It’s been a hard year for young people. COVID has upended their usual schooling and routines. For many, the pandemic impacted their families financially or through the loss of a loved one. In a year punctuated by upheaval and uncertainty, my students at Minneapolis Elementary School in Kansas were left feeling powerless. When students are dealing with feelings of grief and loss, it can be difficult to focus on learning. Classroom journaling turned out to be the antidote for my students.
The benefits of journaling in school are numerous – from improving mental health to heightening academic performance. It seems tailor-made to counteract some of the most devastating consequences of the pandemic on students, such as learning loss and social-emotional trauma.
Classroom journaling has given my students the time and space to tune into themselves and sit with their own thoughts and feelings. We spend so much time teaching our students to analyze the thoughts and feelings of characters they come across in our readings, but this important skill has broader implications. Journaling centers each child as the protagonist of their own story, with thoughts and feelings worthy of reflection.
The practice of classroom journaling has also played a tremendous role in helping me build relationships with my students this year. We use Along, an interactive video journal that allows me to send reflection questions and receive their responses back in a private message to me, and it has given me a front-row seat to students’ lives outside of the classroom. This has allowed me to connect with my students and get to know them and their goals on a deeper level.
Over the school year, our school has experienced personal tragedies and the loss of loved ones. Through it all, we journaled about our grief. To my surprise, even students who were not directly impacted wrote profoundly about the personal experiences they could draw upon. Because of the journaling exercises, I was able to identify and support students who were struggling–several of whom I may have otherwise missed.
As a teacher, it’s my job to create a learning environment where students feel safe to share their ideas and learn from their mistakes. That can only happen when we develop a relationship built on trust. Through their online journals, students can share big and small moments in their lives. Whether my students are sharing about a personal trauma or offering a joke, these insights are invaluable when it comes to building trust, which matters when you’re asking students to take risks and push the bounds of their own learning.
Students have also looked to classroom journaling as a tool for empowerment. By allowing students to share honest feedback about lessons, classroom procedures, and even my teaching, it’s given them a safe space to practice advocating for themselves. When one student offered a new approach to a classroom routine in her journal entry, we discussed it as a class and the change was implemented. I want my students to know their ideas are powerful, and their voice matters.
Taking time to attend to the social-emotional development of my students throughout the school day may be one of the most valuable changes brought on by the pandemic. If we are to prepare our children for the pressing challenges that await them in adulthood, we must teach them the value of setting goals, building strong relationships, having empathy for others, and managing their own emotions. Classroom journaling is just one approach, but it’s a practice I’ll continue into the future.