Academic journal article Language Arts

Returning to Reciprocity: Using Dialogue Journals to Teach and Learn

Academic journal article Language Arts

Returning to Reciprocity: Using Dialogue Journals to Teach and Learn

Article excerpt

I like [dialogue] journals because the teacher gets to know about me, things I would usually keep from teachers. . . . the teacher doesn't tell us what to write about . . . we could write about other stuff, things that aren't about school, things that she hasn't taught us. . . . I feel like I am teaching her things about me. When I get a letter back from the teacher, I feel like she has read my letter and that feels good.

Miriam (pseudonym), 10 years old

Despite being a well-established instructional technique, dialogue journaling has fallen in and out of popular attention over the years. In the 1980s and 1990s, as whole language approaches gained currency, many educators heralded dialogue journals' potential for developing students' comfort and expressiveness as writers, as well as for enhancing their knowledge about themselves and the world (e.g., Bode, 1989; Kreeft, 1984; Staton, Shuy, Peyton, & Reed, 1988). Many also lauded dialogue journals' potential to support language development among English Learners (ELs), specifically because of the opportunities they present for low-risk, student-centered, individually scaffolded writing (e.g., Balder-Salcedo, 2009; Nassaji & Cumming, 2000; Peyton & Seyoum, 1989; Reid, 1997; Reyes, 1991). With the advent of standards-based reforms and structured writing workshop approaches in the 1990s, and back-to- basics, scripted literacy instruction post-NCLB, pedagogies of transmission and standardization, rather than dialogue and differentiation, have gained prominence. This shift, we fear, undermines the kind of relationship building and reciprocal learning-highlighted in Miriam's quote above-that stands to benefit all students, and ELs especially.

From a Freirean perspective, dialogue represents the core of authentic education, and humility and open-mindedness are among its cornerstones. In dialogue, Freire (1970) writes, "there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages"; there are only humans "attempting, together, to learn more than they now know" (p. 90). Done well, dialogue journals enable humanizing encounters to which all participants contribute resources for learning and from which all participants learn. Keeping this in mind, we analyzed a set of dialogue journals produced with ELs in one of our own classrooms. Specifically, we asked: What power do dialogue journals hold for generating the kind of reciprocal engagement that informs and enriches student and teacher learning?

We then anchored our analysis using two core concepts: 1) authenticity, which involves grounding relationships in an ethic of care (Noddings, 1984; Valenzuela, 1999) and enacting literacy practices that are "purposeful and embedded in broader social goals and cultural practices" (Barton & Hamilton, 1998, p. 7; CREDE, 2002); and 2) humanizing teaching, which requires that teachers strive to see, listen to, learn from, and mentor students as social and cultural beings with proud histories and deep knowledge (Bartolomé, 1994; Freire, 1970).

What Are Dialogue Journals?

Contrary to most in-school writing, dialogue journal entries do not arise in response to prompts. Rather, they arise out of and foment relationships; they are spaces where students write about what they care about and know, and where teachers and peers serve as communication partners. Thus, rather than focusing on correcting students' written language, dialogue journals emphasize authentic communication.

In primary grades, students and teachers might write to one another daily, perhaps in small groups, where students address self-selected topics and then read their writing aloud to the teacher. In turn, the teacher can tailor her responses, starting where each child is and "leading from behind" (Gibbons, 2002, p. 47). This might involve engaging in oral conversation about an entry and writing one question to which a child can respond, or it might involve offering only a written response. …

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