One Conversation at a Time

One of my favorite quotes comes from The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

I began each school year with a fresh set of inexpensive spiral notebooks for my students. I modeled on the board the sort of information that I kept in my journal—primarily a record of what I did recently. I explained that I’d be reading the journals, writing back as if we were chatting, and that spelling and grammar didn’t matter. If someone wanted to write something private, they just had to fold over the page and I’d skip that day’s entry. I showed the students how to clip their journal open to the relevant page and where to stack it by my desk, ready for my quick reading.


As the students arrived each morning, they’d find their journals on their desks and write while I attended to lunch money, attendance, etc. Later, during my precious 23-minute free period, I’d read each entry and write a quick response in the margin, sometimes carrying on a conversation over days. I might connect with a story about my kids, about my dog, that I’d seen the same movie or television show. It took me 30 seconds per journal on average—15 minutes total. I’d set aside some journals for a longer entry or a private conversation.

When interest inevitably slipped, I’d tell the students to spend a few days reading instead of writing in their journals. Here’s a sampling of some fifth graders’ subsequent entries:

I’d forgotten about…
My spelling was so bad I couldn’t read what I wrote!
I’m embarrassed about some of the things I said about Jason.

Their spelling always improved after those readings.

I never peeked at the folded-over pages, although I could tell that some were blank. But I figured that reflection is a good use of time on occasion.

In May, I’d ask the students to write about the bitter and the best of the year. One serious fifth grader wrote that he liked the book sharing projects, but not the long-term projects: I never felt like I was done. That entry changed my teaching. The next year, I organized projects into milestones—and became a better teacher.

In this day of standards-driven curriculum, it can be hard to justify devoting 15 minutes of student and teacher time to journals. But you’ll all reap the benefits. And you might just get to read an entry like this second grader’s: You are the 2 beast teather. My mom is the frist. But you are god, to.*

*You are the second best teacher. My mom is the first. But you are good too.