4 Ways to Spark Written Conversations with Dialogue Journals

This post is inspired by the book The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers . . . K-12 (Corwin Literacy) by  Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Elaine Daniels

Learning and Shifting

Over the last year, every educator on the planet has learned a great deal about themselves, their students, and new ways to teach and implement instructional practices. During a global pandemic, they have graciously rolled up their sleeves, taken risks, and have connected with learners in innovative and meaningful ways. They have mined a variety of digital learning management systems, discovered new technological tools to elevate instruction, and have truly “showed up” for their students, colleagues, families, and communities! As the world shifts back to some sense of normalcy, educators across the country and beyond are beginning to reconnect with learners as they acclimate to the physical spaces they have always called home.

Challenges are Opportunities

During the most challenging times, educators have also found creative ways to rally learners, structure meaningful conversations, leverage intentional dialogue, and create a sense of psychological safety in their virtual and physical learning spaces. As educators and learners transition back to traditional learning environments, more than ever, it is recognized how the impact of human interaction can influence connection and elevate the social, emotional, and academic growth of students. Educators will continuously look for ways to create purposeful learning opportunities that strengthen relationships, cultivate connection, and manifest greatness within every learner they encounter. Life’s unexpected challenges are windows of opportunities waiting to be explored. That being said, “How can educators foster meaningful communication, reconnect with learners and create spaces where students experience deep, meaningful learning?” For me, dialogue journals have been a powerful way to tap into my students’ hearts, learn more about their passions and interests and monitor their learning in purposeful, intentional ways.

What Are Dialogue Journals?

Dialogue Journals are low stakes written conversations between two or more people. It is an authentic way to get every learner ‘talking’ regardless of their introverted or extroverted personality types. This experience holds all learners accountable to connect with peers and teachers, promote thinking and discussion about various content and topics. Additionally, learners build writing fluency and stamina by informally writing in note form more often about many topics with a partner or group. This practice supports the development of relationships and builds stronger connections between teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, illustrations, photographs, science phenomena and/or free writing prompts to get learners to actively participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, and/or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. They will respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! This is when you write for a long period of time without stopping! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely. 

Benefits of Dialogue Journals

  • Builds connection and relationships between teacher to students and student to student.
  • Levels the playing field because all writers (teachers and students) are viewed as learners.
  • Fosters circles of psychological safety and trust within the classroom community.
  • Creates inclusive spaces where all learners voices and perspectives are heard in a written format.
  • Develops writing fluency and stamina since students are writing for a longer period of time during the back and forth conversation style writing.
  • Writers can respond to various print and digital content while they explore and show their knowledge about various content areas.
  • Formative Assessment: Although it’s not suggested that teachers grade dialogue journal writing as this can prevent writers from writing fast and furiously and develop the confidence to get their ideas out, teachers can notice trends in writing and plan instructional moves to use at another time (whole class, small group, one-to-one).
  • Teachers’  and other students’ writing becomes a mentor text for the students.
  • Teachers use this opportunity to provide on demand feedback and personalized instruction (i.e. a student is capitalizing proper nouns, using punctuation at the end of a sentence, adding details).

Grounded in ALL of the New York State NGLS Lifelong Practices For Writers

What Supplies Do You Need?

  • Notebook/Digital Document (Google Doc)
  • Pencil/Pen
  • Writing Prompts
  • Teacher and Student Active Participation

How Can Writers Respond?

  • Make a comment
  • Ask a question
  • Share a connection
  • Agree and give reasons
  • Disagree and give reasons
  • Create illustrations/insert digital images

4 Ways to Spark Written Conversations with Dialogue Journals

Literature and Informational Text

Students can actively engage in reading, listening, and responding by utilizing a variety of diverse texts. Educators can use dialogue journals as an opportunity to read aloud or have the students independently read a plethora of novels, short stories, picture books, and articles that serve as launchpads for meaningful discussion. These written conversations about literature can evolve into talking more deeply about story elements such as character development, theme, setting, conflict, plot, and resolution. When writing about informational text, the conversations can develop around different topics in history or current events. Students may notice various text features and structures that help them make meaning of the text.

Photographs/Illustrations

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a common expression many of us are familiar with. Visual media allows learners to analyze the details in images, talk about them, make observations, inferences, and generate questions. These images tap into a range of historical information and allow learners to make comparisons with the present and describe historical changes. They can also take on the perspectives of people in the past and develop their own wonderings. This can lead to inquiry and researching various topics in history in groups or independently. 

Short Video Clips

Video clips can be an engaging way to introduce new information, concepts, and often frame learning for students in a multi-model visual way. Videos are a great way to amplify and support understanding for all learners. Teachers will have to search video clips that are connected to students’ interests, pertinent themes, and topics that are relevant to the class. Video clips can be up to 7-10 minutes in length, but should not take too much time since the purpose of the clip is to inspire written conversation. Teachers can be selective as they want the video to make an impact and set the purpose for watching the video. Turn on closed captioning for learners too! This helps them access the digital content in a different way and invites them to read as they watch! 

Phenomena

When embarking on this experience, it is important to ground choices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) because more than ever before, science education is central to our lives. Science literacy is critical to making sense of complex topics that affect our world. Science is at the heart of designing, innovating, and creating jobs for the future. Read here for more information on why Science Standards matter.

For a scientist, phenomena is an observable event (i.e. a fall/autumn day, slip/fall, organisms eating, seasonal patterns). By using phenomena, learners are motivated to use written conversation to explain a topic. The focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens. The focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the written conversation. 

Find NGSS phenomena here

Peeling Back the Layers

Dialogue journals give every student an opportunity to make meaningful contributions in safe spaces, share their voice, and develop an empathetic lens when learning about different perspectives within their classroom and school communities. One-to-one written conversations are invitations to peel back layers of the heart and mind; they uncover beautiful personal stories learners are awaiting to be acknowledged and shared.

EXAMPLES OF STUDENT DIALOGUE JOURNALS

4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners

Memorable Moments

When you think back to your fondest memories of school, what experiences do you remember most? I am talking about memorable moments that have wrapped around your heart and hugged your soul. These memories are so vivid that when your thoughts wander back in time, you are the starring role in vibrant mind movies that leave you feeling incredible pride, joy, and gratitude for those opportunities. These memory moments have become part of the fabric of the person you’ve become and will continue to be on your course of life. 

Snapshots in Time

For me, these snapshots in time are what made learning fun, creative, and applicable to real world interactions and experiences I’ve encountered. I can assure you that when my own children, students, and colleagues ask me about my favorite parts of my schooling timeline, it is not about the standards, assessments, skills, strategies, and/or particular lessons that were taught. It was the times I performed in the school musicals and dramas, participated in Battle of the Classes, and worked on passion projects I actually cared about. It was the educators who unlocked those moments that sparked my interests and ignited my passions. Those educators created personalized experiences that kept learners at the core of the work and viewed them as human beings first. The social interactions I had with peers illuminated the most relevant parts of learning. Together we laughed and navigated our way through successes and failures, sought solutions to conflicts, explored new ideas, and pushed our limits of learning, discovery, and growth. 

Great Educators CAN Make a Difference

In order to make a difference in the lives of our learners, great educators must create experiences that tap into learners’ hearts so their minds are open to critically consuming information to create new and better things that are relevant to them and the real world. Meaningful learning sticks when great educators focus on the right things first! In Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros says, “We have to acknowledge that our students come to us with a unique mix of experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and passions…Our calling or task is to expose students to numerous pathways and provide them with the skills to be self-directed and goal-oriented so they can choose or create a path that allows their brilliance to shine” (p.32).  I’ll admit, at the beginning of my career, I was so focused on delivering the curriculum that I rarely leveraged the moments where I could have listened more and developed deeper connections with my students to make learning matter. I always cared about them, but I thought that the primary way of showing it was by “covering the content” instead of making investments in their emotional deposit boxes and continuously giving them the choice and voice they deserved. In the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas Murray says, “Expecting children to walk through our doors and desire a “standard” model of education completely ignores the vast differences in interests, passions, and strengths of our learners. Providing opportunities, both small and large for these learners to explore areas that are meaningful to them recognizes who they are and reaffirms to them that they matter” (p. 107).

4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners

How can great educators create conditions that bring out the best attributes of every learner who enters the school buildings and classrooms they live in? I’ll tell you what has worked for me… fire them up and make them a part of the learning process! Empower them to listen, think, discuss, and choose the way they want to learn. Create opportunities where learners freely share their ideas, listen to others’ perspectives, and talk about what’s on their hearts and minds. Use those moments to influence their learning and plan instruction that’s tailored to their needs; give them the starring role in vibrant future mind movies that they can recall and later share with pride, joy, and gratitude! With that being said, I want to share what my students think are 4 fun ways to empower them and fire up the learning that transpires in classrooms! These are learning experiences that they request we revisit regularly:

Picture of the Day

I discovered Picture of the Day from Hello Literacy consultant Jen Jones many years ago. I have found that using pictures is a low stakes, meaningful, purposeful way to observe, think, promote critical discussion, and honor other perspectives about anything you choose! In author Ralph Fletcher’s recent keynote at the Spring Virtual Long Island Language Arts Council Conference on March 25, 2020, he discusses how the world of our learners is increasingly visual. Photos are a universal language that reveal emotions and tell stories about people’s lives. Photos can magically stop time and become a tool for inquiry. They also serve as mentor texts that can inspire learners to take their own photographs and document their own journey. When I introduce the picture of the day, I begin by selecting pictures that are of high interest, relevant to the unit of study I am teaching, and/or mirror the interests of the learners in my class. For example, if I am teaching story elements, I may showcase pictures with a variety of settings, people, conflicts, and resolutions; if I have learners who have a passion for sports, traveling, cooking, etc… I will share those photographs. The students are invited to make observations (list things that can see in the picture) and then make reasonable inferences (using the details from the picture and what they already know) to develop ideas and perspectives about the photo. My students are also encouraged to select their own photographs in the choice boards I will discuss below! Learners can think and respond about photographs in a multitude of ways (i.e. in a writer’s notebook, Google Doc/Slides, Jamboard). I have found that Picture of the Day has supported my learners in previewing and comprehending more complex informational text.

Choice Boards

Choice boards are not only a great way to empower learners by giving them choice and voice in what and how they are going to learn, but it also provides meaningful balance between online and offline learning. I have found that providing learners with choice boards encourages intrinsic motivation and a more meaningful desire to learn,  personalized instruction, and allows students to respond by using various print and digital competencies. This type of freedom guides learners towards independence. The choice boards I designed below were inspired by Catlin Tucker’s blog and self-paced course on blended learning. Each choice board includes skills/strategies that I have introduced in my own classroom. I revise the learning activities as I introduce new skills/strategies. Revising the options keeps learning fun and engaging! In the book Innovate Inside the Box, Couros states, “When students are empowered to choose how they can best demonstrate their knowledge and skills, they are able to see the relevance in learning the basics and how reading, writing, and math apply to their lives and are less likely to check out mentally” (pp. 62-63).

Link to Literacy Offline Choice Board #1

Link to Notice and Note Offline Choice Board #2

Dialogue Journals

This is an authentic way to get students to informally write about any topic with a partner or group while supporting the development of relationships and building stronger connections with teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, and/or free writing prompts to get learners to participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. Learners respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely.  Dialogue journals are a low pressure way to tap into students’ interests and passions, to learn more about each other, develop writing fluency, stamina, and build confidence. Teachers can participate by sharing their own experiences through writing, by giving feedback to the learners and/or participate in the writing process.

Dialogue Journal information from: The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers…K-12 by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels  and Elaine Daniels

Here is an example of student dialogue journals:

Inspiration Collages


There have been several opportunities for my learners to create inspiration boards that exemplify and illustrate who they are as people. Allowing them to utilize a digital space such as Google Slides, enabled them to express their creativity and illuminate their passions and interests by using quotes, words, phrases, colors, and images. These activities have helped me to initiate meaningful conversations with my students and have supported the development of future lessons that are relevant to their lives and the world. In Innovate Inside the Box, Couros says, “If we don’t understand the learners we serve, even the best ideas for teaching and learning will not be as effective if we don’t learn about our students and connect with them first” (pp.77-78). In the example below, shows how learners responded to the book Love by Matt De La Pena by creating a board about what Love means to them! See the slides for more information about P.S. I Love You Day (the impetus for this learning experience).

Boosting Student Engagement Through Meaningful Science Literacy Experiences

My Confession

I have a confession to make…I am a literacy nerd.  I have another confession to make…I used to despise most things involving literacy. You may be wondering how someone who now lives and breathes all things literacy once felt that way. As I reflect on the evolution of my learning journey (grade school-present), I can clearly recognize the possibilities that caused these feelings to transpire. One of these reasons is that I felt trapped in traditional learning environments that celebrated the consumption of information instead of embracing meaningful and relevant learning experiences that were applicable to the real world. Of course, there were some outstanding exceptions, but for the most part, conventional practices stifled me. Visually, it was suffocating too. You should have seen the inside of my desk; it was overcrowded and stacked to the brim with the entire curriculum. Heavy, outdated, and in some cases, obsolete textbooks in every subject area (social studies, math, science, reading, and the list goes on) devoured my day. Learning mostly felt like a task, a burden, a mental weight that smothered me. Acquiring content knowledge across various subject areas was heavily focused on memorizing countless facts, regurgitating them orally, in my notebook, and/or on an assessment, only to completely forget that information, and its purpose a day or two later. And even as a child, I can recollect that learning just didn’t always feel fun, it didn’t always feel useful, and at times, it certainly didn’t feel worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong, I do not feel there was any ill intent to sabotage my growth and development as a learner. At that time, perhaps teaching and learning practices were not as focused on capitalizing on curiosity, wonder, honoring students’ passions and interests, and keeping learners at the heart of all decision making.

Discovering The Curious Classroom

When I became an educator, I didn’t want my previous feelings about literacy to reflect the way I approached teaching and learning practices for students and colleagues. It has always been my mission to create cross-curricular, learner-driven spaces that foster student agency, value student choice, and voice while empowering students to view themselves as key drivers of their own learning. With that being said, a few years ago, a colleague recommended the book The Curious Classroom: 10 Structures for Teaching with Student-Directed Inquiry by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. Not too long after this book discovery, I attended his conference where Daniels charismatically and passionately brought the authentic ideas in his book to life! I was instantly captivated by his realistic, motivating, and engaging approaches to inquiry-based learning that could make an immediate impact on students’ social, emotional, and academic potential. He suggests several ways to implement accessible structures that are not meant to replace existing practices but transform them in responsive classroom environments. I was especially intrigued by the innovative ways to build curiosity for curricular subjects that may not immediately influence learners. 

Taking a Science Literacy Journey with 3rd Grade Classes

Promptly, I joined forces with a few classroom teachers to explore and experiment with practical, exciting ideas to motivate students during their science literacy blocks. Some of the strategies we implemented were suggestions presented in the book The Curious Classroom. One of the reasons we embarked on this experience was to build the curiosity for curricular subjects in exciting and motivating ways. Another reason was to honor and utilize the students’ questions to drive the learning for science topics. Although these particular learning experiences were done with 3rd-grade classes on the topic of Forces and Motion, it is important to note that this learning can easily be translated to any grade level or subject area.

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Grounding the Work 

When embarking on this experience, it was important to ground the work in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) because more than ever before, science education is central to our lives. Science literacy is critical to making sense of complex topics that affect our world. Science is at the heart of designing, innovating, and creating jobs for the future. Read here for more information on why Science Standards matter.

Through a collaborative, state-led process, new K-12 science standards have been developed that are rich in both content and practice, and arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education. The NGSS were released in 2013 and are being implemented in states and districts across the nation. -NGSS

Ideas for Sparking Curiosity and Boosting Student Engagement

Drawing: If you are looking for a way to have students remember something, then have them draw it!  According to the article The Science of Drawing and Memory, researchers have found that drawing helps a person process information by using multiple pathways (visual, semantic, and kinesthetic). This is a powerful way to double the recall of information and boost memory. Before you begin investigating a science topic, search for a video that introduces the concept. After students watch the video, have them draw what they learned from the experience. I have found that learners enjoy getting to show their thinking through pictures. For some, it builds their confidence instead of having to show their learning/thinking in more traditional ways. Repeat this throughout the learning process. You can also have the students view the video in the middle and end of a topic as a way to assess what they have learned. You may notice that the learners are adding more tier 3 vocabulary, details to their drawings, and are highlighting more complex concepts. Use this information to drive your next teaching moves!

Video We Used

Students’ Drawings/Learning

Drawing 1            Drawing 2

Drawing 3      Drawing 4

Phenomena: For a scientist, phenomena is an observable event (i.e. a fall/autumn day, slip/fall, organisms eating, seasonal patterns). By using phenomena, students are motivated to explain the topic, and the focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens. The focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the learning and teaching. The practice of asking questions or identifying problems becomes a critical part of trying to figure something out. Utilize phenomena and a “See, Think, Wonder” template, at the beginning, middle, and end of a unit to see how the learning has progressed.

Links to Phenomena We Used

Find more NGSS phenomena here

Students’ See, Think, Wonder Templates

See 1see 2

Dialogue Journals: This is a fantastic way to get students to informally write about any topic with a partner or group while developing relationships and building stronger connections with teachers and peers. Learners will start with a question, comment, or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. Learners respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going.  Dialogue journals are a low pressure way for students to develop writing fluency, stamina, and confidence. Teachers can participate by giving feedback to the learners and/or participate in the writing process.

Dialogue Journals

Rules for Dialogue Journals

Dialogue Journal information from: The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers…K-12 by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels  and Elaine Daniels

Students’ Dialogue Journals

Dialogue Journals 1Dialogue Journals 2

Some Final Thoughts/Observations

All of the learning experiences I shared were received extremely well among all of the students who participated in them.  I observed every student actively and willingly participating, sharing, and whole-heartedly engaged. Many were even empowered to explore various topics further through their own inquiry process because of the motivation these activities provided in safe, fun learning environments that embraced a learner-centered philosophy. Although we are still uncertain about what our learning spaces will look like and feel like in September, what I do know is that all of these learning suggestions are possible in both physical or remote learning environments. No matter where we are, we will always work hard towards meeting students where they are AND give students exactly what they need to thrive as learners. ALWAYS.

 

Harvey Daniels