By David Nurenberg
Samuel Pepys lived through the Great Plague of London, a 1665 pandemic where bubonic plague killed a quarter of London’s population in just 18 months, during which time the Great Fire of London also robbed twice that many Londoners of their homes. Anne Frank spent the last four years of her young life hiding in a concealed room behind a bookcase in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in the 1940s. Throughout the 2000s, missionary nurse Kelly Suter treated victims of the East Timor genocide, the Haitian earthquake and the Ebola epidemic in Liberia.
What do these three people have in common? They all kept meticulous journals of the troubling times they lived through (or, in the case of Frank, didn’t live to see the end of). Keeping a journal as a means of coping with and processing adversity is almost as old as the invention of writing itself; the Book of Merer, an ancient Egyptian journal dating back 4500 years, is the oldest surviving work written on papyrus.
Although the tools at our students’ disposal have changed a great deal since those times, journaling remains as powerful as ever. It’s a power which teachers can help students acquire by inviting them to take up the task of recording our unprecedented times themselves.
Through journaling, students reflect on learning and make connections between the content of their classes and their personal lived experience. Many studies have demonstrated journalism’s beneficial effects for communication skills development in all grade levels and subject areas. As one researcher explains, “In reflecting on their own thinking process, students…become adept at recognizing the importance of self-exploration, questioning, and connecting. When this reflection is in written form, students have a source of dialogue prepared for use during class discussions or when asking questions.” Journaling is also a tried and tested means of helping ELL students develop competency in English.
Plus, the benefits of journaling go beyond academics. During this pandemic, so many of us have devoted class time and energy—maybe even the majority of it—to supporting students’ mental and emotional well-being. Journaling has long been a go-to tool for mental health professionals; research reveals journaling can reduce depression, particularly in high-risk adolescents and in victims of violence. Expressive writing moderates the impact of obsessive and intrusive thinking, which nearly all of us are suffering from these days. As little as 20 minutes of journaling per day, for three days, has been shown to make a difference. There is even some evidence that reflecting in journals about our physical injuries can help us heal faster!
Journaling should not be used as an opportunity to teach and assess spelling, grammar and construction; the goal is free and unfettered expression, helping students to translate their thoughts to the page. Many students will need specific writing prompts as scaffolds, and these prompts need not necessarily be explicitly about COVID-19 and social isolation. They can be mundane (“describe a memorable conversation from today,” “explain why your favorite movie is so good”), topical (“what age is too young to be on social media?”) or even hypothetical (“if you won $1 million, what would you spend it on and why?”) The New York Times has a list of 1,000 such prompts on their website.
Read your students’ journals frequently and make lots of comments, keeping the feedback positive and non-evaluative. Encourage them to add more detail and elaboration where appropriate. Students should have the option of not sharing particularly personal journal entries. You also need to be clear from the outset that, as a mandated reporter, you’re legally required to alert the proper authorities if you read evidence of abuse or neglect; students need to know what kinds of things you can and cannot keep in confidence.
The student author isn’t necessarily the only beneficiary of her journaling. As opposed to a diary, there is something consciously public and historiographical about journals. They are written, as the ancient Greek Historian Herodotus said, so that “time will not draw the fire from things men have brought into being.” Engage students with the very real mission of being chroniclers of the pandemic era—not just consumers (or victims!) of history, but also authors of it. Future generations almost certainly will rely on journals like these for knowledge of what happened to us during these times.
For that reason, encourage or even require your students to write their journals by hand, on paper. Not only are there well-documented learning benefits of hand-writing text versus typing it, but given how rapidly technology changes, a journal written today in Microsoft Word or Google Docs may not be accessible even five or ten years from now. This is even truer of videos and multimedia presentations, so this is one time where “digital natives” should try their hand at older forms of expression. Have them snap a photo of their written pages and upload it to you, or even—and this is really old school—send copies back and forth via snail mail, and keep the ailing US postal system in business!
One of the most awesome and incredible opportunities we have as teachers is helping our students develop the ability to turn unpleasant situations into opportunities for learning—in this case, both the students’ own learning, and possibly the learning of students in the distant future as well.
Grbavac, Michele, Christopher Piggott, and Mark Rougeux. “The Effects of Journaling on Oral Communication in the Classroom.” (2003).
David Nurenberg, PhD is an associate professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA. He taught high school ELA for 20 years, and now trains teachers and consults for schools in the Boston area. David is also the host of the progressive-education podcast Ed Infinitum. His latest book, What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?, was published by Rowman and Littlefield this year.