How Digital Journals Can Make Space for Student Connections

by | 07.21.20

Bob Friel is a science teacher and service learning coordinator in Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @MayfieldService.

Before our district moved to distance learning, they gave us one last day in class. I remember thinking: How do I make the best of this last moment we’ll have in person together? So I put on some music, and we just spent the day journaling about ourselves. The kids were able to share at the end of it, and there was so much openness and emotion from my students that I never would have expected. 

When distance learning began, I was focused on making a routine, and I thought the journals would be a nice way to transition to this new normal. In that first week students submitted nearly 130 journal entries. 

I didn’t do it the second week of online teaching, and we shifted focus to other tasks and lessons. But there was such a gap in my students’ energy from the week before, and I realized how many of them were counting on that connection and on that space where they could share how they were feeling.

From the third week of distance learning onward, I put a new prompt up every week, and I made five different Google docs, one for each section of my classes. Some of the prompts were more serious, to encourage some deeper self-reflection, and others were lighter – asking them to share a recipe or a game or something they’d done with family and friends. I always share my own journaling first, to help model some vulnerability. Then the students write their name, the time and a short post on the prompt.

In every case, I try to ensure it doesn’t feel like an assignment. So students are strongly encouraged to write and share, but they know it’s not mandatory – and if they don’t feel comfortable, that’s fine. I’ve also built it into my routine to try to reply to every message, so at the beginning of every day, I open the Google doc and reply directly to the students, which can help create a bit more of a conversation. Some students prefer to email me their journals directly instead of posting on the doc, which everyone can see, and some really profound moments have come out of that, too. 

As a teacher, it’s been valuable to me to gain insight into what my students are going through, what their capacity is, why they might be behind on an assignment. But I think it’s been valuable for them, too. On the one hand, it’s a lonely, isolating time, and the opportunity to share what you’re feeling, and see that others are going through something similar, is really important. But it’s also healthy for students who have a strong family life to develop empathy and see that it’s not as easy for others right now. 

I think all of us, including my students, have some worries about what the future will bring. As we think about the school year ahead, I’m hoping the communal journal strategy can serve as a foundation. I’m hoping we can continue slowing down, practicing empathy and connecting with each other during this time of upheaval – even from a distance.

Here are a few of the prompts me and my students wrote on in our digital journals:

  • For this week, I’d like you to post about one person you know who seems to be thriving more than others during this time. That person might not necessarily like this time of quarantine but they’ve coped better than others. What are they doing?  What traits do they have that have allowed them to experience growth?
  • I’d like you to post about one life lesson that stands out for you from this year. This could be a small story or anecdote. It could be a memory from a class. Possibly, the lesson has been learned during the last two months of quarantine-life.

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