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.