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Valuing Julia

Valuing Julia: A student teacher’s experience coming to know an English Language Learner through the use of a dialogue journal

Emily Douglass, Senior, Early Childhood Education
The University of South Carolina

Julia began her standardized reading test at 8:45 a.m. She finished 12 minutes later at 8:57 a.m., a test that took most of her classmates 60-90 minutes to complete. She scored the lowest out of all of her classmates. It was at this moment when I realized that this student, full of potential that had yet to be discovered, had already begun her plunge into the gaping cracks of our education system (Field Journal Entry, 9/14/12).

The previous observation took place while completing my second semester of student teaching in the fall semester of my senior year. The student, Julia, is a third grade female English Language Learner from Puerto Rico. From the beginning of my time in my Early Childhood Program at the University of South Carolina, I realized that English Language Learners and second language acquisition was something that I was very passionate about. After the previous observation, I quickly realized the growing disconnect between what we as educators expected Julia to know and how we actually helped her to learn those things in the classroom. The observations I made of Julia led me to think critically about how she was being supported as an English Language Learner in her school and classroom. I decided to ask the following question and conduct an Action Research Project in my student teaching classroom:  How can I effectively teach and support third grade English Language Learners to foster second language acquisition while allowing students to retain a positive sense of identity through the use of an interactive dialogue journal?

Connection to the Literature
The differences we have as human beings should be viewed as a viable asset to our learning, not a hindrance. Classrooms should be a place that children feel comfortable to be themselves. Children should be able to see themselves represented in all aspects of the curriculum. According to Eugene Garcia’s article ¡Ya Basta!: Challenging Restrictions on English Language Learners, “We will not get the education of these students right until we jettison the “English-only” ideology and implement policies and practices that respect their linguistic and cultural diversity and guarantee their civil rights and educational opportunities,” (Garcia, p. 50, 2011). Garcia (2011) states that we must stray away from the restrictive-language education environments where English Language Learners are discouraged and even shunned for speaking or reading in their native languages. According to Sarah Shin’s article Teaching English Language Learners: Recommendations for Early Childhood Educators, allowing children to read and write in their first language ultimately facilitates the child’s ability to read and write in English (Shin, 2010). “If at all possible, English learners should first be taught to read in the language they know best (their native language) while learning English. This is because it is difficult for children to read in a language that they don’t already speak,” (Shin, p. 14, 2010).

After reviewing important literature on how to best support English Language Learners, I chose to focus my attention on the use of one strategy in particular: the use of interactive dialogue journals. According to Joy Kreeft Peyton’s article Dialogue Journals: Interactive Writing To Develop Language and Literacy, “A dialogue journal is a written conversation in which a student and teacher communicate regularly (daily, weekly, etc., depending on the educational setting) over a semester, school year, or course. Students write as much as they choose and the teacher writes back regularly, responding to students' questions and comments, introducing new topics, or asking questions. The teacher is a participant in an ongoing, written conversation with the student, rather than an evaluator who corrects or comments on the student's writing,” (Peyton, 1993). By using interactive dialogue journals with English Language Learners, teachers are able to aid a student in practicing their English skills in a non-threatening manner. These journals act a place where students can freely write whatever they want without focusing on the mechanics of their writing (Peyton, 1993). The teacher’s responses in the journal act as a model for Standard American English usage (Peyton, 1993). “With non-literate students, there is no initial pressure to write. Students can begin by drawing pictures, with the teacher drawing pictures in reply, perhaps writing a few words underneath or labeling the pictures. The move to letters, words, and longer texts can be made when students feel ready,” (Peyton, 1993). The student mainly dictates the direction in which these dialogue journals lead and the teacher simply responds by making statements or asking questions. Shin (2010) also suggests incorporating an interactive dialogue journal into the classroom. “Done regularly, the dialogue journal encourages English learners to practice writing in English without overly worrying about mistakes, and to learn new vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and idioms that are the basis for further literacy development,” (Shin, p. 19, 2010). The use of interactive dialogue journals in a classroom provides another context for language and literacy development for English Language Learners.

I introduced this interactive dialogue journal to Julia on October 2, 2012. I explained to her that she and I would be writing back and forth to each other. I told her that she did not need to worry about spelling or using correct grammar when she writes to me. I explained to her that the main reason I wanted to do this with her is because I wanted her to practice writing and I wanted to learn more about her.

Research Findings
After the conclusion of my time in my classroom, I collected Julia’s interactive dialogue journal and I coded her writing for patterns. I looked for different patterns in her writing, which included things that drastically changed, things that slightly changed, and things that stayed relatively the same. I found three key patterns throughout her writing that drastically changed.
The first was penmanship improvement. I analyzed a work sample from Julia’s interactive dialogue journal on October 3, 2012, only the second day of this project. In this work sample, I took note of Julia’s illegible penmanship. Most of the words she had written were too light to even read. She also did not begin her writing against the left hand margin. In this work sample, her penmanship was very poor. I analyzed another work sample from October 12, 2012. I used this work sample as a comparison piece to the previous work sample. In the second work sample, Julia’s penmanship had drastically improved. All of her words are legible. They are neat and her letter formation demonstrates that of a third grader. Her writing also begins up against the left hand margin. Julia’s penmanship continued to improve throughout her interactive dialogue journal.
Quantity of Writing
The second major improvement I observed in Julia’s writing was the amount of writing she was producing. I analyzed a work sample from October 4, 2012, two days after our project began. In the work sample, I have written to Julia at the top of the paper and she has responded to me near the bottom. She has only written six lines of writing. I used a comparison work sample from October 17, 2012 where I observed an enormous increase in her amount of writing. In the second work sample, Julia has filled an entire page with her writing. Her writing begins on the first line of the page and ends on the last line. Julia’s amount of writing continued to increase from this point on.
Descriptive Language
The final key pattern I found in Julia’s interactive dialogue journal was her use of descriptive language. I analyzed a work sample from October 2, 2012, the first day of Julia’s interactive dialogue journal. In this work sample, I have written to Julia and asked her to write me a few words or phrases in Spanish, her native language. She returned the journal to me with eight sentences written in Spanish. I asked her to translate them to me and what I realized was Julia had written commands that she would typically hear her mother say to her and her brother and sisters. This was an interesting finding because during that time in our classroom, we were discussing commands. It was fascinating to see how Julia incorporated the current curriculum into her interactive dialogue journal in her native language. I also analyzed a work sample from November 1, 2012 in which Julia used scientific language to describe her ecosystem project. She used words such as biotic and abiotic to describe the insects and materials in her ecosystem. She also described the process we used to build the ecosystem. This use of scientific language is astounding coming from a student who did not have the firmest grasp on the English language. We spent approximately three weeks discussing our ecosystem projects and to see Julia incorporate this project into her interactive dialogue journal, made me realize that this project can incorporate all aspects of the curriculum and can be integrated throughout the entire day. I fully believe that this interactive dialogue journal helped Julia become more comfortable with writing, reading, and speaking English.

I believe that my action research findings directly correlate with the literature I reviewed for my project. “We will not get the education of these students right until we jettison the “English-only” ideology and implement policies and practices that respect their linguistic and cultural diversity and guarantee their civil rights and educational opportunities,” (Garcia, p. 50, 2011). I removed the English-only ideology from this project and replaced it with a safe haven for writing. A place where Julia could write about whatever she wanted without focusing on the mechanics of writing in whatever language she wanted. From this, Julia delivered writing that was free from fear, pure, and authentic. She became excited about writing and asked me if she could write in “our journal” whenever she had free time. She became more adventurous with her writing topics and she demonstrated confidence in her word and sentence choices. She understood that she could write about whatever she wanted and she would not be penalized or chastised because of misspelled words or improper grammar. I believe that Julia felt valued during this project and that made her even more comfortable to write without fear.

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