My Students Are Finally Keeping a Journal

April 27, 2020 § 7 Comments

bonner_2019By Jeanne Bonner

I believe in keeping a journal. Daily, weekly, twice-monthly, whatever. I began to keep one regularly about seven years ago when my son was born, and I’ve mined the diary for material that made it into several essays published by well-known outlets. I also simply enjoy using it as a repository for resolutions, observations, ongoing concerns and funny comments from my second grader. It’s become an essential part of my life, and I suspect a key ingredient to my well-being.

So now that I teach writing, I always encourage my students to keep a journal – whether they are undergrads, graduate students or the kids I teach in summer camp. Write whenever you can, I say. Take your mental temperature, I tell them. The journal can be a place for observations from your daily life or a running log of ideas for future assignments, I say. The habit will reward you, I add, as they look at me with an air of disbelief. Yet I have not found a satisfactory way of checking if they are keeping the journal without invading their privacy, and I suspect many don’t bother with it beyond the first few weeks of class.

Until now that is. When my graduate memoir writing class went online because of the coronavirus epidemic, I decided I should explore some of the tools of our class’s cyberhome on Moodle. Tools that I probably would otherwise have ignored since live teaching provides so many normal points of connection. Plus, how many discrete assignments can students juggle? My course meets at night after the students have put in a full day of work.

Take the forum feature. If I want to create more work for them – more stuff to do between our weekly classes – I could post questions there about our readings. But why not just incorporate those questions into our discussions?

Yet on a whim, I wondered if using the forum tool to create a weekly diary might make sense so I inserted one during the first week of our confinement that was simply called ‘Coronavirus Journal.’ I told them they should not see it as a mandatory assignment but rather as a refuge.

I wasn’t sure how that would sound. I know when I tell students not to worry about their grade point averages but rather if they are learning, they mentally roll their eyes. Perhaps it would be the same with this new journal assignment.

I needn’t have worried. Judging by the voluminous entries some have posted, they are galvanized in this hot-house atmosphere of illness and fear. Forced suddenly to live in new ways – or in some cases, return to living in old ways, specifically with their parents! – they’ve received a jolt of inspiration paired with a desperate need to vent their frustrations. The first week, the students flooded the journal with thoughts, observations, routines, rants and intimate details of their new lives in confinement.

One student is a professional caregiver to the elderly who has remained on the job because it’s been deemed essential. She says she does not mind since working means earning a paycheck, noting wryly that it’s one of the few emergency situations whose very nature hasn’t screwed her over. She describes her work as being a well-paid granddaughter and a living life-alert button.

Another student tells us he’s keeping up his daily walks with his camera. One day, he writes about taking photos of a mobile coronavirus testing center in his town. The line of cars snakes around the corner, behind them a burst of flowering trees. The juxtaposition catches his eye.

One of his classmates writes that he is ashamed to say he initially welcomed the surplus of time quarantine would provide to tackle some projects. Instead he finds himself following his curiosity down Internet rabbit holes, and realizes the limited schedule afforded by the normal work week applies needed pressure to complete projects. He fears he is less productive.

The forum is peppered with moments of humor and abandon. One student who shares a house with a gaggle of roommates muses about the difficulty of rationing apocalypse snacks when you are staring at them all day. All. Day. Long. Maybe I am easily amused but I beamed when I saw the title of her entry on the forum: “Snacks, sweatpants and screens.” That sums up our lives right now, no? Another student muses that dogs have created this virus to squeeze more daily walks out of their owners. The humor feels necessary, almost a form of medicine.

So far, my students are capturing exactly what I imagined — the small changes, the absence of one activity or obligation creating space for something else, the repercussions of our new routines (one student fears the increased screen time from working virtually is interfering with her sleep and I would agree!).

I’ve tried to respond to every post, and other students are following suit, which is especially gratifying. Students are asking me shoot-the-breeze kind of questions like, ‘Is this the time to try to read a really long book I’ve been putting off or lots of short ones?” I relish a chance to talk about my reading life in a way that might actually sound helpful instead of pompous.

All of this to say, an unusual moment in our world has created an opening for me as a teacher to reinforce the very principles I’ve been trying to convey. Indeed, the journal-writing portion of this class will almost certainly be the highlight for me when I look back over the semester to see what went well and what needs some re-working. But I will be left with a question: how to stimulate this habit without an emergency the next time I teach? When the pandemic eases off, how will I show them the urgency of recording the little moments when we go back to our regular lives?

Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She will be a fellow at the New York Public Library this year where she will study the works of Italian women writers.

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§ 7 Responses to My Students Are Finally Keeping a Journal

  • dujyt says:

    Sharing examples of journal entries from students encouraged me to re-evaluate my assumption on the value of these exercises, as well as journaling in general. Thanks for the perspective.
    Also was pleasantly surprised how personally encouraged I felt after reading these coronavirus anecdotes. Wasn’t expecting a sense of “normalization” despite these non-normal times.

  • Barb Knowles says:

    I LOVE this! I’m just retiring from teaching English as a New Language to high school immigrants and I love journal writing, personally and professionally. Because it was a new concept for a lot of the students, I always offered a topic to write about, if they needed one. The responses were incredible. I might suggest “What is your favorite music?” and a student will write instead about the pain and disillusionment of living with their estranged biological family again. I was amazed and inspired. And with this pandemic you have given your students a wonderful opportunity to reflect on this crazy new world.
    I really loved this article.

  • Jeanne thank you for sharing this glimpse into your world of teaching and the power of journaling. I really enjoyed it!

  • “Take your mental temperature” is such wonderful advice and this essay is spot on! Thank you.

  • Jeanne Bonner says:

    Thanks, everyone! It’s the gift that keeps giving — to me. Each week, they post and I respond to every message. It’s a pleasure to do so.

  • I’m journaling, too, which I never have. (Confession: not daily.) The nature and structure of my rambling varies. One day, it was just whatever caught my eye in the various things I read, from poorly written headlines to horrifying statistics to online ads for toe hair home waxing strips. Go, Jeanne!

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