The Power of Journal Writing – a Story of Hope

I’d like you to meet Jennifer.

That’s not her real name. I don’t want anyone to be able to identify her.

Jennifer at age seven came into my class as a scared, wide-eyed little girl with a few problems. She was selectively mute. She also had a speech impediment, which could explain why she didn’t speak very much. She chose not to communicate in any vocal way. She had a word that sounded vaguely like “toilet” (bathroom for my American readers) when she needed to leave the room. She had another word “dink” which I translated as her desire to go to her bag to get a drink. That was about it.

She hadn’t learned more than a few letters of the alphabet in two years of schooling. She could barely write her name and as for being able to read… well, she recognised her own name, her sister’s name and few other words. I knew it was going to be a challenge, seeing I had seven other children with great learning needs as well. At least most of them knew how to communicate orally, but their writing and reading skills were so lacking. The other 20 students were your average garden variety children with only one or two of above average achievement.

I began an intensive programme of reading, writing, listening, stories, poems, speaking activities, drama – whatever my 30+ years of teaching experience could draw upon to help Jennifer and the other students. I won’t even go into details about the Mathematics programme! These students had GREAT needs.

Step by step, one lesson at a time, one little piece of progress and many setbacks along the way. There were many discouragements, but they were offset by little victories, small advances, concepts learned and applied. One of the vital cogs in all of this was journal writing. Daily exercises in writing were adhered to, even when the going was really tough.

Gradually I gained Jennifer’s confidence and she began trying to say more words. It took every ounce of patience I had. Her speech never became perfect but it was enough to give her a start. Over the next 20 months (I had most of the struggling students for a second year) Jennifer made amazing progress. At first she could only speak a word or two that she wanted to write in her journal. I would actually have to write the words for her in her book and she would trace over them. Then it became phrases and finally whole sentences. Her reading began to improve, her spelling improved, her speaking improved and her confidence soared.

Jennifer and her family moved to another town towards the end of the second year in my class. Just before she left Jennifer wrote a journal entry about an event in her family. She wrote, without any help, a whole page. That was her Everest – and she scaled it. But wait – there’s more! Not only did she write that unassisted, it was in beautiful handwriting, with only three or four small spelling errors. It was correctly punctuated with sentence structures that would put to shame some blog entries I have read.

Is that all? No – she then asked to read her writing aloud using a microphone at a school assembly! And she did it!

Do think I was proud of her? You’d better believe it!

It still brings a tear to my eyes when I think about it.

Update March 2017: some time ago I found out that she has graduated from high school and has successfully completed a TAFE course. Wow.

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9 Responses to “The Power of Journal Writing – a Story of Hope”

  1. Rick says:

    This is a fantastic story, Trevor! To take someone from that beginning to that end says a lot about you, your technique, the child’s desire, and the benefit of establishing a relationship with your student. It’s like the advise to aspiring writer’s.

    Q: How do I learn to write?
    A: Write!

    The other thing I notice is you had 28 children in your class (approximately the same class size when I was in primary school in the 1960s) and eight of these had special needs. Current US teachers would be complaining that with that many students of average intelligence and school, they wouldn’t be able to teach them anything.

    When my oldest son was young he was diagnosed with ADHD. Our friends used to call him ‘demon child’ (as did I at times. The teacher at the first public school he attended when he began kindergarten had him sitting in a corner by himself within two days. We took him out of that school and put him in a Catholic school even though we aren’t Catholic. The teachers there were much better. He also wouldn’t read due to his inability to focus. He did like video games, though, so just to get him to read something, we got game magazines for him. He still isn’t the best reader of the world, but the motivation of trying to get information he really wanted enabled him to learn to read at a level adequate to anything he will likely need and understand what he was reading.

    I wish we had thought of the journal writing when he was little. Maybe if children were raised with the concept of journals as daybooks, rather than diaries, the idea would catch on, rather than being seen as a stereotypical girls’ pasttime as they are in American culture.

  2. Trevor says:

    Hi there Rick – thanks for your perceptive comments. You have raised a number of important issues.

    Concerning class sizes – Australian teachers have battled for many years with large classes and have only recently succeeded in gaining a few concessions from the politicians (who hold the purse strings – both state and federal). Many opponents say that they were in classes of 35 or 40 students or more and it didn’t harm them. They fail to realise that education has changed, society has changed and most importantly, children have changed. For a whole raft of reasons, teaching IS far more complex and demanding today than, say, even a decade ago.

    The year after the one I related in this post junior primary classes (Reception to year 2 – ie ages 5-7) were cut to a maximum of 18 (down from 26) in SOME schools – only those most in need. And only here in South Australia. There was a complex formula for determining which schools benefited from this move. In practice, however, the formula tends to be more a guideline than a watertight policy, despite many union protests (read hollow talkfests – teacher unions here in Australia are largely ineffective).

    As for children with special needs – don’t get me started on that topic. A few facts on the South Australian scene: most special needs students have progressively been mainstreamed over the last 15 years due to budget restrictions. Special classes are only for those with severe learning difficulties – the qualifications are very tight. Being in mainstream classes throws a heavy burden on classroom teachers most of whom have little or no training in this area. To put extra SSOs (teacher-aides who are not trained either) in the classrooms is something but merely a band-aid move, in my opinion. Some of these SSOs are fantastic but there are far too few for so many children. In effect, the most I ever had was about 10 hours per week.

    As to journal writing, I believe this is very important as outlined in my post. Perhaps what I didn’t emphasise is that it is only one component in a whole range of teaching strategies. It was complemented by a wide range of other writing, reading, listening and speaking activities – a language rich environment undergirded by praise, encouragement, patience, more praise, still more patience and heaps of practice.

  3. Intensive Gardening says:

    Hello blogger! I was surfing the internet Saturday afternoon during my break, and found your blog by searching MSN for intensive gardening. This is a topic I have great interest in, and follow it closely. I liked your insight on ower of Journal Writing – a Story of Hope, and it made for good reading. Keep up the good work…

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the kind words “Intensive Gardening” – they are appreciated. You might be interested in reading my wife’s blog:

    http://www.malleenativeplants.com.au/

  5. Rosanne says:

    Hi, Trevor, your Story of Hope is a great advocate for journal writing. I had a character in my book, ‘Soraya the Story teller’ write in a journal to keep her identity alive but ‘A story of Hope’ shows that it works in real life. Good for that little girl she was in your class.

  6. Trevor says:

    Thanks Rosanne – I appreciate you taking time out from your busy schedule to read the article and to leave a comment.

  7. […] My response comes from many years of classroom teaching, where I took essentially illiterate children from ‘zero’ to ‘hero’ in two intensive years, or less. You can read all about my experiences here: The Power of Journal Writing – a Story of Hope. […]

  8. Charles Van Howard G. Florendo says:

    Thank you for posting this story. I am a student journalist and I am taking Bachelor of Secondary Education major in English Language. I appreciate this very nice story. It gives me inspiration which later I can use when I am already on my teaching job. God bless~! Keep up the good work.

  9. […] do miss the children. I do miss seeing children develop their skills, especially children like Jennifer. She astounded me with the progress she made under my care and […]

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