Hooray for dialogue journals!

This summer, I listened to an episode from the Cult of Pedagogy podcast in which the host, Jennifer Gonzalez, interviewed veteran teacher Liz Galarza on how she uses dialogue journals in her classroom to build teacher-student relationships.  Essentially, Galarza explained how she keeps a running dialogue with each of her students in the form of letters.  She writes a letter to each student at the beginning of the year, and they respond to her with their own letter.  Then she responds to that letter, and then they respond, and so on and so on.  If a student misspelled a word, Galarza would intentionally use that same word, spelled correctly, in her response; if a student struggled with using commas to separate ideas, Galarza would write a sentence in her letter that modeled that sentence structure.  Finally, she said that she always thanked each student for their letter at the end of her responses.

As I am always looking for ways to build and strengthen relationships with my students, I immediately gravitated towards this idea of using dialogue journals in my 6th grade English Language Arts classroom this year.  Galarza and her students handwrite their dialogue journals, but since my school is 1 to 1 with technology and my handwriting becomes increasingly illegible the more I write over an extended period of time, I decided to house our dialogue journals in a running Google document that I created for each kid.

After three months of writing our dialogue journals on a weekly basis, here is an update of the experience thus far:

First, I am learning WAY more about my students’ interests and personalities than I have in my previous six years of teaching. One of my students practices magic in his free time. Another’s favorite movie is “Nacho Libre”. A girl I teach has more than seven pets, including a three-legged turtle. One boy just recently moved to the school at the end of last year, and he still misses all of his friends and family back east. Another girl has expressed to me how tired she is of living in a small town, and that she cannot wait to move to a big city when she gets older.

Every school year, teachers across the country start the first week with some sort of “getting to know you” activity in which they ask the students to tell them a little about themselves, usually in the form of a letter or poster.  The problem with this, however, is that’s really one of the only times that this type of experience occurs, which leaves teachers and students to build relationships through verbal interactions alone.  For many  students, that is not enough. I’ve had plenty of classes where I may say just a few words to some of my students, especially the ones that tend to be more reserved. These dialogue journals are creating windows for both my students and I to peer into each week, and they’ve taken that token first week of school activity and turned it into a living and breathing thing that is ongoing.

In addition to the relationship-building benefits, I’m seeing significant growth in both my students’ grammar and writing stamina.  Last week, I pointed out to numerous students how much their writing had improved from their first letter to me to the most recent. I’ve had multiple students go from not using a single period in their initial letter to me to being able to write a letter to me that doesn’t contain one run-on sentence.  It’s remarkable, and I know it’s the result of the modeling that I am doing for them in my letters to them, which is such a more engaging way to work on grammar as opposed to a mini lesson on run-on sentences.

My students are also writing more in their letters to me each week (for the most part). Like anything, writing improves with practice, and these journals provide students with low-pressure opportunities to work on their writing craft. By writing more on a regular basis with an authentic audience (me), they are becoming more comfortable at expressing themselves through written word.

Another benefit of the dialogue journals is that most of my students truly enjoy this activity. I set aside the first 15 to 20 minutes of class every Monday for dialogue journals, and students rush to get onto their docs so that they can read my latest letter to them and respond. Even though this has become an entrenched routine in our classroom, I still have students stopping me in the hall on Mondays to confirm that we are in fact doing our dialogue journals.

However, there are definitely a handful of students that need some additional prompting.  In my responses to my students, I try to ask two to three questions about things that they mentioned in their last letter to me so that they have somewhere to start when they write to me next.  I also add a fun question at the end of each letter like “What was the last show you watched on Netflix and why?” or “If you could be any animal, which would you be and why?” in an attempt to stimulate conversation.  Some students, though, either don’t have a lot to say, or they just aren’t that into writing out their responses, and I don’t get much in return from them.  With these kids, I continue to push them to write more by asking them follow-up questions that require them to explain their hobbies or trips to me in more detail, and I implore them to ask me questions as well as a way to promote conversation. Hopefully, we will have a breakthrough at some point this school year.

I should mention, too, that this activity does require some additional time and effort on my part.  In general, it takes me roughly 45 minutes to an hour to respond to dialogue journals for one class of twenty-something students.  Fortunately, I’m teaching in blocks this year in which I have the same group for both ELA and Social Studies, so I have far less students than I have in the past, which makes this less of a burden.  However, I know that many ELA teachers have anywhere from 90 to 150 students on their rosters, and writing weekly responses to each and everyone of them is simply not feasible.  If I had more students overall, like I did at my previous school, I’d probably have the students write in their dialogue journals on a bi-weekly basis.

Regardless of how many students I have on my rosters in the future, I will certainly still incorporate this activity into my classes because I’m finding it to be invaluable for both the relationship-building and writing benefits that my students are seeing.