As a person who has been commonly referred to as “soft-spoken”, I often had a difficult time finding my place in the classroom as a student. Small, discussion-based classes were my bread and butter as far as learning goes; however, once the group size exceeded 15, no matter how confident I was in what I had to say my face would turn a nice shade of red the moment all eyes were on me (I blame that on my red-headed genes). To this day I don’t love being in front of a large group but I’ve done a decent job of learning to control the curse that is a predisposition to blushing.
Thanks to many of these speaking-blushing experiences, I have a special soft spot for the quieter, shyer students who may have something to say and a desire to be heard but often get lost in all the noise. In some of the contexts I have taught (particularly short-term teaching in Asia), a tool which I found to be especially helpful was the implementation of journals.
Journals are something which I never require students to participate in; they are an entirely optional but highly encouraged task. At the beginning of the course I will hand out my stack of journals (usually cheap little notebooks) with a short, personalized note to each student. It generally says something along the lines of “Dear [student], I’m excited to spend the next [duration of the course] with you and to learn about you! You can use this journal to write any questions, comments or thoughts you would like share with me. I will do my best to write back in [time frame—I usually say 3 days]. I’m thankful you’re in my class!” I explain to students as I hand out the journals that I will not be marking the journals, in fact, there will be no grade tied to them at all.
I have had incredible conversations with my students through the use of journals. The times I have most often used them has been while training English teachers and I will forever cherish the dialogues that took place that would never have happened without this non-threatening platform of communication. Sometimes you get very personal questions that are challenging to answer but are a great springboard into further dialogue, sometimes you get grammar question after grammar question and sometimes you get the most random, out-of-left-field questions (such as “please tell me, in detail, the rules of the game cricket?”).
One time while training English teachers in China, there was an older gentleman in my class who spoke virtually no English and in a short, three-week English course it was difficult to accommodate him in the midst of a class of fluent English teachers. To be honest, I’m not sure how he got into the course. I struggled to include him throughout the duration of the program but felt as though not much had gotten through to him and that he would come away with very little. He did not use his journal at all during the first two and a half weeks; however, on the second last day of class I walked into the room to a stack of returned journals on my desk and as I was going through them later that evening I came across one journal with a seven page letter. This man who never spoke wrote to me all about his life, his family, his experience and hardships as an English teacher who had never learned to speak English—only to read and write. He continued on to share with me that I was the first native English speaker he had ever met, all that he had learned during the course, how he felt so much more confident returning to teach, how he felt equipped with new ideas and how I had touched his life. I was blown away. I instantly felt ashamed for all of the times I was frustrated by his presence in the class and had experienced guilt at not having much to offer him. This encounter forever changed the way I look at students. As a teacher, you never know the impact you are having on those you are interacting with on a daily basis but I’m thankful I was given a glimpse inside the mind and heart of one man.
I recommend using journals. I recommend it because it is an opportunity to get to know your students on a deeper level. I recommend it because in some cultures, there is less freedom to speak openly about one’s thoughts and this is a great way to hear about the ideas of an individual in a society that pressures conformity in thinking. I recommend it because it is real-life writing practice for your students. I recommend it because there will be times when you are moved to tears. I recommend it because your students will cherish those little books and interactions with a teacher who loved them and impacted them for the rest of their life.