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

Lifelong Practices Live Within

My Educational Journey

I have been in education for 15 years and throughout my career, I have served in many roles at the Elementary level. This includes Teaching Assistant, Classroom Teacher, Reading Specialist, and most recently, Instructional Coach. Throughout the trajectory of my career, I have always worked to challenge myself in every position I have ever served in. Each position has taught me how to fine-tune what I know and do; each position has allowed me to see and focus on my strengths and the strengths of others in order to provide the best opportunities for students to reach their social, emotional, and academic potential; each position has allowed to me stay true to my core beliefs while learning new ways to approach teaching and learning. And because I have been fortunate to travel this path, I recognize the value every role brings to an organization. Over the course of time, I have asked myself, “How can I continue to honor my core belief system as I navigate the different roles I serve in?” At the heart of this journey, it became clear to me that developing relationships, connecting, being human, and leading with empathy and grace, opens doors to creating a community of learners who work together to ambitiously develop solutions to instructional challenges.

Not the Same Educator

Five years ago my school district decided to invest in job-embedded professional learning at the Elementary level. They reached to educators within the organization who had a strong background in literacy to elevate literacy practices and bring shared experiences to four buildings. When I took on the role of Literacy Coach, my school district had already committed to embracing the balanced literacy approach; this is an approach to reading and writing instruction I feel very strongly about to the core as learners can authentically engage in rich literacy experiences including the reading and writing workshop, interactive read alouds, shared reading, small group instruction, one-on-one conferencing, and have choice and voice as they get to self-select from diverse texts across a plethora of genres. This was an opportunity to work side-by-side with teachers as I got to collaboratively write curriculum and develop meaningful assessments with teachers, students, administrators, and literacy consultants. Over the course of a few years, we developed 73 Units of Study that were grounded in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project philosophy. I got to work intimately with the other Literacy Coach, a brilliant colleague, and friend as we rallied teachers together to analyze, reflect, and revise a live curriculum to meet the needs of a diverse population. Additionally, we purposefully and intentionally took an audit of all elementary classroom libraries and ordered books and mentor texts to support learners and enhance the curriculum. Furthermore, we vertically aligned the curriculum, so there was a smooth progression of literacy development from K-5 that was aligned to the learning standards. In the last few years, I worked with my other Instructional Coach colleagues to ensure continuity of instruction in the Reading and Writing Workshop model, provided meaningful professional learning experiences during faculty and grade-level meetings, and participated in formal and informal conversations about student learning. All of this heart work has always been grounded in best practice. Best practices and systems are what guided this incredible experience. During this time, my coaching belief system was shaped by Jim Knight’s Seven Partnership Principles (introduced to me by Jessica Gruttola during an Instructional Coaching workshop). These principles influenced conversations, theory, and practice. These are the principles that supported my team as we embarked on the mission of creating positive change. If we modeled the change we wanted to see by consistently using the Partnership Principles as a guide while keeping learners at the heart of the decision-making process, we were off to great things!

Jim Knight

It was this work that led me to deeply understand what teaching and learning practices would best support learners in order to move them to higher levels, guide them towards independence, and create lifelong learners.

Coaching 1        Coaching 2Coaching 3  Coaching 4

Coaching work I facilitated in faculty, grade level, and one-on-one meetings.

Taking A Leap of Faith

This year I am taking a leap of faith as I enthusiastically join the Middle School team where I will serve as a Literacy Specialist. Although I will always keep my years of elementary experience close to my heart, I am incredibly excited to continue to collaborate, connect, network, reflect, and share all I have learned in every role I have ever had the privilege of serving in with colleagues and learners. I am also inviting the learning curve that will come with acclimating to a new culture and climate. I will learn for, about, and with new leadership, colleagues, and learners. In making the transition from Elementary to Middle School, I believe that there is great strength in knowing and understanding the building blocks of learning, where the students are coming from, and what skills they should have mastered. If we work together towards building a bridge that will reinforce what they know while making new connections to learning, there will be a strong vertical progression of literacy development.  As I make this transformation to the middle level, there is one thing I know for sure… I will continue to honor my own core belief system and the teaching and learning practices I am so insanely passionate about. As I continue on my educational journey, I will never forget the experiences I have been a part of and the people who have impacted my growth along the way. They are all a part of who I am, and that will never change!

Keeping Partnership Principles at the Core

I created the infographic below to demonstrate how Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Partnership Principles translate to working with learners using a balanced literacy approach. I believe that belief systems in education can be applied to any learning environment, if they are in fact, best practices!

Keeping Partnership Principles at the Core (2)

Keeping Partnership Principles at the Core

Leaning Into New and Hard Times

Feelings of New and Hard

Starting something new can be hard; so hard that thinking about the experience itself feels heavy, daunting, exhausting, complicated. I’m not just talking about the big things that life may bring your way, but it could be small things too. Sometimes, the feeling of “new” is so uncomfortable that before you even make the attempt to take action on an unfamiliar idea, it is difficult not to recognize the intense feelings that are pressing against your heart and mind.  And if you are a person who constantly seeks growth and is consistently ready for a challenge, that unsettling feeling never goes away; it endlessly lives within you. -Lauren

Living in the Unknown

Uncertain. Inspired. Scared. Supported. Pressure. Loved. Uncomfortable. Grateful. As we experience these new and hard events created by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have felt an array of emotions on a regular basis, all at the exact same time. These emotions have raised so many questions. Many of which are still unanswered. We are simply figuring out how to live in a state of so many unknowns.

Life experience has taught me that there is no way to avoid the discomfort that comes from change. We just have to push through! But….

How do we PUSH through this?

How do we SUPPORT our families through this?

How do we LEAD students/staff/community through this?

Personally, I feel better if I can identify an explanation, a reason, or better understand the difficult time I’m experiencing. When this happens, I immediately turn to learning. I will grab a book, listen to a podcast, find a YouTube video, a TED Talk, or just google it! As I tried to get to the bottom of what was happening and make sense of this new situation we find ourselves in, I discovered that Brené Brown started a podcast, Unlocking Us.  It was at that very moment that I put on my sneakers, started to run, and hit play. -Sari

A Push For Reinforcement

As the events of the COVID-19 pandemic started to unfold, the feeling of “new” and “hard” felt more different than ever before. That familiar unsettling feeling suddenly became more difficult to manage on my own. I asked myself, who could I turn to help me regulate the feelings that were whipping around within? Where could I reach for extra strength and reinforcement? These hard moments pushed me to seek out the people I can lean into for perspective, support, guidance, and hope. Just when I was deeply experiencing one of the “new” and “hard” moments I have never felt before, a text message from Sari magically appeared on my phone. Sari is someone I have known for less than a year, but our connection was magnetic. I quickly discovered that we had so much in common; she is insanely passionate about learning, personal and professional growth, believing in the power of a strong PLN, and being a connected educator. And even though our friendship was “new”, it has never been “hard”! It’s always been easy to share advice and have honest conversations together.  She gets it.  She gets me. When I picked up my phone, I saw this text and image: -Lauren

unlocking us 1 

text message 2

Catching My Breath

I was still trying to catch my breath when I took out my phone. I couldn’t wait to unpack all that I just heard with someone in my PLN (professional learning network), my confidant, my friend, Lauren. Not only do I need to find a way to make sense of something that does not make sense…I also need my people! Becoming a connected educator and joining a PLN has been one of the best parts of my journey. My PLN is a constant source of inspiration, support, and motivation. David Weinberger (and Ed Kemnitzer) said it best, “The smartest person in the room, is the room.” I am so lucky to stand in that room with Lauren. I can’t remember the exact day she and I met, but it feels like Lauren has always been there. Lauren leads by example and models what it truly means to actually be there for others through her supportive, empathetic ways. It is an honor to learn with and from Lauren. -Sari

Wait, There’s a Name for This?

The next morning, I immediately downloaded Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast and listened to it during my morning workout. And, WOW. There it was. She actually had an AMAZING name for the experience I was living in (that we are all living in)! FFT!!! You must listen to the podcast for the meaning since this is a G-rated blog post! For now, we will use the kid-friendly version, TFT (Terrible First Time)!! I actually felt less insane than I had felt the moment before Brené Brown put a name to my awkward blend of new and hard feelings! At that moment, I actually felt like Brené was wrapping her arms around me and telling me that everything is going to be okay. Why? It’s because it’s a TERRIBLE FIRST TIME and it is expected that I struggle, feel a sense of pain, shock, and confusion. And, as Brené says, if we can’t take ownership of those feelings, they will just eat you alive! It was then that I realized that I didn’t have to cruise through COVID-19 relying on my own strength. This was certainly not an event where I could draw on history or experience to cope with something I have never lived through before. So, I made the decision not to give up on myself, especially because I had the support of people like Sari. It was the reliable, genuine relationships that were going to get me through the new and hard “Terrible First Times”. -Lauren

Put the TFT in Perspective

Oh wait….so this doesn’t mean I’m terrible at everything? NO! This is how a TFT is supposed to feel! In fact, during this time, we are living through so many new and hard experiences, simultaneously. Parenting TFT, work TFT, and a world pandemic TFT just to name a few. Sometimes I need to remind myself that it is ok if I don’t nail it. Really? How is that ok? People rely on me. This new and hard experience has been humbling. It has been a reminder of the learning process. You have to ‘Maslow’ before you can ‘Bloom.’ We have to meet our students where they are. We need to ensure that their basic needs are met before academic learning can be embraced. March is traditionally filled with the budget, staffing, New York State assessments, and much more, but as we began this TFT, everything became clear. March quickly became about maintaining and strengthening relationships. -Sari

Unpacking the TFT 

As I continued to listen to Brené Brown’s podcast, my thoughts traveled to a place where I was able to grasp the idea that life as we knew it, was changing; relationships were changing; the landscape of education was changing, my access to people was changing, communication was changing. And knowing that I had absolutely no control over the outcomes, I needed to normalize and embrace a new reality in order to understand where I fit into a new world. I needed to put all of the unknowns into perspective and reimagine how life is going to be. Suddenly, I was feeling determined to pour my energy into what I could control. What I could control was connecting with people who make me happy. What I could control was using this time to hone my own skills, and improve on myself so I can support others. What I could control was making sure that I stay connected to the people who elevate me, make me laugh, and check-in with me. What I could control was learning how to reality check my expectations as the new and hard things continuously soar into my soul. More than ever, I know now that starting something new will be hard in different ways than it felt before; but knowing that I have people in my life like Sari who ground me, offer an idea, a book, a podcast, words of advice, or a virtual hug to help me through it, makes the “terrible first times” worth it. -Lauren