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Journal Writing as a Tool for Reflection and Development
Adriana Beneduzzi Passarelli
Sandra Birger Romani

This paper is based on the experience we had while working with public school teachers in a Development Program offered by Associação Alumni, a binational center, during the first semester of 2002. This is a one-year program, which includes both English and Methodology classes.

Teachers participating in the project work for primary and secondary schools, where they teach regular classes and also special classes for adults who have returned to school after not having studied for many years. After a period of six months observing these teachers in methodology classes, we concluded that, despite their great expectations about the course and interest in their professional development, they had very low self-esteem and were extremely worried and insecure with regard to their job. They were also very skeptical about shifting to a more communicative approach in their practices, which was one of our main objectives in the course. Concerns about the number of students in class, lack of materials, lack of support, and their own lack of knowledge in the English language were pervasive throughout this observation period. Therefore, when we actually started teaching them, besides our weekly discussions, we decided to introduce journal writing as another tool for expression and reflection. We aimed at: a) obtaining feedback on the course and enhancing our understanding of the public teachers’ feelings and attitudes toward various aspects of teaching b) giving the students an opportunity for self-exploration and reflection on their practices and beliefs on professional growth.

Classes were held once a week; therefore, we asked the teachers to write journals on a weekly basis. As a consequence of a continuous process of learning about different teaching methods, approaches and techniques, along with their constant sharing with colleagues and writing journals, the teachers started analyzing their practices more critically. This reflection seems to have had a very positive influence on both their self-esteem and motivation, which, in turn, reflected positively in their teaching.

At the beginning of the semester, teachers were introduced to the concept of journal writing, which stresses its importance as a way to think in paper, like a letter we write to ourselves. Richards and Lockart emphasize that:

“Keeping a journal serves two purposes:
1. Events and ideas are recorded for later reflection;
2. The process of writing itself helps trigger insights about teaching. Writing in this sense serves as a discovery process.”(1994:6-7)

According to Andy Curtis (2002), a journal is much more than a tool for expressing ideas, thoughts and feelings; it can also be used as tool for analysis and introspection as one steps back from himself and examines carefully the main issues raised . Bearing this in mind, we constantly encouraged the teachers to describe not only what happened in their daily classroom practices, but also to mention any other important personal or contextual factor that had any connection with their teaching. We believed these journals would offer, among other benefits, the possibility for writing without inhibition, collecting information on a continual basis, organizing ideas, sharing, formulating hypotheses for future research, speculating about solutions to daily problems, and mainly making teachers more personally involved in their teaching.

The Study

This journal-keeping project lasted four months. Forty teachers participating in this development program agreed to have samples of their journals analyzed. Journal entries were suggested every week, usually in response to the topics focused in the lessons. In order to avoid inhibition or self-consciousness, we assured them that we would not be concerned about language accuracy, only content. After carefully reading the journals, we responded to them, usually in the form of general comments. Furthermore, the issues and insights were referred to in later group discussions, which provided us with more than one way of exploring the experience.

The original samples presented below illustrate that most teachers went through different stages during the semester. At first, they expected to be told exactly what to do; there was impatience, worry about the constraints faced at their workplaces, and a certain feeling of helplessness. They started feeling uncomfortable about their own practices and were constantly questioning themselves.

“I believe things should be changed. But my question is HOW?
Most of us don’t have perfect English.
How can we teach in this way to 45 students?
How can we convince all of them to listen silently something?
We don’t have specific programs, books or materials (not available).
I know that we can’t expect recipes for our practice, but sometimes I think that I am not competent to teach my students because I can’t see good results... “
(Sylvia, PMSP)

At a certain point, they began to evaluate their teaching and to notice the need for change.

“I discovered how boring can be some activities for the students and mainly how I can change them for more challenging ones... The big challenge is to involve the students in their learning and to keep their interest and interaction with language. Pleasure must be one of the components of this process.”
(Ana Maria, PMSP)

Little by little teachers tried to formulate their own theories about learning and teaching based on their experience.

“When I started the research I thought that I knew about methods, but I realized that I didn’t know anything... Nowadays I think it’s very difficult to use only one method to teach, the best way to teach is to mix the methods according to the class and the needs of the students.’
(Maria Lucia, PMSP)

Towards the end of the semester, the participants felt more comfortable with the language and, therefore, were able to express the insights gained from carrying out this project. They were more confident, motivated and focused on achieving their goals as teachers of English.

“I have never thought about my practice as I’m doing lately. It seems to me that writing the journals in fact acted in a positive way to reflect about my practice and what I need to change in my classes.
Here we are having the opportunity to study the theories about the learning and teaching of languages. After each class, the teacher has asked if the class worked and we write a journal relating the significant aspects of a lesson plan.
Through the journals, we could relate our doubts and insecurities and complain about the constraints in our work. The teacher writes us back some commentary about our practice and feelings....
In the beginning I was a little worried about the course, but day by day, I was feeling more comfortable. Now I am not worried about the course but how I will be able to change my practice after many years in this profession teaching with the same method...”
(Dejanira, PMSP)

Teachers' comments on journal writing:

“When I write journals I can make reflections about lesson planning, time, class management, classroom control, group work, difficulties, motivation, interaction, etc. I think journal writing is a kind of self-evaluation tool where I have reflected, criticized, expressed doubts and frustrations. Then, I feel these things have made me develop as an English teacher and now I can see that I have made things that really work and things that I must change in order to achieve much more students.”
(Creuza, PMSP)

" Writing a journal is like discussing alone about some problems, your mistakes, your day, and your work and so on. By reflecting, we really can work better.”
(Maria Luisa, PMSP)

Conclusion

Teachers can learn how to think critically by documenting and examining thoughts or questions that might otherwise be lost. Journal writing has encouraged the participants in our program to become more involved in their work, and to investigate their assumptions about learning and teaching; it has also helped them become more open to the possibility of change and growth, which is one of the main objectives of our development course. After receiving feedback from their students, most teachers have realized that even tiny changes can produce extremely positive results. It has also become clear to them that the reflective process is likely to generate new and more realistic expectations for teachers' classroom behaviors and students' performance. As Bailey, Curtis & Nunan quoted Brock:

“Although diary-keeping may not yield any answers, at least at the beginning, the fact that many questions are raised as a result of the reflection diary-keeping requires is significant in itself. Thinking about and evaluating what we do in the classroom, examining whether it is effective, and considering some of the variables affecting teaching and learning processes has the potential of moving teachers beyond mechanistic, non-reflective teaching “(Brock et al, 1992, 301)

References

BAILEY, Kathleen M; Curtis, Andy; Nunan, David. (2001). Pursuing Professional Development: The Self as Source. Heinle&Heinle.
BROCK, Mark N., BartholomewYu, and Matilda Wong. (1992). "Journalling together: Collaborative diary-keeping and teacher development'. In John Flowerdew, Mark N.Brock, And Sophie Hsia (eds.), Perspectives on second language teacher development. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong. 295-307
CURTIS, Andy.(2002). Workshop on Professional Development with English Language Teachers in Brazil, Braz-Tesol, July 2002.
REVELL, Jane, and Susan Norman. (1997). In Your Hands. NLP in ELT. London, Saffire Press.
RICHARDS, Jack C., and Charles Lockhart. (1994). Reflective teaching in second language classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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