The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 49 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
Listen to this episode:
GONZALEZ: How well do we know our students? I mean, 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?
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 something new, a method or approach that can really help build those relationships more effectively, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
My friend Liz Galarza, who teaches middle school writing in New York, has been telling me for ages about these dialogue journals she uses with her students and how transformational the journals have been in building her relationships with students. The journals had such a profound impact that Liz made them the focus of her doctoral dissertation. Having done something similar with my own students, with similar effects, I have experienced the power of these kinds of journals, so I invited Liz to share her system in this episode.
Before I play the interview, a quick thank you to everyone who has left a review for this podcast on iTunes. Every review brings more listeners to the show, and I read and love every single one, so if you’ve been enjoying this podcast and you haven’t left a review yet, take a few minutes to go over to iTunes and tell me what you think.
Okay, let’s learn about dialogue journals.
GONZALEZ: Liz, welcome to the show.
GALARZA: Thank you for having me.
GONZALEZ: Liz, if you would just please give us a quick description of just who are you, what do you teach, what grade level, where are you, and all that introductory stuff.
GALARZA: Well, I’ve been teaching for 33 years. I started back in the ‘80s in the South Bronx. And if anyone out there listening taught in the ‘80s, they know it was a really fun time to be teaching. Very creative, somewhat different than it is today. I taught in the South Bronx for eight years. I did fourth and fifth grade, and then I came to Long Island, Bay Shore, New York. And I’ve been there ever since. I taught enrichment. I taught fifth grade for a long time, and then I was recruited to middle school for sixth grade. Taught English as a sixth-grade teacher, and now I have a really special assignment as a writing enrichment teacher, and that’s what I’m doing now. I teach about 100 sixth and seventh graders, mostly sixth graders. And in 2011, I returned to school for myself to earn a doctorate at Hofstra University.
GONZALEZ: OK, and you were doing that while still teaching full-time?
GONZALEZ: OK, got it. So sixth grade, and what we are going to be talking about today, and Liz and I know each other through a Voxer group that we have both been in for over a year now, and one of the things we talk about in this group, it’s a group of maybe 20 different teachers, and we just share a lot of cool ideas and discuss a lot of things. And one of the things that Liz and I have talked about a lot over the last year is something that she’s doing with her students called dialogue journals. And this is something that I became familiar with through a Harvey Daniels book called The Best-Kept Teaching Secret, but he didn’t introduce the idea to the world. He’s just sharing that. And Liz has just had a lot of incredible practices with dialogue journals, so I wanted her to come on here and tell us all about it. And you have actually turned your experiences and started doing, you’re doing your dissertation on dialogue journals, so this is a real serious interest of yours.
What are Dialogue Journals?
GONZALEZ: So why don’t we just start by having you explain to us what exactly a dialogue journal is.
GALARZA: OK, so my initial use of dialogue journals began when I took this position four years ago as the writing enrichment teacher, and the purpose really, in my mind, I didn’t really know that this was a thing. I just wanted to get to know my kids better, and I wanted to get them writing daily, and I had found in the past that giving them a writing prompt didn’t always get the good writing. So I really wanted there to be some kind of conversation. So I really wanted to connect with them. And I had learned since I moved from the elementary to the middle school that middle schoolers really need an adult to connect with. They need the connection to school. So it was fitting a couple of different purposes. So, what is a dialogue journal? It is, I’m going to give you my definition.
GALARZA: Dialogue journals are ongoing written conversations between the teacher and her students in the form of a letter exchange or correspondence. So basically it’s just a back-and-forth conversation, but instead of it being oral, it’s written.
GALARZA: The writing can take place anywhere and anytime. So sometimes I give my students … oftentimes I give them time to write it in class. There are certain kids who would prefer to take it home with them. So it doesn’t really matter when it’s done. There’s no prompt. The texts that are exchanged are intended to be meaningful and purposeful. So I really want to push for authentic language, real language, the functional uses of language, which often don’t occur in a regular day in school.
GONZALEZ: Why don’t they often occur? Because I think that’s an interesting observation.
GALARZA: Well, oftentimes a teacher has an agenda. You know, I’ve been teaching a long time. I’ve had my agendas. We need to get an assignment in. We need to get a grade done or the curriculum checked off. And so, you know, we’re asking kids to do writing that they really don’t want to do. They’re doing it for the assignment. The difference in a dialogue journal is that they’re writing about what they want to write about. So I allow the students to initiate the topic of conversation. And any writing is accepted and welcomed. Even the potentially tough topics, like complaints and questions. In my research I’ve learned that complaints and questions are probably at the top of the list when it comes to items found in a dialogue journal. But complaints and questions are least heard in regular classroom discourse. You know, oftentimes kids are not allowed to complain, and if they do, they’re basically told, “Well this is how it’s done.” They’re not given the space or the time to complain. Questions is another thing. I mean, we ask for questions only when we’re teaching. But we really don’t allow for questions of interest to them.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. So let me fill in a couple of gaps. Because I want to make sure that the people listening can picture this. In your classroom, anyway, what do they actually look like? Are these composition books? Are they three-ring binders? What’s the format?
GALARZA: I tell them they can use any notebook as long as it’s going to withstand a year’s worth of back and forth. So most of them use the hard composition, the marble composition notebooks, and then they decorate it. So I ask them to decorate with pictures or quotes or, you know, it’s interesting what they come in decorated. And it really does show their personality through how they decide to decorate it, but some kids use a spiral notebook. Some kids go out and buy a notebook for the purpose. Some kids, I’ve had kids make a notebook. Just throw some paper together and draw a cover and staple it.
GONZALEZ: OK. So it’s whatever they’re the most comfortable with that’s —
GONZALEZ: — they can create their own deal, but it is one sort of bound thing. It’s not separate sheets of paper that are flying all over the place.
GALARZA: No, no.
GONZALEZ: OK. And then when you’re talking about that you don’t have a prompt, but that a lot of times the things that come in tend to be a lot of complaints and questions. It’s sort of natural, and I can see this in middle school, because I was a middle school teacher too. That’s a lot of what’s going on in their minds.
GONZALEZ: When you get started, let’s talk about the beginning of the year and how do you introduce them to these? Because I’m thinking a lot of students aren’t going to know what to write at first. I know lots of kids will just be like, “I don’t have anything to write.” So how do they start to understand what kinds of things they can write about?
GALARZA: OK, so at the very beginning of the year I always, for all of my years of teaching, I’ve collected as much data on the kids as possible, and not the kinds of data that …. test scores and stuff like that. I want to know about them. So I send out a parent questionnaire. I get information from parents, and then I give them …. I do a lot of observation, I do some talking the first couple of days of school, and then I give them a sheet. Basically it just says, “Who are you?” I ask them for five pieces of information about them that I cannot find by looking in their cue cards or by looking at them. So, for example, they can’t say that they wear glasses, because I can see that they wear glasses. I want to know, and I try and give them a couple of suggestions, examples without getting too deep, because I want them to tell me. And then on the bottom of that page, I tell them that they can ask me two to three questions about myself. And we talk about the appropriateness of questions, but for the most part, they usually ask appropriate questions, and I usually answer just about anything.
So I gather that information, and I start the letter. So I would write to you, “Dear Jennifer, I’m so glad you’re in my class this year. We’re going to have a great year together.” Something like that as a first paragraph. Basically a generic first paragraph for everybody. And then I get into very individualized, personalized stuff. So you might say that you like to write. And I would say, “We have something in common. I love to write too. What kinds of things do you like to write?” 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. It’s not teacher language that I’m using. I’m using very open, I’m very open with them. I might throw in a couple of smiley faces or other emojis along the way, and I’ll always sign it “Love.” You know, “Love, Ms. Galarza.”
And then they write back. And throughout the letter that I’m writing, they will …. Sorry, I got distracted by my dog. I turned around, and then was like, “Oh, OK.” Throughout this dialogue, they get to say, “Oh. She likes ice skating too.” So they’ll talk about ice skating, or I’ll say something like, “I have one brother. He’s older than me. Are you the oldest or the youngest?” And so they will then start talking. Oftentimes that’s all it needs.
GALARZA: That first letter kind of takes off and some kind of thread begins.
GONZALEZ: Right. So you do the first entry?
GONZALEZ: The first entry in every journal is from you. That’s really interesting.
GALARZA: I have read about it being done otherwise, and just saying to the students, “Write me a letter.”
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yep.
GALARZA: Open-ended like that. That could possibly work as well. But I think that the kids who are less, who have a lower self esteem when it comes to writing or lower confidence level when it comes to writing would feel paralyzed by that. So I try and make it very, very open. They write me back. And at least eight out of 10 times they follow the same format.
GONZALEZ: That you started?
GALARZA: Yes, yes. They’ll just follow along.
GONZALEZ: So you’re modeling too. You’re not only modeling the tone, but you’re modeling the length of sort of an average response —
GONZALEZ: — because I know there are those kids who you say, “Write in your journal,” and they will write two sentences and say, “I’m done. I’ve said everything I need to say.”
GONZALEZ: So you’re already setting the tone with that first letter.
GALARZA: Right. And they normally start with, because after awhile I’ll always say, “Thank you for your letter.” That’s usually how I begin. Or, “It was so great. Thank you for writing back.” Or, “I’m so glad that you wrote back.” Something like that, but they start doing that too, and they follow suit. And it’s interesting. I always pay attention to how they end their letter, because like I said, I end it with “Love.” And then some of them will write, “Your student,” some of them will write, “Love,” some of them will write, “From,” some of them will just write their name. And that gives me information.
Everything about the letter gives me further information about the student, and so what happens is each conversation is completely unique. So you might know something about me that somebody else doesn’t know, and they might know a totally different …. because each conversation is unique. They’ve asked me those questions, so in my first letter, not only do I try and, like, bond with them and show them that we have some things in common, I will weave in the answers to the questions that they’ve asked. Depending on how meaty of the information that they’ve given me, I might hold off and use that at another time that I might need it. So I don’t overwhelm them on the first couple of letters.
GALARZA: And I get to see how it goes. Some kids, it’s going to fly. We will never run out of things to say.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, OK.
GALARZA: Some kids it will fall flat after the second letter. And I will either ask them some questions which I try not to, and I’ll explain that later, or I will say to them just point blank, “This is a place where you can talk about anything. What would you like to talk about?”
GONZALEZ: Does that work with more kids then?
GALARZA: Some kids get on board, and they’re like, “Oh. Can I talk about video games?” Yeah, sure, go ahead and talk about video games, and then I try and get them to teach me something, and it kind of empowers them. Some kids just say that they’re just so paralyzed, “I don’t know what to write about.” And then, in those cases, I will go back to my original intake sheet, look for something and start. Maybe I’ll just ask them … if they wrote that they have a sister, I start asking about their sister.
GONZALEZ: Right. So that then those initial first letters that they wrote to you outside of the journals —
GONZALEZ: — you can return to those for more information? OK. Let’s talk for just a minute about signing them with “Love,” because I’m thinking that there may be some teachers who are going to hear that, and they’re going to think, “I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that.” So talk a little bit about your rationale and maybe what your suggestions would be if a teacher’s just … that’s not their personality to do that.
GALARZA: That’s a great point, because teaching is such an isolating profession. I chose to write “Love,” and what happens is halfway through the year, instead of writing the word “Love,” I use a heart.
GALARZA: It’s interesting, because then you’ll see the kids start doing that too. So I’ve just learned a lot of different things, but it’s a personality thing. So if you’re not comfortable with it, then you wouldn’t do it. You might write, “Sincerely” or “Looking forward to your letter” or “Your teacher.” I guess my personality is I want the kids to know I love them. I tell them all the time I do. I’m a tough teacher. I’m strict. There’s nothing wishy washy about me, you know, in the classroom, but I want them to see that just because I’m “tough” as a teacher, that doesn’t mean I don’t love them. In fact, it means I do love them.
GONZALEZ: Right. Yep, yep.
GALARZA: So they get it, they get it. And, you know, many of the boys never, of course, write “Love.” They think that it’s like, “Ew. How could you … that’s telling your teacher that you love them.” But many of the girls do.
Storage and Privacy Issues
GONZALEZ: Yeah. That’s interesting. OK. So let’s talk a little bit about just the logistics, because in a little while, we’re going to get into some of the real benefits and some of the things that you’ve learned about quality of them, but let’s just talk about how you do this. So do you store them in the classroom or do the kids keep them with themselves?
GALARZA: I have trays set up on the ledge labeled with periods, because I teach five different sixth-grade classes, so they’re labeled according to the period that I see them. I ask them to be turned in on a rotating basis, so I’m not getting all 70 journals on the same day, so I’ll say, “Period 1 hands it in on Monday, and Period 4 will hand it in on Wednesday,” so it gives me some time to write back. The journals are there. They’re kept on the ledge. I have never had a problem with anyone going into another person’s journal. I talk to them about the privacy of the journal at the beginning before we begin. I tell them that they can write anything, and that it will be between the two of us only, except if I find that they are in an unsafe situation. And we do talk about the possibility of things being revealed that might be unsafe. So they understand, and I make sure that they understand that if they write something to me that I feel .… and there have been incidences where I will have to sit down with the student and say, “What you’ve written to me warrants me to take this to somebody else in the school.” And they understand, and in most cases, almost all cases, they wrote it for that purpose.
GALARZA: They’re crying for help. So they’ll write something … and just this past year, a student said something, I got a social worker involved, and after investigating everything, what she wrote was untrue. So that was an interesting, and then, of course, that’s out of my hands, and it goes in a different direction, but she was one of those very quiet students that would have fallen through the cracks had there not been a journal for her to write something in. Even if it was an untrue, you know. It was a very serious situation, but her take on it, what she wrote was not actually what happened.
GONZALEZ: Interesting. Oh gosh. Yeah, I was in that same situation, and we ended up having to bring in the guidance counselor and report what was written in the journal, and this kid never spoke to me again. I mean he was mad, he was mad. And I don’t know whatever ended up becoming of him, but those are tricky situations, and I’m glad that you brought that up. We didn’t talk about that ahead of time, but some pretty serious stuff can be revealed, and we’ve got reporting responsibilities.
GALARZA: Right. And in the last years that I’ve done this, I have never had a child stop talking to me or feel like I turned on them, because at the beginning of the year, I say what I said before, and when I read it, before going to anybody, I will talk with the child about it. I’ll face-to-face with them.
GALARZA: “There’s something that you wrote in this journal that is making me think, you know, making me curious. Can you explain it to me? Maybe I read it wrong. Maybe you aren’t sure of how … “ Some kids write and they don’t re-read. They don’t proofread, so they might have said something, and I might have misinterpreted it. So I check with them first, and then I tell them, “I am going to go to your guidance counselor with this.”
GALARZA: “Would you like to go with me or do you want me to … ?” I’ll give them options.
GONZALEZ: Mmhmm. That’s interesting.
GALARZA: You know?
Teacher Response and Grading
GONZALEZ: OK, let’s get into the logistics of the grading, and we want to talk about this in two different ways. Number one is how do you handle a hundred kids? And I know that some people listening have more than a hundred, but I’m glad it’s a hundred kids, because that’s a pretty good number. How do you handle it, time-wise? How often are you doing this? And then we can also get into what are you actually writing in these? Because we’ve talked a little bit about how you’ve refined your responses so you meet certain goals for you. So first, how do you manage all of those journals?
GALARZA: Well in the research, as far as my practical experience, the time issue is the biggest issue. I do not grade the journals on content. There’s no grading, there’s no red penning, there’s no pointing out of any kind of spelling error, grammar error. The space of the journal is simply for communication.
GALARZA: And for relationship-building. Of course, the more they write, the better they’re going to get as writers, and the more confident they’re going to be. So that’s like a side positive effect.
GALARZA: And, of course, the modeling issue is happening without them even realizing it.
GALARZA: If they spell a word wrong in the journal, in my letter I will use the same word, spelling it correctly, hoping that they see it. If there’s a grammatical sentence structure issue, I will write it correctly and hopefully they will see it. For my low-level writers or my ENL students, my sentence structure is very simple, so that they can follow that.
GALARZA: For my more advanced writers, I might use a more complex sentence structure and hope that they’re going to see … you know, I might combine sentences or use phrases and just more sophisticated language and hopefully they’ll pick up on that.
GALARZA: But as far as time goes, I try and get it back to them as quickly as possible. They love receiving the letters. So when you … when they hand it in, they’re saying to you the following day, “Did you read my letter?”
GALARZA: You know, they want it back as quickly as possible, so I try and do that. It is … what I decide is my priority, even though I do not get a grade, per se, out of it. The only thing I do grade is that they handed it in. I want them handing it in.
GALARZA: So it doesn’t matter what they hand in, as long as they hand it in they’re going to get full credit for it.
GONZALEZ: OK. So that’s … if somebody writes you four pages of letters versus somebody writes just one paragraph, it’s pretty much a sort of a pass/fail completion grade.
GALARZA: Right, because once you put a grade on something … I’m not really into grading. I know you know Starr, and so I’ve sat through many of her sessions. The more often you put a grade on something, the less empowering you’re making it for the students —
GALARZA: — and you’re taking away all of their agency. So I don’t want to … and how can I possibly grade something like this?
GALARZA: The only thing I will, like I said, is grade for completion, and I’m thinking, even next year, of not even grading it at all and seeing what happens.
GALARZA: Because I want to see who hands it in and who doesn’t on their own.
GALARZA: Because as long as the teacher’s requiring something, there is that power, that authoritative power that I’m really trying to eliminate. But it does take time, and I can get a class set done in about an hour, so you’re talking about five hours’ worth of time in the course of a week or two weeks. I mean, it depends. There are times in my life that I’m super busy with school, with my own school, so I don’t collect it as frequently. And then there are times I do have them, I give them a due date for handing it in, but I tell them, “You can hand it in early. It doesn’t matter.” So there are kids that are handing it in as soon as I hand it back. Like I have a student from two years ago who handed it back … I have like almost every day, there’s a dialogue between the two of us.
GALARZA: And then there are children who will just hand it in on the due date, so we have a much fewer amount of letters.
GONZALEZ: OK. So for those … let’s say this is like how many class periods’ worth?
GONZALEZ: Five class periods, OK. So you’ve got these five trays … So say like on Monday, you’d grab Period 1, you tell them, “This is your due date. Everybody hand in your dialogues.” You take those with you and you respond to all of them, and they have them back the next day, ideally.
GONZALEZ: So you don’t take them out until you’re actually ready to respond, because you don’t want them to be out of their hands for that long, right?
GONZALEZ: So if this one child turns something in early, do you grab that with the Period 4’s that day?
GALARZA: Yes, yes.
GONZALEZ: OK. So that’s a signal to you that they want a response sooner.
GALARZA: Right, right. And in some cases … It varies, and I have lots of examples, but there are some kids who are really looking, like I said before, for an authentic, caring adult to see them. You know, many of these kids … this is sixth grade. It’s in a school that they’re the new students in the school. It’s so easy to get lost in the new scheduling, so many different teachers. If they’re already shy, you know, your typical good student that falls between the cracks, doesn’t raise their hand very much, isn’t a behavior problem, they have stuff to say.
GONZALEZ: Yep. A lot of thoughts going on in every single one of their heads, and just because they don’t say it, doesn’t mean it’s not in there.
GALARZA: Right. And when they see that I’m giving time to their thoughts, I’m going to jump on that. So it takes me … I mean, once you get good at it, I’ll talk about response, once you get good at it, I can get a letter done in five minutes.
GALARZA: Or less. I have arthritis in my hand, so that’s the only thing that slows me down. If I could speak it, and I’ve tried to figure out ways to do it, if I could speak it and have it translated to text, because that is another option. You know, electronic journals would work perfectly fine also. I like the handwritten, because there’s a personality, I think, that comes through. But, you know what? With all the different emojis and things that you could do through electronic journals, that would be a way to respond as well.
GONZALEZ: It’s definitely an option. I agree with you. There’s something about seeing somebody’s handwriting that feels very intimate. But I think for practical reasons, some teachers may prefer to do something that’s more electronic. So one last question about the logistics of it. Actually, two questions. So one is, if you’re collecting these about once a week, the students are writing in them every day, correct?
GALARZA: No. They’re not writing in them every day. They’re just answering my letter.
GALARZA: They’re answering my letter. So that could take …. I often give them time in class to do it. That could take as little as 10 minutes for a student to respond.
GALARZA: And it could take an hour, if a kid wants to really put a lot into it. Some students take pictures and put them in there for me. Draw pictures. So it might take a little bit longer. But no, they’re not writing every day unless they get it back from me every day. So they don’t write until …. It’s a one-one-one-one.
GONZALEZ: Got it. OK, OK. All right. So the time that you give them in class, I mean that could just be something where a student just finishes something early and they say, “Can I just work on my journal for a little while?”
GALARZA: Right, right.
GONZALEZ: OK. So they keep them with them all the time until this hand-in date.
GONZALEZ: And then … OK. And then as far as recording this in your gradebook, is it just 10 points or something? They did or they didn’t? Or is it just …
GALARZA: I have a check-off list of their class right near the tray, and so when they hand it in, they check it off.
GALARZA: It’s an “on your honor” type of thing. And then I see, “Oh. Jen, you didn’t hand in your journal.” “Oh, that’s right. It’s in my locker,” and they go get it and they bring it, or they’ll say, “I’ll bring it in tomorrow.” And then at the end of the marking period, I look and see, did you hand it in all the times that you were supposed to?
GALARZA: There’s a hundred.
GONZALEZ: Right, OK. Gotcha.
GALARZA: You know?
When Students Don’t Want to Write
GONZALEZ: Gotcha. Yep. It’s really simple. OK. Have you had students who just would not get on board? Or who you really struggled with for a while to get them to start producing some kind of writing in there?
GALARZA: It happens, I would say, one in 10, one in 15 that a child really doesn’t want to do it. Interestingly, you would think it would be the child that doesn’t like to write, who claims that they don’t like to write.
GALARZA: But that’s not always the case. That’s sometimes the case. Usually it is. They just don’t know what to write about. They are so … I keep on using the word “paralyzed,” because that’s how I feel. I feel that previous writing experiences for them have been so traumatic that they’re almost afraid. Or they think so poorly of themselves that they don’t think that they have anything to say.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So what do you do then?
GALARZA: Or they simply just don’t want to do it. You know?
GALARZA: I will just … I will accept the one sentence.
GALARZA: And I will try, and I’ll say something like, “Thanks for writing.” And I will try and write a little bit. Now, in the research, when I first started with this, I tried to write a lot, thinking that if I write a lot, they’re going to write a lot. But in my research, I found out that that is not a good practice, because it’s very intimidating to them to see so much writing. And they feel like either they have to match that amount and maybe they don’t want to, or they have to match that amount, and they can’t. So the research says to try and match the quantity with their quantity. So if they write two paragraphs, I write two paragraphs.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
GALARZA: If they write four pages, I have to try and write a lot.
GONZALEZ: At least a long one, yeah.
GALARZA: Right. And as far as questions go, another thing I learned in my research is that it’s not really a good idea to ask a lot of questions, because it puts me in a very authoritative teacher mode, and I’m trying to remove myself from that persona. So I kind of try and get them to ask questions.
GONZALEZ: OK. So are you mostly revealing things about yourself and your own thoughts and reflecting on some of the things they said without asking direct questions?
GALARZA: Absolutely. That’s the best way to get them talking is to say … to disclose information about my own life. Even if it’s something, and I know there are teachers listening, and I’ve spoken to a lot of teachers about this, some teachers do not feel comfortable disclosing personal information about their life. I have little problem with it. I have found that the more real they see me, the better the letters are going to be, and the better the relationship will be, and the more they will see themselves as important people, which is so much more important than the word “student.” I want them to see themselves as having something important to say and important to bring to the conversation. So I will tell them, like they will say to me, they’ll ask me questions about, for example, my husband, because I never talk about a husband, and then I’ll them that I’m divorced. And some teachers would feel uncomfortable in doing that, but I don’t. Sometimes they might even ask in the next letter, “Why?” you know? I might just say something like, “You know, sometimes marriages don’t work out.” I’ll try and like circumvent the question. They’ll ask me if I have grandchildren, and I’ll say, “What? What do you mean grandchildren?” Because they know that I have children, and I’ll talk about my kids, and my kids are in their late 20s, so in some of their cultures that’s when, you know, children are born, so they’ll ask me questions like that. I have no problem answering those kinds of questions, because I … what am I trying to hide?
GONZALEZ: Right, right, right. There’s also a difference between answering a question … if somebody asks you, “Why are you divorced?” You can answer them truthfully without giving them all the inappropriate details that they don’t need to know, but you can still … kids are learning about the world at this age.
GONZALEZ: One thing that I noticed about teaching middle school kids is that this is the age when they’re pulling away from their parents, and they don’t want to talk to their own parents about anything, a lot of them.
GONZALEZ: I’ve had so many parents that will come to me and say, “She doesn’t tell me anything about school. They don’t want to talk about anything.” They’ll tell me all kinds of stuff in their journals. So they need that relationship with a trusted adult who will continue to answer the questions that they used to ask their parents.
GALARZA: Absolutely. And it’s interesting you bring that up, because I only see them for 40 minutes a day as opposed to their core teachers that see them on an average of 50 minutes a day. And they see their core teachers probably in a different light than they see me. I’m, like … I’m an elective class, so whatever that means —
GALARZA: — in the scheme of things. But when we have parent conferences, and I’m there, and I’ll bring up something to the parent that I know, or I’ll even bring up something to the teachers that I know, they will look at me and, “How do you know that?” Because they share things that are important to them. They are initiating the conversation. They are in control. They tell me about things that will never come up in social studies, science, math or English unless you allow them to.
GONZALEZ: Yep. I’ve found that as an English teacher. I always knew way more about my students than the other teachers did, and it makes you more sensitive to their needs then. You realize oh, they’ve got a lot going on right now. That’s why they’re acting up, and you can handle things with smarts, basically.
GONZALEZ: Because you understand that things are going on.
How Dialogue Journals Impact Students
GONZALEZ: OK. Let’s talk a little bit about, now, what are the effects of these journals? What are some of the impacts? So we can weave in your research a little bit, what you’ve discovered, how it’s impacted your own teaching in terms of relationships and how that’s impacted the students academically. Just talk about why should teachers be trying this.
GALARZA: There are so many benefits. I’ve already spoken about the mentor, the aspect of it being a mentor text. You know, it’s closer to speech than other writing styles, so it’s such a wonderful technique for ENLs or very low-functioning writers. They’re individualized, so you can literally teach them something within the journal without anyone knowing that you’re doing it. So I’ve done that before. 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.
GALARZA: It obviously increases the quantity of writing, and we all know it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that when you increase their writing, the amount of writing they do, it’s going to just naturally get a little bit better.
GALARZA: I can use the multiple language errors that I find in many of the journals as a basis for my mini lessons. 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. If I see that many of them are not using the subject-verb correctly.
GALARZA: I will do mini lessons on that, so it informs my teaching.
GONZALEZ: That’s interesting too, because you don’t red mark anything, and yet it’s data still, it’s giving you information on what they need to learn. Yep.
GALARZA: Jenn, you’re a teacher, so you know everything is data. From the minute they walk in that room, what they’re wearing, what they say, how they look, how they respond, everything is data. You know, the writing is real conversation, and that is something that, like I said at the beginning of our time together, the kids go through school. I mean, I have two adult children who finished college and finally said, “Oh. That’s why we had to do that. Now I understand it.” Kids don’t understand when they’re going through school why they’re doing it. They don’t understand why they’re given all these writing assignments. This is a real exchange with a real audience.
GALARZA: The reason why you’re doing it is because I am going to listen to you, read it, respond to it. You know, it’s so different than any other writing that’s being done. It helps, it definitely helps classroom management, because the kids feel like they’re in a trusting, caring place.
GALARZA: And because I know so much about them, like you said earlier, I might know if someone’s sister just left for college, and that’s why their behavior is that way, or someone’s grandmother is ill or things like that. And it definitely raises self esteem, because I really, without making it all sugary, I really do value what every child is saying. It’s impacted my teaching in all those ways. I found this quote as I was doing research, that “the philosophy is one of dialogue and differentiation, not transmission and standardization.” You know, our schools right now are all about transmitting knowledge. It’s back to a different decade, long ago, where, you know, we have this vision of the kids having these open heads, and we just plop in information without any differentiation. Everyone’s supposed to just follow along on a script that, unfortunately, people are forced to use. But this practice is all about dialogue and differentiation, which is just such a different mindset.
GALARZA: Yeah. I gain insight into their thinking as I gain insight into their writing ability. So it’s two-fold. The time, in my opinion, is well spent, because I’m learning, not only about their writing ability, the academic aspect of it and what I have to work on with each individual student, I’m learning about them as human beings. And I know that when my professors really get to know me, the relationship helps in my scholarship.
GALARZA: It’s unfortunate that kids move from elementary to middle school, and the whole philosophy changes. I don’t want to offend anybody by saying this, but I’ve gone from elementary to middle school, and there are some secondary teachers that feel that they are teachers of content.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well and that goes back to that whole transmission thing.
GONZALEZ: We’re jump dumping it in and that’s it. I’ve seen the exact same thing.
GALARZA: And elementary, if you were raised as an elementary teacher, your philosophy is that you’re teaching a child.
GALARZA: You know, so I think that that is the biggest difference. But they see me as being authentic. They like that there’s no correction or judgment, you know. Anything is allowed. And the response is the most important part of the whole process, and that’s where teacher personality is going to come in. This isn’t going to be good for everybody. I’ll be honest. It takes a particular type of teacher to really want to put the effort into it. If it’s going to be a status quo answer for everybody, it’s just not going to be effective. A motivating and encouraging response will keep the momentum going.
GALARZA: And then you have to be empathetic. You have to have that self disclosure. You have to be real. And then they’ll trust you, and I’ve learned, and I have, like I said, kids in my 20s, and I’ve been teaching for 33 years. I’ve made a lot of mistakes through the years, more than the time that we have here I could talk about, but I’ve learned that if they trust you, you’re going to get much further.
Dialogue Journals Across the Curriculum
GONZALEZ: So suppose I’m an eighth-grade math teacher. Would this be worthwhile for me to do sort of on the side of the math that I’m teaching?
GALARZA: Well if I were an eighth-grade math teacher, I would use it for mathematical reasons.
GALARZA: And then work in, I could work in some of the personal stuff, but I would base it on math. I would have it like, it might be prompted or you might say, “Write in the journal about something you either learned this week, understood, didn’t understand, want me to review with you,” and then there could be some personal tutelage there. But I think that if given some time and thought, I could come up with it working in any situation. Certainly, of course, the literary journals. You know, Nancy Atwell was doing this back in the ‘80s with her literary journals. For that, that’s a no-brainer, you know, talking about books.
GALARZA: But I think that science you could definitely use it, because you could talk about real life science, you know.
GALARZA: I think that in the subject areas, it might need to be a little bit more prompted.
GONZALEZ: Right. I was just thinking that. You can’t just let them … but then again, if you’re giving them content-driven prompts —
GONZALEZ: — you may not be getting to know the students and building the same … you build academic trust with them, I guess, if they see this as a vehicle for being able to ask more questions and talk about what you don’t understand. But I guess if a content area teacher is willing to put the time in, they could also allow space for that more free-form, “Just tell me what’s going on in your life right now,” and maybe have separate conversations going on about the more personal stuff?
GALARZA: Right, right.
GALARZA: I think that there’s a way.
How Dialogue Journals Shift the Classroom Power Differential
GALARZA: I did not realize when I decided to use this as my dissertation topic that there was going to be so much written on it.
GALARZA: There is tons of stuff. Much of it is about second-language learning, because it is a great link from another language to English. It actually originated with the deaf population, which, you know, it’s just such a smart thing, right?
GONZALEZ: Oh, interesting. Right. Right, right.
GALARZA: And so many different usage in emotionally disturbed situations, you know, the journals have been used for class management for children who are, who have problems at home, in special settings, certainly, and lots and lots, so I’m sure that if we dug deep we would find information on that. But the basis of my research is …. because you know when you do a dissertation, you have to come up with something new.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. It’s very targeted.
GALARZA: That’s the whole point. It’s not like an eighth-grade report. You have to actually come up with something new, and so the angle that I’m taking is the power differential and how it is softened through the use of the dialogue journals, and so I’m looking at that. So the way you respond, and I’ve mentioned it throughout, really does have an effect on the authoritative stance.
GONZALEZ: So yeah, talk about, describe your research and what you’ve actually discovered on that question.
GALARZA: So as a teacher we always have that authoritative stance: We’re the teacher, and they’re the student, and they know that. I think the more you use that as leverage, the less you’re going to get out of students.
GALARZA: So I’m trying to … kind of level the playing field to the best of my ability by being very real, by not using teacher words, by responding to them with playful language. I’ll throw in some emojis, I’ll throw in a joke. I’ll be a little bit different. I’ll be very different, actually, than who they see. I’m doing teacher research, so I’m researching myself —
GALARZA: — which is a very interesting phenomenon, and when I analyze my own writing, I sometimes say, “Who the heck wrote that?” like, it doesn’t even seem like it’s me, but it is. It’s a different persona. So they’re seeing a very soft, fun, light language. I share my experiences. My writing style is different than my obviously academic teaching style. My students have funds of knowledge that I never knew about, and I can give you an example. May I give an example?
GONZALEZ: Yes. Please.
GALARZA: OK. So I have this student this year, and he is into taxidermy and hunting. And I live on Long Island, and I only have learned about taxidermy and hunting — I’m not a hunter or a taxidermist — through maybe a movie or a book that I’ve read, but never firsthand. And he was … boys are different about writing to their female teacher, I think. And he, I had suggested to him, because he started writing, drawing these pictures for me, which were so … he told me that he was a taxidermist, and 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. So I suggested to him, “Did you ever think about writing a comic book about hunting or taxidermy?”
So his response is, “I actually never thought about writing a comic book about hunting. But when I was 4 or 5 I used to collect comic books out East where I used to live. Maybe some day I might try that.” And then he goes on to tell me this was during Storm Jonas. He told me that he shoveled and he made money, and he said, “With the $50 of money I made, I’m going to buy a crocodile taxidermy head, and I’m going to buy eight-point velvet deer antlers. Velvet grows on velvet deer antlers, and when the deer wants it off, they rub their horns against a sturdy tree, and the velvet will come off nice and easy, but it’s not pretty. Because when the velvet comes off, the deer antlers bleed. Other than that …. “ You know, and then he goes on to something else, and then he actually illustrates the two velvet deers. So I was just like, “Wow.” So I went off my research into the funds of knowledge that kids have. And then I realized that a few years ago, there was a boy in my class, his family was from Kosovo. I know nothing about that country.
GALARZA: And he asked, he was very interested in his heritage and my heritage, where am I from, and I asked him just like one question like, “What do you know about Kosovo?” Well I got letters, letters and letters about their war, about the civil war, about the food. I mean, he wanted someone to ask him that question.
GONZALEZ: Oh my gosh.
GALARZA: No one ever asked him that question. So between … and these are two boys. Another really interesting one was a couple of years ago when Jeter, Derek Jeter, this is a boy who point-blank said, “I do not like to write.”
GONZALEZ: Yeah, OK.
GALARZA: And I will start off by saying he wrote more than any other student that year. His journal had more pages in front of me than any other. He got … the book was almost sequential daily.
GALARZA: In his intake sheet, every single thing he wrote about was about baseball and about the Yankees.
GALARZA: So I said in my first letter to him, in my second paragraph, I said, “We have something else in common. I am a new York Yankees fan too. Can you believe that Derek Jeter is retiring? I cannot imagine the team without him.” That one paragraph sustained almost the whole year. His letter to me was, “I can’t believe it either that Derek Jeter is leaving us, but he is getting old.” Then he writes, “Farewell, captain. He has been playing for 20 years — half of my dad’s life and twice my age almost.”
GALARZA: So I mean, the mathematical thought that went into that on top of … and then he starts writing about some other things that … “I can’t believe that you’ve been teaching that long. I thought you were younger than that.” Which, of course, made me gave him an A right off the top. He says, “Sometimes I like writing when I’m bored. I try to read whenever I can. I like reading about baseball history, like about Babe Ruth, so nonfiction.” So he answered my original questions. That letter was enough material to get us through almost an entire year.
GONZALEZ: Wow. That is really cool. That whole concept of funds of knowledge, I mean every kid is walking around with information that they have, unique information that they might not even value, because to them it’s just part of their normal lives, they might not even realize what they actually have to teach people until somebody shows an interest.
GALARZA: Right. So the word “value” is really important here, because, you know, the way in which we empower our students, or we level the field, or we give up some of our own control is by giving them the power to have valuable things to say. I have a couple of other examples. I had a girl, her family was from Pakistan. She was going through some very difficult internal struggle with living in America, wanting to have American …. wanting to be part of the American culture, but living in a household that was very much Pakistan. So she was one of those students who would write four pages. We got very, very, very close. Unfortunately, her parents took her out of the school and put her into a Pakistani school, and it might have even been because of her relationship and her … I allowed her to explore options, or explore her thoughts, whereas her parents really wanted her to stay in that realm. But she’s talking about a crush. She said, “I know that I have a crush. Having a crush isn’t dumb, but I have a weird culture. Nothing like the religion. I love my religion. So yeah. Have you ever had a crush?” Here’s where you can disclose.
GONZALEZ: Mmhmm, yeah.
GALARZA: This is the same girl who asked me about grandkids. So I said, “I have had hundreds of crushes,” you know. Underline “hundreds,” exclamation points. “I know that your culture is different than mine, and I would really love to learn more about it. Please share.” And I put like a heart. And then I said, “It must be difficult when most of your classmates do not understand your customs. Why do call your culture ‘weird’?” And so that took off on a conversation, and so she was struggling with, is it weird? Is it different? The information in that journal was very, very deep. It ended up that she and I became … we started talking. I invited her into lunch once a week. The relationship took off in a different kind of a way than in most, but she was looking for someone to listen to her about this.
GONZALEZ: Yep. And that’s thing is that, you know, they have friends their own age, but a 12-, 13-year-old kid doesn’t know how to respond with empathy and validation and disclosure. Like, kids their own age are kids. And if they’re kind of distancing themselves from their parents, really they don’t have anybody for the most part to have these kinds of deeper conversations with.
GALARZA: Right. She was a student who looked different also. She had the, she wore the headgear and so unless you knew her from a previous school … Now remember this is sixth grade, so she is coming in touch with people, a lot of people who had never seen her before —
GALARZA: — and so she was struggling. Another student this year, I got very close to. The conversation in the dialogue journal had to do with dogs, you know. Kids love talking about pets. I have two dogs. Unfortunately, one of my dogs is pretty sick, and he’s diabetic. Both of my dogs, believe it or not, are diabetic, but this dog is older. He’s diabetic, he’s blind. So the conversation was mostly around her dog and my dog. And then her dog had to be put down. And she came to me, you know, it was a lot of crying, a lot of consoling, a lot of writing in the journal. And then a few weeks after when they had … they got a box for her dog and everything, my dog got sicker. And so, she would ask me, “How’s Blanco?” And I answered her truthfully, because that’s another thing. I think that teachers often lie to kids to make it easier for them, and then when they find out that you’ve lied to them, you lose complete trust. They don’t trust you anymore. So I would say, “Oh, he’s not doing that great this week, but I’m optimistic he’s going to be better next week,” or whatever. So she took on a totally different stance with me. She became my caring … she became … we reversed roles, basically.
GALARZA: So she says, “Dear Ms. Galarza. I’m really sad to hear the news about Blanco. [Sad face] I know what you’re going through. Just hold on tight. Hard. Always remember your students love you. We are all here for you whenever you need us.” And it goes on. And so every letter she asked about me, and it got to a point where she would walk in the room, look at me, and we would look across the room, and she would know if Blanco had a good day or a bad day the night before. And she, at the end of the year, you know, was hysterical, of course. And we both were. This never would have happened.
GALARZA: And I’m not saying I’m … there’s nothing special about me. This can happen for anyone. In my opinion, you hear the passion in me. To me, it’s magic, what can happen, because I don’t look at teaching the way many people do, you know. 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.
GALARZA: They need me to care.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Oh gosh, Liz. That’s genius. You’re right. Oh my gosh.
GALARZA: I can only facilitate the learning once they realize I care.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Yeah.
GALARZA: It doesn’t matter how well prepared you are with a lesson plan. If they don’t buy into you as a human being, especially in the middle school years. Things change when they get to high school, because they realize they’ve got to know stuff in order to get into college. You know? Then they start going into, like, gotta do this, gotta do this.
GALARZA: But in middle school, they’re not thinking that way. They don’t care.
GALARZA: They don’t care.
GONZALEZ: They are so into navel gazing at that point. They are not thinking about the future, they just aren’t thinking about anything yet. So, OK. I’m looking at my list of questions, and I’m thinking that we kind of … we jumped around a little bit. Is there anything else that we sort of talked about before that … is there anything else that you want to share, basically, about dialogue journals?
GALARZA: I think that it was a classroom practice back in the day, in the ‘60s. And, in fact, the landmark study that I’m basing most of my research on was a woman named Leslie Reed, and she did these journals with her sixth-grade class, and, I’m quoting, she says, “To help students use writing functionally and to encourage greater personal autonomy and problem solving.” That was the reason why she was using it back in the late ‘60s. So there was this researcher who was looking for a method to use in a counseling setting. She spoke on a soccer field or something to somebody who said, “Oh, my daughter’s teacher does these journals. Maybe that will help you.” And that’s how the whole thing blew up. So in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, up until the early ‘80s, this was a classroom practice that was quite often seen.
GALARZA: When, you know, the No Child Left Behind rules came in, and when all those laws, you know, all the standardization came into teaching in the late ‘80s, ‘90s and to the present, many of these practices went into the background, replaced with things that, in my opinion, they don’t work, they don’t work, and they’ve really turned kids off to the whole process. So this is not something new, it’s just something I think that can be renewed. And I’ve found that I can use it even with the confines. Of course, I’m a blessed woman. I do not teach in a core English class. It’s an elective, and I’m given a lot of freedom, but I think that with a little bit of creativity, teachers can fit this in even under the constraints, you know, that they’re presently under.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well we’re going to put together a really nice blog post to go with this interview with pictures of some of your actual students’ journals with your responses and sort of how you’ve got it setup and maybe some step-by-step instructions so that if anyone’s listening to this they can go to that, and I will give instructions here at the end of this podcast, so that people know where to find that information, so they can start implementing this.
GALARZA: Thank you so much.
GONZALEZ: Thanks, Liz.
GALARZA: Have a great day.