I’ve Done That

A reminder to revisit and own past blunders

I started the Greater Madison Writing Project with the belief that journaling was personally a valuable reflective tool for my emotional health, but not valuable in the foreign language classroom. How’d I know that, you might ask? Well, I’ve done that, and, quite frankly, it sucked. Students hated it. They were expected to complete their journals in their free time. If their journals were handed in late, their word count requirement would increase or they would receive a lower grade. To avoid that, they wrote nonsense to reach the required word count. Not surprisingly, their journal entries were of low quality. They were torture to read, and torture to write.

Did I mention that the kids hated it?

This is how my students and I felt about journaling.

They hated it. I hated it. That’s it: I tried it. I’ve done that. It didn’t work. It’s over. Goodbye, stupid, horrible journals!

Enter the Greater Madison Writing Project. Write-ins. Write-outs. Author’s Chair. A safe, judgment-free environment. A supportive community of writers. I was honestly shocked at how quickly I gulped down the Kool-Aid. I felt empowered and motivated and confident about writing, probably for the first time in my life. I wrote with vigor during those glorious two weeks in July. I drafted a research question. I went out and bought beautiful journals for various purposes. I prepared write-in prompts for student travel seminars.

And then I quit.

Until, of course, September, when my beautiful, supportive community of writers reconvened. I glanced through my journal and found myself thinking “Wow. I wrote that?!” I was impressed by my own prose. It was as if my writing had improved in those two short weeks. Could it be true? Was it possible that committment to writing every day resulted in improved skill?

I suddenly flashed back to a shocking statement made by a former student in a course evaluation: “I hated journals at the time, but I must admit that I can see how it helped me improve my writing in German.”

Maybe those journals weren’t so bad, after all. But if they’re valuable, why did my kids hate them? Why did I hate them? What went wrong?

Time for Reflection…

What went wrong with journaling:

  1. Intimidating length requirement. Regardless of whether or not the required word count was actually reasonable, even the most talented language student’s first instinct was panic. A calming voice and a practice entry may have eased the mind of those students who were always going to do it anyway, but the struggling students were still left intimidated by a daunting task. I was also essentially rewarding quantity over quality, encouraging students to tack on meaningless phrases just to fulfill the word count. The requirement for this paragraph was ninety-five words. I’m done now, I think. Yes? Almost! Okay, now!
  2. Useless feedback. I read my students’ journals and made some comments, but there was no real incentive or opportunity to use my feedback to improve writing for future assignments.
  3. It was graded. What’s more, the grade was based on the arbitrary word requirement, rather than on ability to express onesself, taking risks with the language, or even on content. I was essentially grading a behavior, and it was affecting their overall grade. This is a practice that I disapprove of with a passion at this point in my career.
  4. Writing became a punishment. If students handed in their journals late, the word count increased. If the work itself is valuable, why was doing more of it the consequence for bad behavior?
  5. They didn’t have the opportunity to share with their peers! Even in GMWP, nobody shared every single entry with every single member of our crew However, everybody shared something at some point. Getting that validation from your peers is really uplifting and worthwhile.
  6. We rarely used class time to journal. I even struggle with this as an adult! When I was away from my GMWP group, I lacked the will-power and self discipline to write on a regular basis. And I wanted to write; I just kept putting it off. I expected my students to be better at that than me? That’s just unrealistic!

These reflections have been good for me. I’ve moved towards rejecting that “I’ve done that” mantra, and replacing it with “Let me think about why journaling didn’t work for me or my students.” I’m moving past being embarrassed by the teaching practices I used to employ, and choosing to learn from my mistakes and be proud of the growth I’ve experienced throughout my career.

Out of these reflections, a research question was born: “Does journaling (done correctly) improve the writing abilities of students in the German classroom?” Over the course of this school year, I will be gathering data from my six German IV students in order to answer this question. I feel confident that I can put my past blunders behind me, and incorporate journaling into the classroom the right way. I’m going to turn “I’ve done that” into “I’m going to try that again” and hopefully improve my students’ writing skills and my own teaching practices. Stay tuned to see how it goes!

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