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How Dialogue Journals Build Teacher-Student Relationships


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Listen to my interview with Liz Galarza (transcript):


How well do we know our students? They sit in our classrooms five days a week, we certainly spend lots of time with them, but how well do we really know them? How well do we know their thoughts, their worries, the things they obsess about? And how well do they ever get to know us beyond our role as a teacher?

Liz Galarza

Liz Galarza

I’ve been hammering away at the importance of the teacher-student relationship for about as long as Cult of Pedagogy has been a thing, but every now and then I come across a method or approach that can really help build those relationships more effectively.

My friend Liz Galarza, who teaches middle school writing in New York, has been telling me for ages about the dialogue journals she uses with her students and how transformational they have been in building relationships. The journals had such a profound impact that Galarza made them the focus of her doctoral dissertation.

What are Dialogue Journals?

A dialogue journal is any kind of bound notebook where students and teachers write letters back and forth to each other over a period of time. This is very similar to the kinds of journals described in Smokey and Elaine Daniels’ book, The Best Kept Teaching Secret, but since Galarza has had such powerful experiences with these journals, I thought another post was merited.

In Galarza’s class, students purchase whatever kind of journals they want, “as long as it’s going to withstand a year’s worth of back and forth,” she says. “Most of them use the marble composition notebooks. I ask them to decorate with pictures or quotes, and it really does show their personality.”


How Dialogue Journals Work

The First Entry

In the first few days of school, Galarza gets to know her students through intake forms (not included in the journals) where she asks students to tell her five things about themselves that she wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at them or their school records. Next, she goes into the journals and writes the first entry, starting with a very general welcome, then beginning to connect with students based on things they wrote on their intake forms.

Although many teachers begin these kinds of journals by having students write the first entry, Galarza has had more success by starting them herself. “I think the kids who have less confidence when it comes to writing would feel paralyzed by that. So I try and make it very, very open.”

In the sample letter below, Galarza connects with this student about her love of reading and writing, softball, and pets. “The first letter I ask more questions than any other time, but I get them to see that I’m human. We have commonalities. I’m interested in you. You’re important to me. This is going to be fun.”




Student Responses

Once the teacher’s first letter is written, students write back. In this sample, Nick responds to Galarza’s opening letter, where she mentioned Derek Jeter leaving the Yankees. “In his intake sheet, every single thing he wrote about was about baseball and the Yankees,” so Galarza made sure she mentioned that in her first letter.



Time and Grading

As the school year progresses, the journals go back and forth between teacher and student. Galarza asks students to write one letter a week, although some students write more often than that. About once a week, Galarza will ask each class period to hand in their journals, staggering these on different days so she only has one class period per day to respond to. She takes about an hour to respond to a single class set of journals, so if it’s a busy season, she may end up only collecting them every two weeks, rather than once a week.

As for grading, students are simply given credit for completion. Even if they don’t write a lot, they get credit for doing it. And that’s it. Galarza does not mark errors or evaluate the work for any kind of score. Because this journal is about building a relationship, Galarza doesn’t want to take away its appeal by assigning a grade to it. “The more often you put a grade on something,” she says, “the less empowering you’re making it for the students.”




Benefits of Dialogue Journals

Shifting the Power Differential: Because dialogue journals allow students to see their teachers as people, they shift the teacher from the “all powerful” role and create a stronger, more meaningful connection between teacher and student. “As a teacher we always have that authoritative stance: We’re the teacher, and they’re the student, and they know that,” Galarza explains. “I think the more you use that as leverage, the less you’re going to get out of students.”

Writing Fluency: When students write in dialogue journals, there’s no pressure to fulfill an assignment or construct perfect sentences. Students just write. And the more a person writes, the more confident they become and the better their writing gets. If the teacher can identify topics that are important to the student, this can inspire far more writing than a student would ever produce for an assignment. Nick, the student above who wrote about Derek Jeter, initially told Galarza he hated to write. After their first exchange about the Yankees, Galarza says the topic stayed with them for the rest of the year, and Nick ended up filling more pages than any other student that year.

Formative Assessment: Although the journals are not designed for this purpose, having students write regularly allows the teacher to spot errors or weaknesses that can inform teaching. “I can use the multiple language errors that I find in many of the journals as a basis for my mini-lessons,” Galarza explains. “So if I see that many of my students are not using commas when they’re offsetting a list, that might become a grammar mini-lesson.”

Individualized Instruction: “You can literally teach them something within the journal without anyone knowing that you’re doing it,” Galarza says. “I’ve said something like, ‘You know, you can use a semicolon in your sentence’ … I might even highlight it. ‘You know in this sentence up here? You don’t need a period there. You could use a semicolon.’ I’ll just throw in a little grammar instruction as we’re going along only if I think that they would be receptive to it.”

Mentor Texts: As the teacher and student go back and forth, students pick up on the teacher’s style of writing, and the teacher’s letters effectively become mentor texts. For example, when Galarza responds to her more advanced writers, “I might use a more complex sentence structure. I might combine sentences or use phrases and just more sophisticated language.” Often she notices students using these same structures in their own responses.

Funds of Knowledge: Keeping dialogue journals with students over time helps teachers discover students’ unique funds of knowledge, areas of expertise they might not have known about otherwise.  “I had this student this year who was into taxidermy and hunting,” Galarza says. “I was so interested in it, so I asked him to give me information on it, and he really did. Like technical. Like it belongs in a book. And then he drew pictures.” She asked him if he ever thought about writing a comic book about hunting or taxidermy, and in his response, he considered it:




Relationships: Ultimately, the most important benefit of the journals is the relationships they build. When students feel they have a trusted adult in school, when they feel heard and seen, that makes school a place they want to come to.

“I don’t look at teaching the way many people do,” Galarza says. “I know that they could learn anything they need to learn from their homes with a device on their lap still in their pajamas. They don’t need me to learn. They need me to care.” ♦





There’s a lot more where this came from.
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  1. Nikki says:

    Very interesting! I am saving every Friday for journaling this year with my high school science students. Maybe this is where I should start; it could be once a month with the other journaling in between.

  2. Carrie says:

    Great idea! I have a smaller class than I’ve ever had this year, and this looks like a wonderful way to encourage writing and build relationships.

  3. Ellen says:

    I love this idea, but I worry about being able to keep up with it, and wonder if starting, then not following through would do more harm than good.

    • Kerry says:

      I do a TGIF journal with my students where they write home to a parent or aunt every Friday and tell them about the week, what we’ve studied, etc. Parents are then asked to write back. Most do, some don’t. I like the idea of switching it up and some weeks writing home and some weeks writing to the teacher, another week a peer.

      This is how I’ll mix it up as I know I couldn’t keep it up. Have a great teaching year.

      • Liz Galarza says:

        Writing to a parent is a great idea! Thanks for sharing. Let me know how it works to change things up. Have a great school year!

    • Tina says:

      I’m worried about keeping up as well! I have 50 students, and I’d have to figure out a rotation. Any suggestions on management?

      • Liz Galarza says:

        I have tried it many different ways, but what has worked best is receiving about 10 books a week. I post a schedule and the student knows when they must submit. This way you are only answering 10 a week, but are constantly receiving books. I hope that makes sense!

    • Liz Galarza says:

      I would bet that once you start writing with your students, you will not want to stop!

    • Liz Galarza says:

      I do not think it would be harmful. As a suggestion, you could start with everyone and then just continue with the students that really WANT to do it. This way, you will not feel overwhelmed. I would be interested in hearing how that works.

      Enjoy the school year!

  4. Liz and Jen,

    I’m so impressed by the dedication and care put into dialogue journals.

    This reminds me of literature letters, which my teaching methods professor, Jim Mahoney, had us write during one of my final college classes. Each week, students wrote a letter to each other about one of the class readings, and every few weeks, each student was responsible for writing a letter to Mr. Mahoney. The casual dialogue between students and student to teacher about the course content and life in general deepened the class experience so profoundly.

    I can only imagine that the dialogue journals have the same impact on you and your students.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Liz Galarza says:


      Thanks for your comment! I am sure the experience that you had in that methods class had a significant effect on your learning. When you build trusting, caring relationships, students and teacher engage more authentically and REAL learning takes place.

  5. Love this! My kids keep “day books” and some of their journal entries are like the dialogue journals. I respond to their entries with comments, but I love the idea of a teacher’s reply as a mentor text. I will definitely keep that in mind as I begin this new year. Thank you for sharing.

    • Liz Galarza says:

      Thanks so much for your comment! I would love to hear how the journals work in your class.

      Have a great school year!

  6. Cindy Horst says:

    Thank you for the great listen. I’m dying to try it, but . . . five more hours per week (five classes of 30 or so) – how can I do it? I can’t. I am hoping for ideas on how to do them in less time. Thank you! 🙂

    • Liz Galarza says:

      Thanks for the feedback. You can try it with just one class and see how it goes. Stagger the submission so you are only receiving about 10 books a week. This may be doable Let me know!

      Have a great school year!

  7. Thank you for sharing this idea. I also wonder about the time investment, but the benefits you write about are inspiring – individualized instruction, ongoing assessment, and teacher letters as mentor texts. And of course, relationship building.

    • Liz Galarza says:

      Thanks for your comment. Yes! The benefits are awesome. I hope you consider trying it. Keep me posted!

      Have a great school year!

  8. Liz and Jen, I SO appreciate the depth of this topic you’ve presented here. Thanks for the models/examples provided because it makes educators more likely to adopt this activity with students when they see the process.

    • Liz Galarza says:

      Thanks so much, Leanna! Please share your experience with the journals and have a wonderful school year!

  9. Sarah Sturgeon says:

    Liz and Jen
    In the 1980’s, Leslee Reed taught across the hall from my classroom – and saved my sanity by sharing dialogue journals for use in my multilingual-cultural sixth grade class in downtown Los Angeles. Their personal and classroom relationships supported academic learning at all levels in this class of diverse students. In subsequent duties in 4th, K, 1st, remedial reading groups, and then ESL classes in Roatan, dialogue journals remained crucial lifelines. I’m grateful that their use still sustains learners in this number crazed data era.

  10. Liz Galarza says:

    Oh, WOW!!! I am so glad to hear from you, Sarah! I wish I could speak to Leslee Reed. I have read so much about her while doing my research. I feel the same way with regard to the present academic climate. is possible to use these types of classroom practices even with our data driven profession.

  11. Kristi Wiggins says:

    I listed to your podcast yesterday on my way to and from school. I had my students bring 2 comp books this year, but I had decided not to do a project that we have used one of them for. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to utilize these, and your dialogue journals may be just the ticket. I had my kids write me a letter the first day of school, so I’m going to use those over the Labor Day holiday weekend to try and get these started. I’d love to see a sample of one of your first entries. Do you have any of these posted anywhere online? Thanks for the great tips. I can’t wait to get started

  12. Liz Galarza says:

    It was a great idea to have the kids write you the first letter! There is a sample of a first letter in the blog post. I hope you are enjoying using dialogue journals with your students!

  13. Lisa Davis says:

    I was recently hired as an ESE (special ed) support facilitator in a middle school and will be working with my caseload in regards to behavior and what they need to do to be successful in class. I am definitely going to incorporate this. I have used a mailbox in the past to let kids write to me about whatever they wanted to, but I like the consistency of the dialogue journal. Thanks!

  14. Shelley Woodland says:

    Do you think this would work if it was digital? Email rather than journals, or would that take something away from the experience?

    • Hi Shelley,

      Opinions definitely vary on this. Some people feel we don’t get nearly enough time putting pen to paper, and that we lose some intimacy when we go digital. I see the validity of this point, but I also think you can gain so much by doing dialogue journals digitally that it may be worth the trade-off. If I were to do a digital version of this, I don’t think I’d do it through email; I would just have each student start a Google Doc, and we would go back and forth in that same document. Here are some advantages of doing dialogue journals this way:

      (1) Accessibility: You could catch up on dialogue journals at work or at home, or on a smartphone or tablet. This would be much easier than hauling crates full of journals home with you.

      (2) Commenting system: With Google Drive’s comment system, you and the student would be able to comment on individual parts of each other’s letters by highlighting a particular word or section and adding a margin comment. While this is possible in a physical journal, it could get messy quick, and you’d be limited in how much space you’d be able to use. With Google Docs, you could do margin comments AND a separate letter that follows the student’s entry, which could offer a lot of different ways to interact.

      (3) Hyperlinking: In a digital environment, both you and the student could hyperlink to other resources and media that connects to the topics you’re discussing. These could range from a quick lesson on mechanics (if you notice a student attempting a sophisticated sentence structure but not quite getting it) to a link to a song or video one of you wants to share. Over time, each student’s dialogue journal would be a rich, layered, personal collection of multimedia they’ve built with you.

      What do you think?

  15. Carol Leyendecker says:

    I created on line journals (courtesy of Alice Keeler) and put them in the google classroom. I think I will concentrate on including the dialogue aspect to them. I do comment on their entries each time, but something more personal would be a great addition.

  16. Mel says:

    Has there been success with this in the elementary classroom?

    • Debbie Sachs says:

      Hi Mel! Yes! Yes! Yes! I used dialogue journals in my 5th and 1st grade classrooms — LOVED them! They were absolutely a great means for relationship building — my favorite part was writing back — validating and empathizing and laughing in response to their messages. I also came to realize I was able to naturally differentiate and nudge writing progress with each entry by crafting responses with intention. Kids eagerly looked forward to my responses, paying attention to how I wrote back…noticing crafty use of punctuation, changes in text size or line spacing, and purposeful word choices. They also got to now me better on a personal level. We know the power of modeling. Dialogue journals give kids of all ages an opportunity to get that bit of personal attention from their teacher through the art of written communication. I gave up dialogue journals one year because there was so much other stuff to do…that was about 15 years ago…still remember it and still regret it.

  17. Christine says:

    Has anyone used these in a high school biology course, even an AP science course? I’m curious about having the students do a journal where they tell me what they are understanding versus what they are struggling with in class. I wouldn’t be using it to get them to write, but to get a better feel for how they are grasping the material. I love the idea of building trust with my students through journaling. I am able to build an easy rapport with my students, and trust with most of them in class, but it can be hard to get to the students who struggle with the subject. Feedback would be appreciated!

  18. Janice says:

    I have been thinking of doing something like this with my high school seniors. I would like to replace the Reading Logs ( for my Humanties class) with something that feels more organic to them, but that can also establish a more authentic communication between us and with their readings. Have you used it at the high school level? Do you think it would be successful? Any ideas are vey welcome 🙂

    • Liz Galarza says:

      Using dialogue journals to replace reading logs sounds like a great idea! It would be more like a literary journal or a reading response journal, but connections can be built, for sure! I have not used them at a high school level, but I believe, that if students could buy into it, the timing would be perfect. They are at a transitional time of their lives and need teachers to be authentically available. I would love to hear how they worked!

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