Current Events in Education

Writing Across the Content Areas:  Family Message Journals

Christian Dria grew up in Minnesota and knew in the 1st grade that she wanted to be a teacher. She earned her degree at the University of Wisconsin and has been a primary teacher for 28 years. She lives in Central Minnesota with her husband and daughter.
I chuckled after asking, “What did you do today?” and got a shoulder shrug indicating, “I don’t know” from the first-grader in my class.  But it is 2020 and we are visiting on Zoom.  I asked questions about the math pages and game I sent home to find out what he did while home on quarantine.  He quickly told me he finished his math on his own and beat his brother twice at the math game!  This exchange got me thinking about how parents must feel when they ask about the day and get a shoulder shrug or hear the dreaded comment, “Nothing.”  How can we create opportunities for authentic exchanges about the day when families are not in the classroom seeing what we do each day?  
     One way is through the use of a daily message journal.  “Practice makes perfect!”  We have all heard the saying before.  Truly the goal is not to make students perfect writers, but a daily message journal provides more opportunity for writing in the day.  As a bonus, families get an opportunity to read about a part of our day.
Family Message Journals
     In 2000, Julie Wollman-Bonilla published Family Message Journals:  Teaching Writing Through Family Involvement after studying first-grade classrooms for a year.  The first-graders wrote daily to their families about something that happened during the school day in a specific curriculum area and a family member wrote back to the student.  
     In the event that a child does not get a response from a family member, another (known) adult other than the classroom teacher, can step in to help write back to a child.  Family Message Journals provide an opportunity for children to write for an authentic audience.  In the TEACHING Exceptional Children journal article, “Hey! Guess What I Did in School Today: Using Family Message Journals to Improve Student Writing and Strengthen the School-Home Partnership,” Lynda M Valerie and Sheila Foss-Swanson state, “Writing to a family member of his or her choosing gives the student the luxury of knowing the relationship, humor, beliefs, and stance of his or her reader.”
Message Journals in Action
     Since returning to the classroom after Distance Learning, it feels like there are never enough hours in the day to “make up” for time missed and one of the first activities always skipped or put off for another day is writing.  In Wollman-Bonilla’s book, she stated, “Children pay more attention to communicating fully and clearly in their writing when they know someone is going to read it and be truly informed.”  I had to see if there was a change in the writing of my students outside of the writing journal we have used all year even though we only had forty days left of the school year.
     One tweak I made to the journals before introducing them was to rename them.  Since other adults may be writing I was hesitant to call it a Family Message Journal.  We would be writing in them daily so it seemed Daily Message Journal would work.
     Prior to introducing the journals to the class, I read aloud Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin (2000) to discuss the parts of a friendly letter.  Initially, I did not realize that everyone would be writing about the same topic but understood the benefit as we brainstormed words to include.  Our first entry was about coins.  We discussed who we would write to which can be a sensitive subject.  One idea was to write to a parent one day and the other parent the next day or if students were like me, they might only have a mom or a dad to write to.  After demonstrating a message to Gramma Terri (as the students know her) about sorting and counting coins the students got started.  
     When it was time to go home, students packed their journal and a letter for parents.  Letters for EL students were translated in hopes of increasing participation in writing in the journal.  In a follow-up email to parents, I shared the example of my message and what Gramma Terri wrote back to me.  Parents are encouraged to overlook misspelled words and letter reversals while reading their child’s message.  I did ask for their support in letting their child know if their writing was hard to read because of words being too close to each other or sloppy handwriting.  In the spring of the year, I am not sure they hear me anymore!  I admit that was I anxious to see if parents replied to their children and if journals returned the next day.  I met each student as they entered to find out if they got a response and they did!    
Painting a Picture with Writing
     Our second day of journaling started with The Gardener by Sarah Stewart (1997).  I did not share the illustrations until after the letter was read on each page.  Students were invited to imagine what was happening in the story like families imagine when reading daily messages.  Can more details be added to the text?  Students were encouraged to think about their audience (the reader) and what details should be included in the message.  If we were to write about Phy. Ed., should we just write, “I went to Phy. Ed. today”?  You could, but what happened in the gym when you were there?
     When writing about coins the first day, many students wrote about counting coins and how many they had of each.  With no background knowledge, one boy asked his mom, “How much money do you have?”  Her response told him that he did not need to worry about money and that they would take care of him.  In his second letter, when talking about the money game Race for a Dollar, he included the detail that the dollar winners got were fake and was adamant that everyone include that detail, too!  The mini-lesson on details worked.
Benefits of Message Journals
     Daily Message Journals provide more opportunity for fine motor practice which is so important these days with time on technology outweighing the time spent cutting, writing, and coloring.  Students see firsthand that writing is a means of communication and feel a sense of ownership in their writing.  The daily journal gives students additional practice in the mechanics of writing as they use capital letters, look to see if they have included punctuation, and make sure there is space between words so the writing makes sense to the reader.  Possibly the greatest benefit of Daily Message Journals is the parent-school communication it provides!  Parents have a conversation starter about what happened during the school day instead of getting a shoulder shrug or the famous reply, “Nothing.”

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