In class this past week we began reading “The Freedom Writers” by the teacher Erin Gruwell and her students. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s compilation of journal entries from the teacher and her struggling students documenting their growth both academically, personally, and communally. Throughout the book, you are able to see the how the students’ feelings towards themselves and their peers change from hate and doubt to acceptance and belief. One of the key facilitators in this growth is the act of writing.
When we write, we open ourselves to self-reflection concerning our opinions and experiences. It is important to allow students to write what they want without the fear of being judged, graded, or punished. In the book, Gruwell allowed her students to write deep accounts of violence, drug abuse, and hatred. By getting their feelings onto the paper they were able to critically think about their beliefs. Many students began to question why they were in gangs, why they hated one another, and what was wrong with their community. Because of this, they began to strive to be more empathetic and participate in school. More constructively, students were able to document their growth and understanding in class; by the end of the semester and school year, they saw just how far they had come in their writing, comprehension, and critical thinking skills.
Because of these opportunities to reflect and see one’s growth, it’s important that we have our students keep journals. Autonomy is the key here, but it can also be helpful to give prompts that spark creative thought. Another positive to journaling is that it gets the students writing. Though grammar and spelling should not be graded or enforced here, simply the act of writing helps students hone the craft and develop their voices. Reading over their journals, they can see the power they have to share their thoughts and the progress of their writing skills.
Journaling doesn’t have to take a lot of time, simply spare five or ten minutes at the beginning or end of class for writing. Many teachers already use this chunk as free reading time, so swapping in writing every once in a while would be a good change of pace and help hone those writing skills in tandem with their reading. But if your class schedule is still too tight, perhaps have in-class journaling once a week and encourage them to continue writing outside of class.