Making Family Dialogue Journals Work

A little over a year ago I first wrote about family dialogue journals (FDJs). An FDJ is a notebook that travels between a student’s home and classroom. Teacher, child, and family member use the journal to engage in a written dialogue about curriculum, traditions, family history, etc. I decided to try FDJs out as a way to keep families informed of what was going on in their child’s English class. My first year using them was neither a success nor a failure. It was, however, a lot of work. I spent the year haranguing children to return their journals and lugging around tote-bags of notebooks so I could scratch out personalized FDJ responses during any spare moment.

So when it came time to map out my 2016-17 school year, I didn’t know if I had it in me to continue. This changed when I connected with Kathleen Sokolowski over at Two Writing Teachers in August. A Voxer conversation that started with a discussion of removing grades from the classroom turned into an extended back and forth about family dialogue journals. Kathleen decided to give FDJs a shot (check out her excellent post on the subject over at Two Writing Teachers). Her enthusiasm reignited my commitment. I wrote an FDJs Revisited post, cleared away any mental detritus, and prepared to try again in September.

It’s now November; my 7th graders have completed four rounds of FDJing. This year’s crop of students seem more amenable to the FDJ concept than last year’s. They brought in their notebook at the beginning of the year (without any nagging on my end. They’ve also been more apt to speak openly about their families and non-school lives.

Instead of asking students to read their FDJs in entirety in front of the class as I did at the beginning of last year (wince), I’ve asked students to share sections of their family’s responses in small groups. I’ve also given students the option to share a different piece of writing if they wish. This way everyone has something to read. Kids who don’t have their FDJs or don’t feel comfortable sharing them for whatever reason can still participate. These small tweaks, combined with the aforementioned shift in classroom attitude, have resulted in a much friendlier environment for sharing. What follows is a slightly more in-depth look into how I’ve been approaching Family Dialogue Journals this quarter.

Every other Friday is a designated FDJ day. By the time Friday rolls around I’ve managed to respond to every journal I’ve received over the two week period. Below are two random examples of my responses. As you can see, they’re not great. Sometimes the parent gives me something to work with, and often they don’t. But writing these replies is a two-way street, and I’m just as responsible for crafting interesting responses as families are. Probably more so, in fact. Right now as long as I’m replying to one specific thing from each FDJ entry I’m satisfied. Writing 60+ personalized responses (while not every student brings them in, this is almost a 100% increase in participation from this time last year) requires me to straddle the line between making it meaningful and getting it finished. Part of me relishes this challenge since figuring out that balance seems to be a crucial aspect of life.

I mentally divide FDJ day into two chunks: sharing last week’s response and writing next week’s letter. Instead of taking part in our normal class openers (we alternate between independent reading and notebook time), I ask students to find something to share with their group. If they have their FDJs they read their family’s most recent response and select up to four sentences to share. I’ve learned that students need these few minutes in order to decipher handwriting, mentally prepare to read out loud, and figure out what they want to share.

When everyone is ready, I kick things off by reading my own family’s response. Last year my mom was kind enough to write back and forth with me, and this year my dad has taken over the duty. Once I read my dad’s response I have a few students share connections, summarize, etc with what I read. I expect students to do this for each other, so getting everyone warmed up with my own FDJ works well. Then it’s their turn. Every group of four reads to one another using the following protocol:

Share.PNG

This protocol helps group members stay involved by requiring them to respond in a particular way (I enjoy thinking protocols. The National School Reform Faculty’s website has a ton of good ones). I do my best to stay on the sidelines during this time, planting myself in the middle of the room and dividing my attention between every group.

After everyone has shared, we get ready to write our next letters home. Although I change the exact mechanics each time, I like to make sure the students talk before they write. Sometimes we use chalk talk activities where students move silently throughout the room and reflect on the last two weeks’ worth of instruction. Last time I sorted everything we’d done into four categories (see below).

prewrite

Then students picked the category they wanted to write about and met up with other students interested in the same topic. The goal is to help each child come to the page ready with some ideas. Once we’ve brainstormed and bounced ideas off of one another, it’s time to write.

I show them the next letter I’ll send to my dad. I like to color code my writing; it helps me highlight the different elements I want the students to include.

color.PNG

A much better way to do this would be to engage students in some type of letter genre study. What common elements can we find in typical letters? What kind of information do authors include? How do they convey that information? What purposes do we write letters for? etc. But I’m approaching FDJs in baby steps, and what we’re doing now gets the job done.

What students choose to say about class and what they’ve been doing is always illuminating.

Students end their letters by coming up with a question to ask someone at home. Ideally every child’s question relates to what we’re studying in class. Right now, however, I’m pretty much giving them free reign over what they ask. By the time students finish writing their letters the class period is just about over. The process ends when I send out an email reminder to parents that afternoon (the first of three reminder emails per cycle).

So far the FDJs are mainly functioning as a form of increased school-family communication. This is the most basic of purposes. My next goal is to use the family dialogue journal to engage parents with questions related to the content of the course. By the time I write my next FDJ post in a couple months I’ll hopefully be able to speak on using the FDJ as a instructional resource.

How do you communicate with families? What methods do you use beyond report cards and signed quizzes/tests?

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: To Change Everything While Changing Nothing | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  2. Pingback: To Change Everything While Changing Nothing: Going Gradeless | Teachers Going Gradeless

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