Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed, 1 May 1996 08:28:40 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Random Thought: Student Journaling

Well, here it is about 5:30 a.m. I just came in from a six mile, 66 minute (that's called braggin') walk. It was just one of those soothing walks this beautifully dark, crisp morning. The air is light. It has a cool, fresh smell after being cleansed and deordorized by yesterday's downpour. With every step I could feel the emotion and spirit of everything around me. Pre-dawn for me is alone time. It's good time. It's content time. It's peaceful time. At this quiet time, my mind and soul are always busy places where I freely sort though issues pulsating within me. It's Wednesday, what the students call "Journal Day."

I look forward to reading the students' journals, all 142 of them from three classes. I spend the whole day sitting on the floor of my office, foregoing lunch, licking Tootise Pops, listening to my boombox, slowly turning pages, stopping occasionally to think, carefully embracing every word. The journals, more than anything else I do in class, more than the students themselves realize, bring me closer in touch with the hidden, energizing, stereotype-defying complex world of each of the people in the class. In these odd collections of pads, sheets of paper, and notebooks (once a student handed in clay tablets), I am amazed how many students who feel awkward in expressing their opinions and idea orally become somewhat at ease, who may be shy become a lot bolder, who doubt the value of what they have to say gain a measure of confidence in their thoughts. Reading students' journals is often being a spectator watching a discussion, arguement or debate. At times, it's like having a silent, private conversation with a person who might not talk--at least initially--if they had to look me in the eye. I am constantly surprised how many students write down their most intimate personal feelings and experiences revealing glimpses--at times very intimate glimpses--of who they are, who they want to be, what they want to be, and what they are struggling to get away from and become. It's almost as if so many of them are looking for someone, a "silent friend" or "quiet partner", with whom they can openly talk. Within the varied sized, wrinkled, stained, smudged pages the students capture and express emotions of struggle, pain, anxiety, exploration, frustration, truths, lies, confusion, sorrow, joy, distress, comfort, hope, excitement, love, hate, inspriation, anger, boredom, depression. Their writing is often fragmentary, disjointed, uneven in quality, unpolished as spontaneious writing should be.

Their reaction to the requirement of journaling is almost as varied as their number--and is indicative of their thinking as well. Some students see journaling as an opportunity for self-exploration, some as a venturesome experience, and some as a pain in the butt. Many argue, debate, dialogue with themselves; some talk with me or ask me questions. Most are honest; a few are not. Some offer a confession of what lies within; some merely observe what goes on about. Some make their daily entries religiously; some wait to the last minute, in class at times, to write something at once for each day of the past week in an effort to pull the wool over my eyes. Some write matter of fact calendars, lists, chronicles; some write long contemplative essay. Some entries are dark and stormy; some are balmy and beautiful; some are serious; some are playful; some are a little bit of everything. Some students think about what they write; some see their journal as a bothersome, meaningless let's-get'this-ungraded-assignment-over-with. Most start off resisting having to journal and end up loving it. No matter what they write or do not, serious or not, reading their journals is like walking the aisles of an old-fashioned general store and browsing its an exciting hodgepodge of different expressing languages, a fascinating collection of dreams, nightmares, fears, values, aspirations, jokes, fantasies, poetry, musical lyrics, biblical quotes, drawings, letters, puns, citations, dialogues, plays, single words, incomplete sentences, turns of phrases, doodles, scribbles. That's okay because I tell them that "it's your journal, not mine. Write about whatever you want in whatever way you want."

Now you might ask why am I, a history teacher, asking the students to journal. I'm not teaching a creative writing class or a first year composition and grammar course. Well, as I have said to a few people, I've decided that my primary role is to teach students, not the subject; to teach with students, not teach to them. I've figured out what any educational institution is really all about. It's not about grades, classes, a department, a college or school, or a major program; it's not about rules and regulations for admission, registration, scheduling, graduation; it's not about professorial title, salary, promotion or tenure; it's not about the self-procreating fountains, the buildings, the lawns, the laboratories, the library; it's not about a grant, a book, an article, a paper; it's not about budgets and allocations; it's not about institutional and individual scholarly prestige and renown; it's not about this sports team or that, that championship or this honor. A school--any school--is about the growth and development of that one student in a better human being, and then another one, one at a time, one after the other.

Hugging, supporting, encouraging that one student, however, creates something of a problem for me. It forces me to realize and remember that, to paraphrase the great ancient Greek atomist, Democritus, I never step into the same classroom twice. The classroom is inherently a dynamic place; it's ALWAYS changing from minute to minute. There is nothing solid and static. Everything is always in flux in that classroom. It's always in fluid motion beset with all sorts of currents, eddies and whirlpools. Every moment is a series of exciting, challenging, transforming, confusing, seemingly contradictory, assorted, frustrating, vague, messy, ill-fitting puzzle pieces of a ever-changing picture that I do not have in front of me.

So I have to constantly alter my teaching methods and tactics; I have to adjust my attitude and behavior to each student. I have to recognize the multiple dimensions of the students, the multiple loci in the classroom, the multiple worlds in the classroom. I have to understand the complex array of forces operating within the classroom that push and pull both teaching and learning in so many different directions. I have to have sufficient flexibility to respond to the twist and turns and potholes and ambushes and pitfalls I am sure to encounter on the way to teaching each of those beautiful, sacred "ones."

Each student's capacties, potential, learning style, personality and emotional make-up is different from the other. My effectiveness as a teacher, to overcome student failure, anticipate potential problems and take preventative steps rests on the extent to which I can "read" the student and the student can read me. I have to make a deliberate effort, day to day, to make sure that I understand each student and he/she understands me. I have a sensitive "nose" for the the tricky quirks of personality and a sharp "ear" for the special rhythms of the individual student. I have to take a caring and loving and sincere interest in each each student. If I want the students to learn, I have to probe beneath the surface actions to learn more about the understructore of each student's compulsions, hesitations, passivity, activity, etc. I have try to understand each student's private world as it plays on the public stage. I want to know whether the student's issues rest with the student, with me, or with both of us.

Reading student journals, then, helps me solve my biggest problem in teaching: not to become deaf and blind to what's really going on around me. The journals are often a sharp knife that cut through that amorphous, stereotpying, dehumanizing, depersonalizing, herding opaque curtain of a terms called "the student" and "the class." They put a name and face and personality to each human being in the class room. The journals help me to figure out while "dancing on my toes" what the heck is going on in that classroom with each student and trying to figure out from moment to moment on how to get a handle on what I can and should do about each of them.

I suppose I was taught the value of journals as an essential tool in my teaching when I first toyed with the idea and introduced them into the classroom about two years ago on a voluntary basis. At first, I thought it would be a lot of time-consuming work to read jounrals, and wasn't sure whether they would be worth the effort. Then, three weeks into the course, I read one entry, the haunting words of a poem written by a muted student whom I'll call Sadie. The next quarter I made journaling a requirement for my teaching.

Sadie had seemed to prefer shadowy anonymity. I had quickly jumped to the conclusion that she lacked committment and initiative and needed skills, and questioned whether she really belonged in college. On this one day, she wrote, as she said, "to her other self and you about herself." She called the poem "Who Do I Believe." My breath tightens whenever I read it, and I read it often. She said I could use it as I wished. I copied it before she retrieved her journal. It's always near-by on both my office wall and at home. It's one of my sacred objects of my teaching because it altered the course of my mission. Here it is:

          Silent--There is a little girl hiding inside who feels all alone.
              She doesn't know what to believe about her.
          So, she still believes what THEY believed.
              She had trusted THEM.
	      She never learned how to trust her
          She still believes what THEY demanded her to believe.
              THEY did not believe in her.
	      THEY used her
          She wanted so to believe in her.  
              But, there was no one to hear her.
              There was no one to help her hear her.
          She was too confused about life to understand feelings.
              She believed THEM
  	      She let THEM use her 
          She believed she was an emotional retard, a nigger, a bitch
          Apathetic--she wanted people to believe in her.
              She wanted to believe in her
          But, there was no one to hear.
          There was no one to help her hear her.
          All she always heard was what THEY told her to believe
              Her true self was overshadowed by her fear 
          Tired, she gave in and surrendered.
              She did not sing.  
              She did not dance.  
              She did not fly.   
          She believed she was a social retard, a nigger, a bitch
              She did what THEY believed
              She became what THEY believed
          Afraid--She wants so to believe in her, 
              But, there was no one to help her to hear       
          Her voice stands silent 
              She yearns to sing.
          Her wings are still
              She longs to fly.
          Her legs won't move
              She wants so to dance
          But, she dares not to dare
          For she could only believe what THEY told her to believe
              The hurt.  
              The paralysis.  
              The silence.  
              The fear.
              The scars
          She hid from THEM and her and said. "I'm good at listening."
              She ran from THEM and her and said, "I can't"
          They followed.
              "See!  See!  See!" THEY pointed.
              "Retard!  Retard!  Retard!" THEY chanted
              "Niger! Niger! Niger! THEY burned in her soul like
                   a flaming cross
              "Ungrateful bitch," THEY screamed when she tried
                   to be what THEY didn't believe she should be
	      When she tried to do what THEY didn't want her to do
          Desperate--niger, retard, bitch. 
              "I AM NOT THOSE THINGS!"
          She wanted to scream back at THEM.
              She wants so to believe in her.  
              But, THEIR voices were still too loud.
          Will no one drown them out?
          Will no one hear me?
          Will no one help me hear me?
              I am in here off the streets!
          I want to break my chains, THEIR chains
              I am not out on the streets 
	      I am not like some drunk or whore or druggie 
	      I am not washing someone's toilet
	      I am not sweeping someone's floor 
              I am not a loser!  
          Or, am I?  Do I belong her?  Dare I know?
	  Will no one hear me and tell me?
	  Isn't there a louder voice for me to hear?
I am not ashamed to tell you that I cried then I first read that poem, and I'm teary eyed now as I write. For the rest of the quarter I struggled to be that louder voice and Sadie struggled to hear it. We both succeeded.

Sadie reminded me through her journal, and still does, as others still remind me through their journals, how easy it is to "misread" a student and conveniently see things in simplistic, distant, formulated, preconceived black and white terms. I've made that mistake many a time because I may have jumped too quickly to conclusions, may have been too distant, may have had different values, different beliefs about the purpose of an education, an ignorance of what's really going on either/or outside and inside, and personal prejudices all of which threaten to undermine my attempts to decipher problems, respond to wrong clues or misinterpret the right ones or missed the clues in the first place. Sadie finally told me that just because she was silent didn't mean she is either indifferent or incompetent. Sadie had told me in that secreted note that her silence was a symptom of the din of a number of damning, enslaving, deafening voices ringing in her ears and strangling her soul, that the habits she acquired in the course of her schooling was a deliberate masking of her real feelings and were hard to break, that it is the currents of those feeling and attitudes sunk deep into her spirit that sweep her helplessly along in spiritless actions, and that she is desperately trying to swim to reach shore, and find an outstretched, helping hand. Here poem was a photo that provided a clearer picture of who she was and why she was smileless, hesitant, reticent, defensive.

Because of Sadie and the jounrals that followed, I think I jump less to conclusions and "miss" fewer students. I now use journals as an on-going opportunity to develop and fine-tune what I call "informed intution." Each entry, however long or short, deep or superficial, serious or insincere, tells me a lot about each student. Each entry is a few clicks of the shutter in each of their lives, using wide-angle and macro lenses, at times deliberately out of focus. Each is a self-portrait and a background landscape filled with light and dark contrasts, mixed textures, angles and squares and circles. Each entry helps me in the struggle to meet the challenge of knowing when to hand out a Tootsie Pop and when to be in someone's face with tough love; when to smile and when to frown; when and how to nudge slightly, and when and how to give a hard shove; when to push or pull or cajole them to greater heights, or regretably and painfully to let go. You see, I think in good teaching I have to use a lot of personal judgement, yield to instinct, use intuition, improvise, adapt to the unforeseen, turn to the novel and untried, turn away from the prescribed formula, and approach each individual with a open mind. But, there's more to it than caring and compassion, spontaneity and invention, inspiration and motivation, command of subject, and color. What really elevates the state of the art of teaching is a personal committment to knowing both my subject AND each of the students. If I can be as familiar with their out-of-school lives as the students will let me, if I can keenly observe their in-school attitudes and behavior, and if I can somehow put the two together and figure out how the former impacts on the latter, there's a better chance of that magically illuminating "ahaaaa" brightening both my life and that of the student.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
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                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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