Dialogue Journals

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What Is It?

A dialogue journal is an informal written conversation between two or more people (student-student or student-teacher) about topics of mutual interest. Dialogue journals provide students with a meaningful writing activity that is engaging because it involves other students. These written conversations reinforce learning while forming bonds between students that can provide a foundation for later cooperative learning activities.

For example, students finish reading a story and are asked to work with a partner to respond in a dialogue journal to the question, "Did the story end as you thought it would?"

Student 1 I thought the story would end differently.
Student 2 Why?
Student 1 I thought the boy would get what he wanted (the bike) because it seemed like he did all the right things.
Student 2 I thought he might not get what he wanted because at the beginning of the story the author has the mother say, "We don't always get what we want...and that's OK."
Student 1 I did not think about it that way. It doesn't seem fair though. He worked hard and should have gotten the bike.
Student 2 Well, maybe that is a lesson the author is teaching.

Why Is It Important?

According to Toby Fulwiler, journal writing is an important way of individualizing instruction and encouraging independent thinking. Journals record the students' "individual travel through the academic world"; at the same time, journals can provide a springboard for more formal papers or projects (Fulwiler 2000).

When students have conversations about what they have seen, heard, experienced, or read, they have the opportunity to identify key points, make connections to prior learning, and hear other perspectives on the same material. Dialogue journals offer a written record of the discussions, which help keep the conversations focused and serve as a reference at a later time.

Incorporating guided conversation and discussion into the classroom helps students develop a deeper understanding of the topics and materials being taught. Dialouge journals also teach students to formulate and express opinions.

How Can You Make It Happen?

There are numerous ways to use dialogue journals or written conversations effectively in the classroom. Initially, students should make journal entries during class time to allow them an opportunity to internalize the procedures with your guidance. Then you may assign one entry as a take-home assignment that you or another student will respond to at a later time. Whether the journals are written face-to-face or taken home, be sure to give students direction and structure.

When students are engaged in a conversation with another student, an opportunity to bond occurs. Students engaged in cooperative learning activities in the classroom benefit from having had the chance to get to know and bond with other classmates.

To begin using dialogue journals, have students work in pairs. Monitor these pairs to ensure students have a variety of partners. Suggest pairs of students use two different types (pen and pencil) or colors (black and blue) of writing implements to distinguish between writers.

Explain to students that they will be talking with each other, but they will not use their voices. They must write what they want to communicate with their partner. Give students a mini-lesson by writing an entry on the chalkboard and then asking a student to respond to it in writing.

Allow students to exchange a brief written dialogue about anything they choose. Allow time for them to write what they want, exchange papers or journals, read what their partner wrote, and respond to it. Following this initial practice, focus students on something they all have listened to, watched, or participated in earlier in the day or week. Ask students to spend three or four minutes writing to their partner about the given topic. Writing may focus on likes, dislikes, particular characters, events, settings, experiments, math problems, and so on. Dialogue journals work well when students debate an issue. Students can start a dialogue by finding out when they agree and when they have different perspectives. Once they've established these differences, they then can build their dialogue. Have students defend their opinions to one another. They can practice asking probing questions to encourage each other to participate more fully in the discussion.

Students can give their papers to their partner, who will read the dialogue and respond in writing. Repeat this process twice, and then have pairs of students discuss their conversations verbally. Have students discuss with their partners how the written conversation progressed.

Divide the class into four groups, and then have students share their thoughts within their larger group. Finally, have each larger group tell the entire class what they discussed, found in common, agreed/disagreed with, and so on. This will enable you to identify common trends and shape future lessons.

You may choose to eliminate the oral components of this activity and read and respond to the dialogue journals yourself. However, it is recommended that you use the whole-class activity initially, and then implement more individualized approaches once students have a firm understanding of written conversations.

Whole-class activities may help you analyze entire lessons; reading and responding individually to journals helps personalize learning. You may also elect to have smaller cooperative groups discuss their journals orally and eliminate the whole-class component, depending on the nature of the assignment. That is the wonderful aspect of teaching using written communication; it lends itself to many different situations.

Another way to initiate dialogue journals or written conversations is to provide a piece of text, video, or audiotape to which students can respond. First, have students read the passage, view the video, or listen to the audiotape you have chosen. Allow a few minutes for reflection. Ask students to work in pairs. Then, organize these pairs into four large groups.

While in pairs, students open to a blank page in their journal to begin their written conversations. Have them write about the passage, video, or audiotape and focus on what they took away from the experience: a feeling, a like or dislike, anything they want. Give students approximately three or four minutes to write to their partner. When time is up, direct students to trade pages, read their partner's comments, and write a response. Again, give them three or four minutes. Repeat this process twice, depending on how much time is allotted.

Ask the pairs of students to share their thoughts with their larger group. Finally, have each larger group tell the entire class what their group discussed, found in common, agreed/disagreed with, and so on. This will enable you to identify common trends and shape future lessons.

Dialogue journals should be used on a continuous basis and as a regular part of the curriculum. You may use dialogue journals on a variety of topics several times during a week. You should respond to journals in a timely and consistent fashion and with an open, responsive, and playful attitude. Journals are not meant to assess students' writing skills but rather to assess their depth of comprehension of a given topic.

Consider responding to a number of journals at random each day rather than the entire class at one time. This will help you prevent your responses from losing the care and thought needed to make them valuable for all parties. Staggered collection days are suggested, to ensure that your comments and responses are not only timely but also open-minded and considerate of individual student writers.

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