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Shifting Into Our Spirits with Journaling

When I was thirteen or fourteen years old, my dad taught me how to “drive stick”, a car with a manual or standard transmission, on farm roads in the Ottawa Valley of Ontario, Canada. He took great pride in making sure that each woman in the family could walk up to any car, grab the keys, and take off whenever and wherever she wanted. Sitting in the driver seat with my feet nervously hovering over the clutch and the gas, he instructed me to pay attention to the feel of releasing the clutch and pressing the gas and how the car sounded as I shifted from first to second, second to third, third to fourth. Sometimes he even let me slide into fifth gear so I could use my shifting hand to turn up the radio, lean my elbow on the center console, and cruise in that Honda Civic hatchback, as he beamed from ear to ear.


Whenever I imagine my students moving throughout their school day, I recall learning to drive a standard. This memory came to me after doing some of the best professional development I’ve ever done: shadowing one of my students. I carried a backpack, attended all eight classes over two days, took notes and assessments, ate lunch and did homework during her free period. I hustled during passing periods, hesitated to ask to go the bathroom during class and repeatedly slapped my hand as I went for my cellphone to check my texts or emails. After the first couple of classes on that first day, I was exhausted and in awe of how these teenagers switch gears at least every 80 minutes while they also manage their families, social lives, and extracurriculars via texts and Snaps.


I found that right when I felt like I was finally in the groove in a class, in line with the thinking and on board with the teacher, everyone was packing up, scribbling homework in their planners and heading out the door to the next class that would require a new kind of energy and thinking. Somehow, I was supposed to gear down and get back to cruising within that five-minute passing period, from the hallway to the next desk chair. I had to clear my head while catching up on texts, chatting with my shadow student, grabbing a snack, or filling my water bottle. Needless to say, I was tired and had black holes in my retention as the result of the constant shifting required of my body and brain.


Weeks later, I attended an assembly for character awards for my son who was in first grade at the time. As I stood in the back of the gym, I watched as the six first grade classes filed in and sat in their designated areas on the floor. Many of them faced forward and others squirmed around or made faces at their friends on the other side of the gym. When the principal turned on the mic and started speaking, she asked for the students’ listening ears and learning eyes and waited for the squirming to stop and the attention to be on the task at hand. In this moment, I realized they were allowing the kids to shift gears, making space in their minds for what they were about to experience, and though the assembly wasn’t going to require them to shift into higher-level thinking, in a classroom setting this would be how the teacher could engage students and guide the transition to critical thinking or problem-solving. And then I thought about me, teaching at the high school level, and questioned: Why does the space for shifting gears stop when students are in middle school and high school, especially when their days actually require more shifts as they manage their own learning and lives? How could I create meaningful time in my classes for students to quiet the noise and settle into their writing hands, heads, and hearts in order for them to reap the most benefit or retain more from the lesson?


I was again whisked back to my adolescence. This time I wasn’t driving a Honda with my dad, I was in my bedroom, pouring my teenage angst onto the pages of one of my fabric-covered journals that I hid in a dresser drawer. I’ve always been an avid journal writer; it was my way to make sense of the world. Journaling was exactly what I wanted for my students, a time and space to allow them to productively shift at the beginning of class and use writing to process emotion, express themselves, experiment, and play.

From this realization, I began to incorporate journaling into my lesson plans. Each lesson includes a seven to ten minute opening journal that is sometimes contextually or thematically connected to the text or lesson’s outcome; however, we often free-write with broad prompts that explore how we are feeling and what is going on in our lives. I say “we” because I also use the time to write with my students during class. Not only am I modeling for them what I expect and conveying its importance, free writing supports my own wellness, which teachers often forget.



One of my favorite prompts and a student favorite as well is when they’re asked: “How’s your spirit?” I borrowed this from my dearest friend and colleague who often asks me this when she intuits the need for a “check-in” with me. The first time I present this prompt to my students, I share its origins.



This question seems so simple, like “How are you?”, but is so much more. Rather than invoking an involuntary and dismissive “fine” or “good”, asking about one’s spirit is a genuine inquiry that’s not just about the person’s mood, but takes into consideration her whole being, what is going on within her and around her. Every few weeks or at a particularly hectic point in the year, I will use the “How’s your spirit?” prompt with my students, often when I intuit they are overwhelmed. More than once, I have timed the prompt so well that I’ve heard an audible sigh of relief or a collective “Yes!” I remember one student in particular who feverishly wrote for a solid ten minutes and closed up her journal saying, “I really needed that.” I can absolutely relate and also find comfort in the familiar puff of air escaping from the journal pages as the heavy cover comes down.



Though I recognize that nothing I am suggesting is revolutionary pedagogy, this intentional practice has completely changed the energy in my classes and created a space for lessons to be even more effective. It is not only something that I see as the teacher in the room, but something my students comment on as well. Once the practice is established in the first few weeks of class, it becomes part of conversations. Students eagerly make their way to class and ask me or each other, “How much writing time do you need today?” as a way to check-in. And on those days that I intuit a need for a “How’s your spirit?” check-in, they’ve come into class hoping that it would be prompt for the day. I grin, knowing they will be pleased, and watch them shift from first gear to second, second to third, third to fourth and slide right into fifth with the speed of their pens.



Jessica Bailey is Our Gothic Queen Bee Who Reigns Under the Yellow Banner of the Second Year, Sometimes Subject of Spontaneous Photography


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