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Journal writing with preservice teachers.


This [poeml is for you - in deep appreciation for the wonderful opportunity I've had to work with you this semester. The word "collaborate" has a much stronger meaning now. Somehow, this seems to be just the beginning of something even greater, for when we are allowed a glimpse through the door, it is often an invitation to enter the room beyond the doorway. Besides, we're a good team.

A Glimpse Through the Door, 3/27/88 Every once in a great while When you least expect it Through some unanticipated turn of events Your life takes you by the hand And leads you to an open door

Usually for only a short moment You are given the opportunity To peer through that open door

What is it that you see? The future? Your potential? Your next assignment?

Whatever it is That glimpse transforms you From then on the world looks different Because you have been changed

The hardest part is the time which follows The time for practicing patience Waiting for the next sign A message Indicating your path's new direction

Life calls you onward Daily responsibilities fill up your time Poetry is written And songs are sung Days become a blur in time While your mind is filled With nothing but thoughts of That glimpse through the open door

A door opened for me as a teacher educator in 1988 when, because of a colleague's schedule demands, I needed to find a new partner to help teach an integrated methods course. I took the risk of team-teaching this early childhood block course with a classroom teacher. But my new partner was no ordinary classroom teacher. Rather, she was one of those individuals on the cutting edge of the art of teaching.

It had been six years since I had taught a kindergarten class and I was certain that the education students and I could learn a lot from Mary Glover. But would a practitioner's ideas fit with my formal approach in this senior-level early childhood methods course? The process that began that semester opened a window into students' thinking for me and provided new professional and personal insights. Ultimately, the experience led to better teaching and intriguing research.

The Beginning

Our early childhood "block" course combines information about teaching methods for math, science, social studies and the creative arts. The course had been taught since 1986. It was, therefore, relatively well developed, though somewhat traditional. Students engaged in social studies, creative arts and science activities and actively participated in the math lab. They also read articles and books, which we later discussed in small and large groups. When Mary and I began this course, class discussions were characterized by the familiar process of professor questions (convergent answers required) and student responses. But as Mary and I prepared and planned together, we discussed questions to which neither of us knew the answers. Shortly, this dialogue began to emerge during the class discussions. Initially, students appeared amazed at the open, conversational nature of these reflective talks. They especially enjoyed the teaching stories that began to emerge from both of us. Mary and I often continued these dialogues into our lunch hour.

As we pondered the nature of learning and how teaching children is both similar and dissimilar to teaching adults, we searched for ways to involve our students in more active and reflective experiences. We decided that instead of asking students simply to create a thematic unit following detailed criteria, we would follow Mary's suggestion that they participate in a content study. We would then base class activity around that topic. After brainstorming a list of study topics, we collectively chose to study the Arizona desert. Frankly, students felt this would be easy since they knew so much about our local Arizona environment already. The web we generated in class revealed that they did have a lot of information, but unanswered questions also emerged. Is there more than one desert in Arizona? Were scorpions the same as spiders? How fast can a roadrunner run? From the web, students chose subtopics for research and found they had authentic questions to ask, investigate and answer.

At every class meeting, Mary or I read children's literature about the desert. At the campus science building, we gathered information on snakes indigenous to the state. We participated in an art and poetry workshop that enabled us to represent our newfound knowledge. Using a real graph, we visually displayed information about Arizona snakes. We took a field trip to the desert to see the petroglyphs and watch for signs confirming our nascent understanding of the interdependence of man and the environment. Slowly, our classroom was transformed into a personalized learning space.

The Next Step

I knew that we were implementing the real hands-on, minds-on method about which I had lectured so often. The feeling was different in this class. Students were alive with questions and new insights about "how to" teach. We were becoming a learning community. But a gap still stretched between us and the students. Mary suggested we ask the students to write in journals, again duplicating a technique she regularly practiced with 1st- and 2nd-graders.

The changes in the teaching approach we used represented our change from teachers of students to co-learners with students. The journals, however, were the instruments that allowed us truly to enter the minds and hearts of most of these students. Through the journals, we became students of our own teaching and our students' learning.

We asked the students to keep very simple journals. "Write about what you're thinking and learning every week and we'll write back to you." With this request as our key, Mary and I stepped into "the doorway" of our students' perceptions as they shared their unique stories of learning. We had unknowingly entered into a personalized zone that is often available only through writing or storytelling.

The work and journals continued during the rest of the semester and the end of the class was bittersweet. The students, relieved to have finished block, began the summer well-prepared for student teaching in the fall. I realized I knew these students far better than any other teacher-candidates I had taught. And they knew us in a manner other students had not. As Mary and I completed our grading and talked about the semester, I enthusiastically encouraged her to consider team-teaching with me again in the fall. The way we worked and shared learning with students had changed my perspective and I wanted to continue this emergent, student-sensitive approach.

Mary struggled with the decision, but ultimately decided to take the open 1st-grade position at her school. She felt her life's work was with children and she was eager to implement the new ideas she had encountered during our team-teaching. She was happiest when creating a shared history with children. Although I was disappointed, I recognized how similar we were. I felt the same way about working with prospective early childhood teachers. Mary's poem at the end of the semester seemed almost prophetic for both of us in our separate professional realms:

Friendly Reflections: for Elaine,5/3/88 One lonely star ushers in the twilight City sounds and birdsongs blend the day with the night A pleasant May evening allows space for reflection

I'm happy with myself these days I always feel more worthy when a friend comes along

I don't often let people in The commitments of my life leave little room for those outside of the family and work Unless a really meaningful relationship comes along I'd rather not even bother

So I move along through the solitude Attending to daily tasks Fulfilling duties Waiting for a certain loneliness to pass I tolerate the loneliness thinking my life is full enough Accepting the possibility that maybe I'm destined for a lonely path

And just when I've grown accustomed to this idea Allowing to be what will be I'm surprised by the gift of a new friend The mirror is held up to my face and I see my potential reflected The mirror's image Giving me new courage to continue to face the tasks that lie ahead Bringing joy and appreciation for the company of a fellow traveler along the path Enabling me to see myself more clearly as I am Inspiring the potential inside of me to come forth and mature

Continuation and Expansion

Planning for block began again, this time with my friend and colleague Joan Moyer. I found it comforting to return to our usual collaborative arrangement and I was certain Joan would be interested in my changed teaching ideas. As we discussed course requirements for the syllabus, the story of the prior semester emerged. We decided to continue to expand upon the methods Mary and I had initiated. Because of my intuitive feeling that journals were the vital ingredient in the students' processing of course material and experiences, we committed ourselves to continuing their use.

As Joan and I read and discussed the journals of 25 students that fall, we found them to be time-consuming but highly valuable in a variety of ways. It was then that we decided to use the students' journals for an inquiry into the effect of journal use. We therefore expanded the guidelines for journals (Surbeck, Moyer & Han, 1991). At the end of that semester's class, ten students volunteered their journals for our research. We found that the journals helped our students think more consistently and deeply about themselves, teaching and children.

With the collaboration of a gifted and analytical doctoral candidate, Eunhye Han, we began a naturalistic examination of the journals. Finding rich data for a variety of research avenues, we determined the journals should be a critical course requirement. We also strongly believed that keeping a journal invites most students both to reflect and project, which helps to resolve professional problems. Since then, our habit of investigating the journals has pushed us to open new doors in what now seems to be a long and exciting hallway.

The journal writing research inspired us to delve further into the classic works of John Dewey and Jean Piaget, as well as to visit and revisit a host of contemporary theorists: Kenneth Zeichner, Donald Schon, Constance Kamii, Eleanor Duckworth and many others. As we have continued reading and responding in journals, we came to realize that, given an active learning approach in the methods block, journal writing encourages the constructive process of theory building. Writing in journals can be a means by which prospective teachers are encouraged to create teaching theories that emanate from their own thinking and their emergent beliefs about learning. Our ideas are strengthened by consideration of Duckworth's (1989) words:

If we fail to give the learners a chance to explore their own ideas and see where they fall short, we are likely to leave their beliefs untouched. Whether we are children or adults, whatever it is that we believe is our only starting point for going on. No matter what our current beliefs, we can always go on to understand better, take our thoughts further, render our ideas more complex and adequate. What a teacher must do is to acknowledge the learners' thoughts and find ways to take them further.

The journal writing experience, in conjunction with an active, learner-sensitive approach to undergraduate teacher preparation, is a key to unlocking the door of that "room" envisioned by Mary in her poem. Perhaps the words of two students, written at the end of the semester, best convey how the journals opened doors for them:

I found keeping a journal this semester to be a very useful and insightful experience. When I look back to my beginning entries, it is so easy to see how far I have come in my thinking. Before this semester, I don't think I could have expressed my philosophy about teaching as clearly as I feel I now can. Writing in my journal has helped me to bring my thoughts together. Drawing upon classroom experiences, lectures, notes and readings to "think" about in my entries helped me make my own meaning from what I was learning. As I wrote, I felt I was constructing knowledge instead of just memorizing. So much of school is trying to commit information to long-term memory (hopefully) or to short-term memory for a big test. Journal writing is not an act of memorization; it is an act of thinking. Exploring concepts like constructivism and developmentally appropriate child-centered integrated curriculum helped me to understand not only what all those "big" words meant, but it helped me to be comfortable using them. This class was a perfect example of practicing what you preach. We are being taught that as teachers, we need to help children become problem solvers and thinkers. Keeping a journal, as well as everything else we did this semester, helped us to become problem solvers and thinkers also. Not only was the content of this course a learning experience, but the WAY this course was taught was also a great learning experience. Journal writing is being used across the curriculum in the elementary schools and I think every teacher who uses it in her classroom should keep a journal herself. I know I will reread my journal many times over and all the knowledge I constructed throughout this class will stay with me as I start out on my new career - TEACHING!

C.M., May 2,1992

Dear Drs. Moyer and Surbeck:

This is it - this is the last thing I will write for this semester! I have never in all my schooling written as much as I have written this semester. I thought I was all out of words. Guess what? I'm not. In response to your request for a statement about the journals, I am glad we were required to keep them - I wasn't at the time, of course, but now I am very glad. I learned so much more in your classes than in any class I have ever taken. You do not just teach the philosophy. You model it. You showed us that it works. The journals helped me to grow. I had to think, reflect and think again. And that was good. I know more about who I am and what I want than ever before. What's more, I believe in what I am training to become. I know I will be the best teacher I can be and I know I will keep learning and learning and learning ...

Goodbye. Have a wonderful summer, both of you. I am going to miss you and I have never felt that way about any of my instructors. Thank you for everything you have done for me this semester. Thanks for listening.
 Respectfully, Affectionately,
 S.F., May 2,1992


This story does not yet have an ending. Another student's journal entry, written as she reflected on a math lesson she had experienced with children, captures my own belief about teaching and learning with college students:

I find myself getting more and more excited about teaching. It is one thing to learn all the latest in theory and it's another to see it in the field WORKING! There were no math "groups" for this activity, no correct way of finding the answer and no limits on the children. The more we expect of kids, the more we give them the room to reach for the stars, the more they do just that and more.

When we give kids a ditto sheet and tell them to follow the dotted lines, that is all they will do. It is the open-ended expectations that result in excellence. Mary had the children do a research project and report on something for the class. These kids came in with reports, models and posters of work they had done. These same children when rushed to do a two-line couplet (last words rhyming) begrudgingly cranked out "There was a cat. He had a hat." If were really want a glimpse at the potential of children, we can't stifle their creativity with limits that we ourselves impose.

C.M., April 8, 1992

For me, the room the journals allowed us to enter is full of teachers and prospective teachers. They are questioning - studying their students and themselves. Perhaps most important, however, is the warmth in that room. This excited and caring feeling happens when we share who we are and who we are becoming. Journal writing brings each course full circle to the ethic of caring, strengthening all of us as we face the unique challenges of that community where teaching and learning continue.


Duckworth, E. (1989). Forward. In C.T. Fosnot, Enquiring teachers, enquiring learners: A constructive approach for teaching (pp.ix-x). New York: Teachers College Press. Fosnot, C. T. (1989). Enquiring teachers, enquiring learners: A constructivist approach for teaching. New York: Teachers College Press. Surbeck, E., Han, E., & Moyer, J. (1991). Assessing reflective responses in journals. Educational leadership,48(6),25-27.

For additional information on journal

writing with preservice teachers, see

the following:

Surbeck, E., & Han, E. (1993). Becoming a child sensitive teacher: Can journal writing help? Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 14(2), 4-10. Surbeck, E., Han, E., & Moyer, J. (1992). Two steps forward and one stepback: Dancing toward reflection with undergraduate students. College Student Journal (Winter). Surbeck, E. (1992). Can undergraduate teacher candidates reflect? If so, on what? Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 41(13:2), 22-24. Surbeck, E., Moyer, J., & Han, E. (1991). Assessing reflective responses in journals. Educational Leadership, 48(6),25-27. Surbeck, E., Han, E., & Moyer, J. (1990). Promoting reflective thinking through journal writing: Implications for preservice teacher preparation. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 11(1), 7-9.
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Author:Surbeck, Elaine
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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