Bio Blogs and Math Journaling

In both my curriculum studies classes (one for biology and one for mathematics), we have been asked to document our own learning through “Bio Blogs” or journaling. The idea is simple- give students a small notebook and at the end of each lesson, and ask them to reflect on something they have learned that day. Teachers can read through their students’ entries each day and begin a dialogue with them; commenting on their thoughts, offering suggestions, and answering their questions. It’s also a good way to keep students in their seats during the last five minutes of each lesson, and allows them time to consolidate their learning. 

Both my instructors use this journaling method differently with their students. Here, I will explain both and include my thoughts and comments about them.

After watching a video, or participating in an activity, we are sometimes asked to write down our thoughts about the activity, something we learned, or what the “take away” points are. We are usually given the last five minutes of class to write down an ICE (Information, Connections, Extensions) entry about  a teaching technique or strategy we learned that day. 

The ICE method works well because it is an open ended question so it allows students to pick any part of the lesson they want to write about. ICE also provides a neat scaffold for students organize their thoughts. 

In math class, we are usually given a  question of the day to write about and this must be handed in at the end of each period. It’s a good way to keep students in their seats (and not packing up their bags) at the end of class and allows them time to consolidate their knowledge. Asking more directed questions are good for students who need more help coming up with a topic to write about because they may not be able to hone in on a topic of choice. By giving students a specific question, you can be strategic about the types of questions you ask in order to get them thinking about the overall course or unit expectations as it relates to the work they were doing that day. Asking students something like, “Create a mnemonic to help you remember the steps to graphing a trig function” would be an example of a directed question, can have a different impact than asking a more open-ended question such as, “Write about three things you learned in class today, and explain why you picked each one.” 

You can also use journals as a way to collect information from students, such as what topic they would like to choose for their next assignment, which group members they would like to work with, what materials they might need for a project…etc. 

I decided to test out the idea of journaling out during my placement and I’m happy to report that it was a successful endeavor! I implemented journals at the beginning of the chemistry unit in both the grade 9 academic and applied classes I was student teaching in. For the applied class, I gave students the option of choosing a handmade notebook with either lined paper, or blank paper (I hole punched the pages, stapled them together, and used coloured paper as the title page). Students who have trouble with writing may need a more organized space to write their thoughts (hence, the lined paper), whereas students who were more creative thinkers like having an open space to create mind-maps, draw pictures and diagrams (blank paper). Since the academic class was significantly larger, my associate teacher and I decided to purchase pre-made notebooks for them instead.
I was surprised at the range of ways students chose to use their notebooks. In the applied class, I told the students that they would have the option to refer to their notebook during the unit test. I immediately saw greater rigor in note-taking, and I quickly learned which students were being lazy with their notes and which ones genuinely did not have the skills to do so. In the academic class, the journaling was mainly used as a way to gauge how much of the lesson students were able to understand. Sometimes I would ask application questions related to the content I was teaching, other times I chose to use it as an opportunity to review what was learned the previous day. 

Each night, I would spend about an hour and a half reading through these journals and providing students with comments and feedback. They were also a way to see what aspects of a lesson I needed to work on. Students loved reading through the comments and seeing the stickers they would get, and I got several positive reactions with this. One student, who tended not to talk much in class, used the journals to ask me questions about chemistry, and from there we began a paper conversation that continued for the rest of the unit. 

Not only did the journals gave me insight into what students were and were not thinking about when it came to chemistry, they also gave me ideas as to how I can build on my teaching. In one entry, I asked students to explain to me why an aluminium pop can “crushed” itself when moved rapidly from boiling water to cold water. A couple students  decided to draw diagrams as a part of their answer. I thought this was an excellent way to supplement written information, so I took pictures of the students’ work, not just the exemplary ones, but ones from every level. I complied these into a Powerpoint and used it as a way to give students feedback about their entries the next day.

If I had more time with the students, I could have built on this method of formative assessment by providing them the opportunity to assess themselves and their peers as well (assessment as learning). Of course, I would have to carefully scaffold this so that students understood how to give constructive feedback (e.g. criticize the work, not the person). Ideally, by the time the summative assessment rolls around, students would have the tools to reflect critically on their own learning, and knowledge to understand how to improve their own work. 

As one can see, there are a variety of methods that the journaling/blogging technique can be adopted in the everyday classroom. Let me know in the comments below what ideas or suggestions you have for journaling in the classroom!

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