Exposure to different moods as expressed in essays should enable students to learn how to express their own moods or experiences in writing. An excellent vehicle for this type of personal writing is a journal. But since so many students have been writing journals as class assignments, the new theme of “My City Journal” might enable students to see themselves in a broader context and to move toward new forms of writing such as description writing, instruction, story-telling as they relate friends’ experiences, and preparations for developing debates, to name a few. This journal of the city should be an on-going writing assignment. The students should be encouraged to do their journals as nightly homework. For those students who prefer to write in their journal in lists only, or phrases only, you should happily accept this.
The journal entries for the week should be encouraged to stick to the week’s chosen (assigned or agreed upon) theme. I suggest some themes here but your students will be able to provide more timely and specific ones:
-life on my street
-the places where I hang out things I do with my friends
-places I go with my friends, family, alone
-I wish I had more to do in my free time
-the places I avoid
-the important people in my community, church, school, block, building
-when there’s nothing to eat
-dealing with the bureaucracy
Each of these topics as dealt with in a journal would get the students writing about things that concern them, and at the same time, they would be writing about community issues that they will see concern their classmates as well.
By developing lists of themes that use the present subjunctive “I would . . .” the students could learn about how their classmates experience the situations that are similar to or in some cases quite different from theirs. And this would be an excellent first step toward all types of writing that can make the students organize their ideas, develop their skills in more objective writing and feel empowered by writing for a purpose beyond venting or recording.
By using any of the themes as the center of an evening’s journal entry (or you might choose to have the students write journal entries in class) students will be better able to incorporate their own experiences and feelings into what in another class would be a torturous essay. The goal is to get the students writing about ideas and experiences as a whole so that they can better express both their personal experiences and feelings, but possibly more importantly, to realize that a lot of what they feel and do is determined by where they live and what opportunities are open to them.
When I assigned a nightly journal in seventh and eighth grade language classes I met with two basic complaints: 1) the students did not want to share things that they felt were too personal or 2) the students felt that their lives were boring. The use of city themes that affect the students can solve both problems since the students can be directed to places, people and events outside themselves. Students should be helped to realize that many of the moves and decisions that they make are related to complicated community situations and pressures. Go through concrete examples with them: Rolaina watches tv every afternoon. Why? Her mom won’t let her go out. Why? The streets are too dangerous. So in the journal the student is to discuss his feelings about the limitations that are put on him by his guardian because of the facts of city life.
There are many books that are written in a journal-like format. In some books, such as James Baldwin’s “No Name In the Street” and James Comer’s first chapter of “Beyond Black and White,” the authors tell about incidents that they personally experienced but which they understood to be part of the racism of the cities in which they were living in England and in the United States, respectively. Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City” contains long descriptive chapters that he understands to be both autobiographical essays and sociological studies of Jewish life in early twentieth century Brooklyn.
A wonderful autobiography that tells of slum survival is by Carolina Maria De Jesus who wrote her life while struggling to raise her three children in a Brazilian slum. She describes the incidents of her life in a clear, factual narrative that is interspersed with her natural philosophical impressions, for example, “May 10 1958 . . . Brazil needs to be led by a person who has known hunger. Hunger is also a teacher. . . Who has gone hungry knows how to think of the future and of the children. . .” This is the diary of poverty and parts can be read by children as young as fifth grade and up. It is a must for all readers of the city and for all writers of journals.
Excerpts from either “The Diary of Anne Frank,” or from the autobiographical fiction by Maya Angelou, “I know why the caged bird sings,” would also provide high interest materials for students who we are encouraging to write. The one that we all know, and for good reason, is Anne Frank’s diary. This is a great inspirational book for students who are as young as eleven. If you choose carefully, there are numerous passages that are worth reading to a class of students who may themselves have poor reading skills. The readings themselves will provide superb material for discussions or all kinds of city issues.