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To Journal... or Not

By David Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #57, 2004.

Is journaling really an effective way to teach creative writing?
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David Marks

English teachers in public and private schools like to feel they are meeting their students' need to learn writing. But American universities and colleges don't train their students who will be teachers the skills they need to do this. Future English teachers are taught the history of the English language, some literary history, linguistics, transformational or traditional grammar, audio-visual skills, classroom management and sometimes public speaking. With a very few exceptions, they are not taught how to teach children to analyze ideas, scenes, or objects or how to transfer their understanding to others in organized, written form.

This has produced the present situation where 85 percent of high school, college bound seniors can't write persuasive essays. This doesn't mean that all high-school English teachers are uncaring; this is a reflection of their training. I think my training was typical, and in my first year of teaching eleventh grade English in a small town, I was asked to teach my students to write a term paper. I was so unprepared that we all were embarrassed.

In trying to fulfill their obligation to teach writing, many English teachers have their students write journals. This has proven to be a very time consuming and non-productive exercise. Some schools have even adopted a program called Writing Across the Curriculum. This translates into all of the teachers in the schools having their students write for their classes. So, instead of having just the English teachers assigning work they don't know how to teach, those schools that have adopted this program have all the teachers who know even less about writing trying to teach it.

Not understanding how to teach writing, many schools adopt the attitude that if their students write every day and in every class they will gain proficiency. But in both cases, in journal writing and in all classes demanding writing, the results have to be failure, for obvious reasons. What the schools end up with are students who don't know how to do something doing an awful lot of it. What happens is the students just reinforce their errors week after week.

Professional writers do use journal writing, but for two reasons: one, they keep a record of experiences and sensations for future use; and two, they use journal writing to work out of writing blocks.

Journal writing might help some students who need a cathartic experience. They could do what counselors call "venting," but they wouldn't be learning anything about writing.

However, if you want to teach writing through journaling, it can be done. Understand that it is not an efficient way to spend your time or your children's energy, because journal writing isn't an established program which presents identified skills in organized sequences.

To create a meaningful writing assignment out of journal writing, parents first have to decide what goals they have for their children's writing. Will your children be trained for college, for business, or for work on the family farm? Then you have to determine what skills are necessary for that goal choice. The third step is to list the writing skills to be taught at each age/grade level. This is fairly complicated and a good bit of research is needed. The fourth step is to design each journal experience to teach an identified skill. This means that each journal entry is assigned with clearly stated objectives, examples for the children to follow, and an evaluation process so that you can be sure your children are progressing according to the plan.

So, it is not impossible to use journal writing as part of your writing curriculum, but you can see that it complicates the teaching a great deal.

Examine just one example of a journal exercise designed to be of benefit to a student about ten years old:

In your journal writing today 1 would like to introduce you to the skill of controlling your use of person. I want you to be able to recognize and use accurately first, second, and third person. I want you to use first person for the first draft of your journal. Then I would like you to write a similar draft (not the same words but on a similar topic or situation) in second person and then to do the same thing again using third person.

1. First person (using I or we) sounds like this: I (we) saw the boy on the bike when he came toward the tree I was (we were) behind. First person reads like the voice is part of the action. You are to write this version of your journal entry in first person, using I. This is the choice in which the narrative voice talks about itself.

2. Second person (using you) sounds like this: When you stood on the corner, you saw the boy on the bike as he came at the tree you were behind. Second person makes the reader part of the story. You are to write a similar journal entry, but this time it should be in second person, using you. This is the voice with which the writer talks directly to the reader and calls the reader you.

3. Third person (using he, she, or they) sounds like this: He was standing on the corner when the boy on the bike came toward the tree he was behind. The use of third person puts the narrative voice outside of the action. It makes the voice a non-part of the action. The narrative voice becomes just a teller of the event. You'll practice using third person by writing a similar journal entry in third person, using he, she, or they. This will be hard because you'll want to use first person. Don't.

You won't harm your children if you have them write in their journals, except to waste their time, but you should recognize that you will not be teaching them the things they need to know nor is it using their time to the best advantage. If they like journaling, have them do as much of it as they wish, but on their own time. If you plan on them learning to write, you will have to select a curriculum designed for that purpose.

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