought, encourages self-censorship and shapes what is written. The students will be restricted in what and how to write as their focus will shift from writing for “self” to writing for “others.”

Time. Incorporating dialogue journals into a teachers daily schedule does take time, but that time is also useful for planning the next day’s lesson, based in part on the information the dialogue journals provide. The times these dialogue journals take heavily depend on the way both teachers and students structure them. If they structure them as to be done in class time, surely they will take a considerable time from the teacher. However, if these dialogue journals are assigned to be done in other time than the class time, they will be more effective and less time consuming activities.

Conclusion:

         All in all, the implications of the study illustrate that dialogue journals seem to be powerful tools for both students’ learning and teacher’s instruction. However, this small-scale study has its own limitations. This study was conducted over one semester period and the participants were all graduate, native speakers of English.

Given the complexity and multifaceted nature of the writing process, teachers and student are confronted with decisions related to appropriate and effective instructional practice. Dialogue journal writing provides a valuable learning experience for students and teachers alike especially if they consider the limitations of implementing these dialogue journals. Through journal writing teachers have a window into student interests and needs, and students not only gain meta-cognitive, affective, social and pedagogical benefits but also have an audience and environment for their writing that is nurturing and non-threatening.

 

 

 

 

References

 

Capossela, T. (1992) Constructed knowing: promoting cognitive growth in freshman writers through journal-writing. Journal of Teaching Writing 11 (2): 247-261.

Kerka, S. (2002) Journal writing as an adult learning tool. Practice application Brief No. 22.Retrieved January 15, 2005 from ERIC database

http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2/content_storage_01/0000000b/80/27/c4/02.pdf

McLaughlin, J. (1993) Entering the worlds of children: Using dialogue journals in teacher education. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English. Pittsburgh, PA. Retrieved February 3, 2005, from ERIC database.

Perham, A. J. (1992). Collaborative journals. Presented at the National Council of Teachers of English conference. Louisville, KY. USA. Retrieved February 3, 2005, from ERIC database.

Perl, S. (1994) Composing texts, composing lives. Harvard Educational Review 64 (4): 427-449.

Stton, J. (1987) Dialogue journals. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills Urbana IL. Retrieved January 17, 2005, from ERIC database.

 

Staton, J. (1988) Writing & counseling: Using a dialogue journal. Language Arts 57: 514-418.

Vanett, L. and Jurich, D. (1990) The missing link: Connecting journal writing to academic writing. In J. Peyton (Ed.), Students and teachers writing together: Perspective on journal writing. (pp. 23-33). Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Alexandria, Virginia, USA.