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Dear Diary: a More Personal Writing Lesson

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“On my first crush, it was a boy name Jerry he was sooooo cute. I thought I was in love. One day I told him and he said I was ugly. I cryed so hard.”

--Eighth-grader, Walter Reed Middle School

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Some days Tiffiny Federico asks the personal questions: Who was your first crush? When were you most terrified?

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At other times, Federico, an English teacher at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood, pushes students to tell a tale or describe a painting by Henri Matisse or expound on a quote by Alfred Lord Tennyson: “ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Whatever the topic, Federico’s students write in their journals almost every morning for five to 15 minutes. “I give my students journals so they will become better writers,” she said.

And better writers mean better readers. Assigned for years by teachers to stimulate creativity and self-awareness, journal writing has become a powerful tool in the struggle against illiteracy, educators say.

No longer limited to stream-of-consciousness ramblings, today’s journal writing demands more of students, including analysis, critical thinking and the use of literary devices. Even kindergarten students keep journals, sometimes substituting pictures for words, the first step in putting ideas on paper.

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“Absolutely, journal writing can be a powerful tool to promote literacy,” said Diane Levin, a language arts consultant for the California Department of Education.

However, Levin and others warned that to be effective, journal topics must have a clear purpose, for example, linking the writing assignments to literature or history lessons. Teachers also need to provide feedback on entries, they say--at least more than the traditional.

Without such measures, Levin said, “students are writing aimlessly, just for the sake of writing, and that can be meaningless.”

Meaningless or not, free-form journal writing has been around as long as pre-pubescent girls have been pouring out their hearts and souls into diaries, kept hidden in their dresser drawers. One such diary, Anne Frank’s, has become an international standard for explaining life within the Holocaust.

It wasn’t until the self-absorbed 1980s, however, that the educational establishment seized on the diary-style technique as a classroom exercise. Teachers hoped journals would spark student creativity and boost self-esteem, which, in turn, would improve overall academic performance.

But critics say teachers assign journals as busy work. And some parents have complained about the raw, tell-all passages sometimes appearing in their children’s journals when the assignments are about sex, dating, religion and other potentially offensive subjects. They argue that such writing invades family privacy and undermines parental authority.

In Franklin, Ohio, parents rebelled recently when an English teacher suggested that students write in their journals about this: “If you had to assassinate one famous person who is alive right now, who would it be and how would you do it?”

The teacher also asked who the students would save if “you had to lose everyone you know in a tragic accident, except one person.” The teacher was reprimanded.

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Teachers say that they try to stay clear of sensitive topics. Some skirt touchy issues by promising students that they will not read folded passages, while others warn that the law requires them to report instances in which they become aware of child abuse or suicidal thoughts.

Federico said she knows of a teacher who reported a mother’s boyfriend to authorities after reading in a girl’s journal that he abused her.

Yet Federico says that even less charged questions can evoke strong emotions in journal writing, such as a recent one about feeling terrified.

“ther was a man sleeping on the floor and we didn’t see him and my sister kiked him . . . and he stabed her with a fork and then he left but my sister was OK causs it didn’t go in all the way,” one of her students wrote.

George Eritsyan, 13 and an eighth-grader, said he likes it best when he writes in his journal about personal subjects.

“Stuff from class is sometimes boring,” he said.

But most teachers use journals--often notebooks or stapled sheets of paper--for classroom subjects. It makes students comfortable with words and sentences, and serves as a springboard for broader classroom lessons on Impressionism, colonialism, cell division or any other topic.

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At Melrose Avenue Elementary School, teacher Nancy Bisharat often composes journal entries with her second-grade students, some of whom are still learning to read. For instance, they write the sentences together, with Bisharat scrawling on the blackboard and students in their journals. Together, they string the sentences into paragraphs.

Before discussing the topic, Bisharat calls on students to read the passages as a group and individually.

“It helps kids understand what they are writing and reading,” Bisharat said.

Second-grade teacher Marlene McLemore sometimes incorporates props for students at Dixie Canyon Avenue School in Sherman Oaks. Earlier this year, McLemore served students warm toast and jam and then asked them to describe in their journals how the taste “feels.”

One girl wrote: “I think about how it tastes. And I think about the next meal and I think about who’s house I’m at. Sometimes I am at my grandma’s house and sometimes I am at my mom’s house. I useale am at my grandma’s house when I eat tosat and jam. When I finish eating I feel full.”

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Like most teachers who assign journals, McLemore saves spelling and grammar corrections for other writing exercises, such as essays or short stories, because she fears it will inhibit students.

Although she might gently remind a student to capitalize at the beginning of a sentence, when it comes to journals, she focuses on the quantity of writing.

“You really need quantity before you can work on refining,” McLemore said, adding that the mere act of writing instills confidence, particularly in students with limited English skills.

After collaborating with a history teacher, Walter Reed’s Federico often asks students to read and write about novels relating to a historical period, for instance, Elizabeth George Speare’s “The Witch of Blackbird Pond.” The novel is about a girl from Barbados adjusting to living in a Puritan town during the 1680s.

Federico said she tries to select journal topics that help students relate to the book’s characters. “I’m not asking students to tell their deepest, darkest secrets,” she said. “I am trying to get them to relate to the story.”

One of the journal questions was: “How is it to be an outsider?”

Ingrid Franco, 13, responded: “I think it is sad because then you don’t have anything in common with anyone. Also you would be alone all the time and feel even more lonely because you’ll see everyone talking and having fun with others.”

Writing just those few sentences helped Franco understand characters in the book.

“I liked the book more,” she said.

* SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA LIVING

The results are in on your reviews of your favorite books or recommendations on good books to read. E7


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