CONVERSATIONS OF THE MIND: THE USES OF JOURNAL WRITING FOR SECOND-LANGUAGE LEARNERS. Rebecca Williams Mylnarczyk. Mahwah, N.J., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998. Pp.xvi + 215.
Reviewed by Leon James, University of Hawaii, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 2000
This easy to read paperback is the result of the author's desire to learn more about how students think and feel about themselves as learners in a "large urban college" pre-freshman ESL composition class. It is intended for teachers, scholars, and graduate students who are interested in how students learn to write and what are their accompanying thought processes and emotions. The main body of the book--Chapters 4 to 7--presents "case studies of the journal writing experiences of five students" chosen to represent the variety of cultural background and personal involvement with the freewriting process in journal keeping. The students came from Colombia, Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic, People's Republic of China, and Japan.
Chapter 2 is a review of the literature on journal writing and the cognitive-linguistic theory of inner speech (Vygotsky) in relation to reflective thinking and expressive language (James Britton). Says Mylnarczyk: "Asking students to keep a journal is a natural way for teachers to encourage the human pattern-forming propensity" (p.21). While attempting to respond to the weekly student journal writing entries, the author discovered that she sometimes had a difficult time writing meaningful responses. It was easy to respond, and more satisfying, when the log entry had a personal focus, rather than an "impersonal, objective" style and content that avoided personalizing. She was able to respond with genuine involvement when the students' reflective writing included "personal comparisons, identification or empathy with characters or ideas in the reading, open expression of emotion, and dialogue with self or teacher" (p.26).
The puzzle fell into place when she came across the book Women's Ways of Knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, Basic Books, 1986). Their concept of "connected knowing" is contrasted with "separate knowing": the first is for sharing subjective experiences while the second is for public and adversarial transactions. The author notes that others, like M. Polanyi and J. Mayher, have discussed this fundamental distinction between the intellectualizing approach that remains distant vs. the personalizing style that tries to connect. The objective register gives the impression that it is disconnected from feeling, but this is not an authentic reality, for in fact a cognitive process cannot occur without the affective motive behind it--"every idea has a feeling component" (Mayher).
Students were instructed that the purpose of the journal was "to talk about yourself as a reader, talk about yourself as a writer, what your experiences have been, how you're reacting to the book that we're reading, your feelings about the things you write for this class" (p.41). The author analyzed the students' journal entries looking for signs of connected knowing. She discusses these categories: Reference to the Self ("Chapter nine brought me old memories of my early yearsˇThis was how my father and I started."), Open Expressions of Emotion, Recognition of Temporal Flux and Change ("What could make me change my life and force me to do something unexpected?"), Internal Dialogue, Empathy and Identification ("It felt good when I earned my respect, now, I can't wait to finish this book and read that Nicholas earned hisˇ"), and Knowledge Derived From Personal Experience ("ˇyou mold yourself according to yourself.").
The teacher's experience of relating to Journal entries and the students' experience of writing them for the teacher, generates social bonding forces in the classroom. The process brings growth to the teacher as much as to students. Mylnarczyk shares her changed perspective by discussing the assumptions she brought to the class that turned out to be questionable or false. One was that personal writing comes more naturally to women than to men--False. Another was that native culture is the most important determinant of how second-language students respond to different types of writing--False. But this one: Journal Writing encourages students to engage in connected knowing--True. As one student wrote in her last entry: "When I first started this class I ˇjust used to do what the teacher assigned me to do. But now I woke up a desire in reading and writing about what matters are important to me and what is happening in our society nowadays."
Not a bad result, for a second-language class!
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