© 2017 Teaching Troubled Hearts, Chaddock Quincy, IL

  • Michelle Bickhaus

Journaling: The Narrated Life


Journals play important and varied roles in my classroom: behavior management, relationship-building, therapeutic strategy, creative expression, reflection, and more. When I began this journaling adventure with my students I had high expectations for student development. The activity has exceeded my expectations every time!

I’m repeatedly amazed by the depth of emotion revealed to me by my students and the incredible vulnerability they display. Perhaps it’s because I drive into their sometimes-stubborn brains that their journals are safe. I won’t share them with anyone. I go to lengths to protect their privacy. But I also tell them that if they write about hurting themselves or others that I will copy it and share it with their therapists immediately.

Journals have always appealed to me for personal use. I like the idea of archiving my life. I have so many questions about the lives of my ancestors and have been curious since I was a little girl. As an adult I think, “I want my descendants to have some answers.” At this point they won’t have a lot of answers, however, because I’m still so sporadic and inhibited about my own journaling. I am striving to do better.

A journaled life is a narrated life. A narrated life has an extra layer. I’m sure that’s a quote that I read somewhere but I can’t find it anywhere. I want to attribute it to Sarah Ban Breathnach but I can’t find it. An extra layer. A greater depth. More meaning. Could our lives be more meaningful if we record our feelings and thoughts? Perhaps the meaning we leave the world is just more tangible if our words are recorded.

I do know that students delight in reading over their journals at the end of the year. I’ve had students and parents show me their saved journals decades after their students had left my class. It’s such a joy for me to watch them point out particular entries and to watch the gleeful smiles spread across their faces.

On a practical level the journals are a lifesaver as a means of classroom/behavior management. Once the students understand all of the parameters of their journaling experiences, they are able to complete the assignment independently. (I’m including my journal “rules” as an attachment to this blog). They know that almost every day that they walk into my classroom they are expected to begin journaling right away. They know the steps and expectations so there are no questions about what they should do. This gives them an immediate focus and prevents idleness. In my setting we just can’t have down time; it’s so difficult to try to lasso everyone’s attention if they all sift into the room and start conversations or begin working on something else while waiting for everyone to assemble so that class can begin. Journals are the perfect way to prevent any aimlessness and distraction.

Now that we’ve sidestepped the majority of behavior issues, the truly beautiful work of connecting begins. The students write. They write to themselves and they write to me. I usually read the journals while the following class writes in their journals. I take a few minutes to write back to the students. Usually I’m encouraging them as they write about how difficult their lives are right now or as they grieve the loss of their families, pets, friends, etc. Sometimes all I can write is, “I’m so glad you shared that with me,” because I’m temporarily bereft of a single word that could possibly change their brokenness. But even that “listening” matters. They know that I care enough to read and respond. There’s something really powerful about seeing the words that read, “I’m listening. I care. You are not alone in this.” We build relationships through the journals; it’s another step in earning their trust.

Another benefit of journaling that works in tandem with building trust is the way the students grow to feel comfortable in taking academic risks; particularly, risks in writing. Since I have really created a “no-rule rule” in journaling, the students are free to develop a personal style without worrying about being judged for it. They are encouraged to make mistakes! I always remind them that it’s through mistakes that we learn the most. Because of this environment of non-judgement they are free to get their ideas out and to create their own voices which reflect their experiences and values.

In addition to following the rules as listed on the form, “Guidelines for Effective Writing in Your Journals” I also require my students to write, “I am wonderful!” in their journals. Following that statement they are required to write down three things for which they are thankful. Positive affirmations and dwelling in gratitude are strategies they practice every day in my classroom through their journals. It’s a lifelong lesson that they will, hopefully, practice for the rest of their lives.

Despite all of the richness that grows from these journals, journaling is effectively a no-prep activity. Once the journals are set up and the students learn the routine, the activity is wholly independent. And it’s FUN to grade. Isn’t that gorgeous?


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