I have been dreading writing this post, because it means I have to make a decision.
Last year I wrote a blog post exploring a book I had just read about family dialogue journals (FDJs). To sum it up, FDJs are notebooks that travel between school and a student’s home on a regular basis. Family dialogue journals attempt to build a partnership between home and the classroom. Students compose a brief letter about something (for instance reflections on what’s going on in class or specific aspects of a curriculum), someone at home replies, and then the teacher responds to both student and family member. The sequence ends when students share their FDJs with each other. The cycle then repeats every 1-2 weeks.
I first became interested in family dialogue journals after I removed grades from my classroom. Regardless of how effectively grades communicate learning, they are a school’s primary method of communicating student progress to parents and family members. If I was going to do away with grading, I realized that I had to put some mechanism in place to keep families informed of what was going on in their child’s English class. I also saw in FDJs a way not only to connect the classroom to the family, but to welcome families into the curriculum. The constant rush for globalized learning has a tendency to erase the power of the local. Our roots, our complex histories, and our shared struggles can be pushed aside when we keep our eyes trained on place-agnostic learning outcomes. With these potential benefits in mind, I decided to give FDJs a shot.
During my first read of the book, I remember being struck by just how often the authors referenced the difficulty of the FDJ process. Almost every chapter reminded the reader of the challenges involved with the project. Finding time for students to share in class, creating student buy-in, responding to every journal, and working through language issues were just a few of the points the book raised.
I now understand. I struggled more with sustaining the family dialogue journals than perhaps any other aspect of my class. By the end of the school year only approximately 1/3rd of each class was turning in their FDJs. At first I took this as a sign that students weren’t enjoying them. But after speaking with every class multiple times throughout the year, I realized this wasn’t true. In fact, students loved listening to their peers talk about their families. They just felt uncomfortable asking their family members to do them.
I get this. Throughout the year I modeled the process by undertaking a family dialogue journal with my mom. Even as a 34 year old adult I sometimes felt a little hesitant asking her to complete the next entry. Sometimes I would forget until the last moment, compounding my sheepishness. The FDJ requires more of a family member than typical homework assignments. Indeed, a few students in each class had no qualms repeating disparaging comments made by their family members about the FDJ. And again, I understand. The family dialogue journal places demands on everyone. Although I enjoyed reading them, sitting down and replying to forty notebooks every two weeks was time consuming. There were times when I was relieved that so few students turned them in.
Listening to students share their entries with the class was a joy, as was responding to each entry. Some parents talked about their childhoods, describing a time they skipped school to hear a concert or attend a protest. Others detailed humorous anecdotes about their children parading down the sidewalk wearing nothing but a diaper and saran wrap. Many families allowed me a glimpse into their lives. But not all did. Some offered me only random sentences here and there, inconsistent descriptions of inconsequential things. That’s part of the process. Meeting every family where they’re comfortable and then trying to build something of value. There can be no judgement in a family dialogue journal.
I’ve been on the fence all summer about returning to the family dialogue journal. I was steering towards dropping them until a parent reached out to me during the end of August. The parent’s fortuitous email explained how powerful the journal was, and that it had deepened the family’s relationships with one another. The parent included photographs of the letters her son had continued writing to his collegiate sisters throughout the summer. This is the power of the FDJ. If handled unevenly (like I did last year), it’s just another school related nuisance to be suffered through by kids and families alike. But with the right combination of ingredients, it has the ability to build wonderful connections. Through the FDJ, teachers, students, and families can honor and build upon local funds of knowledge. Students can learn surprising things about themselves and each other.
In I-Writing: The Politics and Practices of Teaching First-Person Writing, Karen Surman Paley explores the powerful ways a student’s family shapes his or her social, political, and emotional identities. For Paley, first-person writing (like the kind encouraged by the family dialogue journal) is an effective way to engage with the larger issues of the day. With this (and a year of experience) in mind, I plan on making a return to FDJs this school year. Some things I know to improve (a stronger roll-out in the beginning of the year, talking them up during back to school night and then contacting any family who isn’t able to attend) while others remain murky (using the FDJ to have students discuss literary curriculum).
In some respects family dialogue journals are the antithesis of standardization. They exist in a dialogic space between multiple parties and negotiated purposes. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. FDJs require time, patience, and communal effort, things in short supply for most of us working in the classroom. I look forward to writing another post about my progress in a couple months.