Joys of journaling

Straight from the heart: Writing in a journal allows students to overcome the fear of writing.

Expressing one’s thoughts in writing is perhaps the best way to learn English.

MY students have been journaling for as long as I can remember. Well, 17 years to be precise and that is a long, long time indeed. Their reactions to the idea of journal-writing initially were, as expected, mixed.

“Teacher, what do we write about?” “I love the idea teacher!” “It’s for girls!” (from a male student obviously) “Can others read our journal?” “It takes a lot of time and we have a lot of homework.” Sullen faces everywhere. But I was convinced about journaling and wouldn’t take “No” for an answer, and so they started writing.

First year progressed to the second and then the third ... 17 years have passed since I introduced journaling to my students.

Interestingly, teachers offered mixed reactions too. Some were in favour of journaling while others were harder to convince. Too much time had been wasted on debating the pros and the cons of journaling, when it is action that speaks louder than words.

At the end of the day, it is about giving the learner the space and time to use English as much as possible that is crucial, more so in a second language situation.

My first posting was to a residential school in Johor in the 1980’s.

The fact that the students were hostelites was a good opportunity for them to take up journaling because being away from home; the journal could be a source of solace for some and inspiration for others.

As an English teacher, one of my concerns is learner contact with English outside school hours.

Those who come from English-speaking families are luckier but they are a minority.

The majority depend on classroom lessons to excel in English Language – a daunting task indeed for teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL). The fact that it is compulsory to pass English in SPM 2016, is yet another challenge for English teachers.

On top of that, seasoned teachers would attest to the fact that writing is perhaps the hardest of all the four skills which include reading, listening and speaking.

The syllabus demands that the learner is able to write on a mosaic of genres such as transactional, narrative, persuasive and expository writing.

It is daunting for students and teachers alike. In some situations, making students love English is in itself a problem, let alone making them write compositions!

One of my efforts in helping students overcome the fear of writing is to let them write in their journals.

In so doing, I’m giving them a reason to write from their perspective. . They are free to express their thoughts and feelings on any topic without feeling intimidated by the teacher’s evaluation.

And if you think they have no ideas, think again! My students write about their life, friends, school, hostel, family, teachers etc. Believe me, in no time they will have plenty of stories and what better way than to let them use English and improve their writing!

One particular student stood out from the rest in that he had not one, but three journals in a year! Of course, it was extra work for me to read them but Syafiq James wrote from his heart.

He was willing to share his happiness and sadness knowing that I would never share them with others. Then there was Is Kan Dar, a bubbly character in my class – Form 5 As Syafie – who related how his dorm mates pulled a surprise on his birthday; eggs and flour mixed with a special liquid much to the wardens’ annoyance! Some entries were hilarious too.

“I stink at English. I really stink at it. Early in life, I had a strong dislike for the subject and I tried to avoid it at all costs. So how is it that the most influential person was my boarding school English teacher? As a boarding school freshman, I was far from an English teacher’s dream. My preoccupation was girls, girls, girls ... then I walked into Mrs. R’s classroom. I was soon to learn that “I can’t” was not an option in her English class...”

But of course, there were students who were shy and only wrote about daily events with very little inner emotions revealed.

“I missed you dear journal. You’ve been away for a long time like a thousand years. Okay it’s hyperbole. So, tonight I don’t have anything to do despite some homework from Mathematics was given hehe, umm... next time maybe? Okay, I should really finish them tomorrow. I cannot procrastinate too much work or I will be stressed. Actually, I have lots of stories to be told, but because Mrs. R will check my journal, I can’t do so :) Yeah last night the mantan pengarah SBP ( former director of residential schools) came to our school to give a talk on how to excel in hostel life and achieve outstanding results in the SPM because we’re the first batch. Her name is Pn Ashah. No offense with her name but based on her looks, her shoes and trousers shocked me the most! Reminds me of the rockers in the 80’s, right Mrs. R? Haha... just kidding! She gave us her words of wisdom and signed our autographs. I think that’s all for tonight. Please comment teacher.”

Whoever said journaling was a “girl-thang” had better think again! The writers mentioned above were all male students.

While none of the none of their stories were written in perfect grammar, we should encourage our students to write rather than discourage them. Can the teacher stand back and let students write and explore?

It would be discouraging if we go on an error hunt every time we see a written piece. Comments on their ideas and stories are more encouraging because students just love it when you respond. Grammatical accuracy is something I would deal with in their class assignments instead.

In 2008, I left for a day school after having taught in a residential school for 21 years. Being in an all-girls school was a completely different experience for me and they had never done journaling before.

To my surprise, their reception to journal-writing was amazing. My girls took to it like a duck to water. In my second year there, we dabbled in digital writing. Not wanting to be left behind, I learnt how to integrate Web 2.0 technology into my teaching.

It was the beginning for my students too so we actually taught one another. The absence of a computer lab did not deter us from making it a success. And they wrote stories from their heart. Did they improve in writing? Did they have lots of ideas to write in examinations? Did they do well in their writing paper? A resounding “Yes!” to all these questions.

Next month, I will be sharing a research on my students’ journals at an international conference that focuses primarily on English language teaching, in Cambodia. When asked whether journal-writing motivated them to write, all the respondents in my research answered “yes”.

The following were some of the responses I received.

South African author and political activist Nadine Gordimer wrote: All great writing is deeply personal and heartfelt. Teachers need to provide learners with opportunities to write about topics that are relevant to their lives and to feel that their writing has value.

Journaling to me, is definitely that opportunity. I end this article with one student’s short but unforgettable entry way back in the 1990’s. When he was asked to write about what he would do ifthere was a fire in his houe, he said: If my house caught fire, I will save the following things first: “My certificates (because I need this later for jobs) and my journal (I will treasure this forever).

> The writer is an English teacher and has taught English for 27 years. She cares deeply about how English is taught and keeps abreast with developments in the teaching of English. She shares best practices and continuous professional development efforts through her blog

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