Back to the Basics

I have gotten to a point in my teaching career that I have a whole batch of "we do this every year." This is a very comfortable place to be, but teachers don't often "settle." We look for new activities to share, new materials to offer, and new ideas to try out. These mostly work out, because the place and space in which they are being introduced has a strong foundation. There are times though, that I have found it beneficial to go back to the beginning, the basics, to remember why I started doing something in the first place. There are so many things we do each day, and these become standard operating procedures. Yet these things and events are so essential, i.e. the basics. For instance, sitting down with the children to eat snack. We also make sure we gather essential "things." For example, we have lots of moveable, open-ended materials on the playground for children to build with and drag around. And it is the "how," we remind parents and other teachers to play alongside while still guiding children in daily pursuits.

Here is a basic, a "S.O.P." I needed to revisit recently. Journals. Each child enrolled at our school has a journal. These are composition books and they "write" in them weekly. One year, the kids created handmade books to use as journals -- 4 sets/one per season! Nothing like setting the bar high! That was a time I immediately went back to the basics without a second look. Handmade books are wonderful and worthwhile, but it became a distraction from the primary purpose. Those marbled composition books are simple and straightforward, easy to find, always available. They are also a familiar, iconic, "school" item. Parents treasure these journals -- I know I treasure my younger son's journal. His stories about grass, fire, and water (thanks, pokemon) are award-winners. I was sad my older son didn't have one. Journaling was introduced to the school by Susan Gerone when my older son was already in 1st grade.

Here is how it works. Child and adult sit down at a table. Child draws and talks about the drawing (or not). Sometimes it is a story, sometimes it is a sentence or two, and other times it is a careful description about the process of drawing, (e.g. "this green line crashes into the red -- BAM"). The grown-up writes down the child's words. The child sees that spoken words spill out and can be written down. The child learns -- if care is taken in the recording -- that writing has different forms. Depending on interest, inclination, and developmental age, the child may also explore story sequencing.

At some point over the last year or so, I think I must have stressed too heavily during a parent training a singular view of journal entry as "story." Parents-as-recorder and Parents-as-reader struggle with the idea that their children are not writing stories and if they were writing stories, the stories were incomplete. So, one day spills into the next and before you know it, the familiar needs revisiting. We feel stuck. I had to regroup and revisit the inspiration and purpose of the Journal Activity.

Why do we have journals? I needed to turn back in order to move forward, to help us all get unstuck. The short, and always magical answer, points to Vivian Gussin Paley. Long answer and thoroughly supported by "best practices" can be found in Bank Street College of Education practices. Paley describes journaling with children as another opportunity to capture and make evident the lyrical, imaginative, and creative thinking of children. She describes using journal entries as inspiration for dramatic play. It validates, it strengthens, and it celebrates the child in a very special way. Love it! That is the magic. At Bank Street, they supply another important layer--literacy development. It follows that children learn both the function and form of writing through the journaling process. And that writing holds great value during a formal "sit down" with a grown-up. Young children already reading and writing benefit from the free exploration of language and ideas that may be limited by fine motor skills. I add my own layer, knowing that in the realm of social-emotional development, learning to work and talk with an adult and having one-on-one attention in a classroom setting holds its own value.

By going back to the beginning, back to the source, I rediscovered the magic and the substance of a single, and very important, activity. If we know that the activity of listening, recording, and fashioning a written entry with a child -- even in its simplest form (a word, a phrase, a sentence) is where the essence of the effort can be found -- we should be ready to accept and celebrate that single word, phrase, or sentence. There are many forms of writing and even more ways to express ideas, the journal is just one way and it is certainly not the only way.