Open Windows Into Your Students' Souls
Build Student Response by Replacing Paper-And-Pen Journals with Online Forums and 'Secret Identities'
By Marcia Woods

From the December 2002

After years spent trying, and often failing, to get my students to write about assigned readings, I have discovered a new tool that can entice even the most reluctant student into doing the required personal writing - online journaling. Instead of lugging around dog-eared notebooks, my students journal in open forums that they all read - very much like the original net bulletin boards.

Currently I use Blackboard, a commercial program for designing online courses, but I have successfully used the free forums available through email providers such as Delphi and Hotmail. For more information, see Forums below.

I make a community from all the students enrolled in one course, no matter how many sections of it I have. Each student has to post 20 substantial entries during the semester, and 10 of these must relate to the literature they are wading through. This is normal enough for any journal assignment, and if that was the only difference I made, there would be no greater transparency into their real thoughts and lives - in fact, there might be less, given that all the students enrolled in that course would be reading everyone else's comments.

The window into their souls is the fact that I request them to post anonymously, but signing off each message with a "secret identity" revealed only to me. In this fashion, like in a chat room, they have a safety shield to cover them, and I find the most honest expressions then come forth as they dialogue with each other.

Of course there are ground rules: no profanity and no nastiness (and they must write as in a journal, not in the abbreviated form we all use in instant messages or email). For the most part I try to keep the entire assignment, in Peter Elbow's term, "judgment-free"; I respect what they write and it's never corrected.

Those who are crude or rude find themselves bounced out of the community, and then they aren't allowed to complete the points for the assignment. (I remove the offensive postings and give one direct-to-the-culprit warning.) This is not hard to monitor, as I can skim through all the new postings in just a few minutes a day.

I make my own response (sometimes I'm anonymous, too) and I record the number of entries just using hatch lines on a name chart. They are graded for volume, period. It's easy.

A Window Into a Troubled Soul

Last semester Stacey sat quietly in the back row, never volunteering anything, but always with an enigmatic smile on her face. One day when I commented on how her T-shirt perfectly matched her orange sneakers, she appeared startled - I think she had felt she was invisible. Her writing was as self-effacing as she was: her assignments were deft, acceptable, predictable, but she never let me inside, never gave any parallels into her own experiences (and believe me, I encourage personal insights and "authentic voice" in papers).

Yet hidden behind her pseudonym of City Cat, Stacey began to write personally in the online journal. I have a forum called "Writing from the Heart" for more expressive, poetic contributions and here is where I found the soul behind her cynical smile:

    my blood is my essence
    without it there is no life
    careful not to spill it
    but sometimes it escapes me
    the thick ruby droplets bead on my skin
    and i am fascinated
    no other gem is as precious
    it charges forever like a demon stallion
    pushing through my constricted veins
    nothing can stop it
    and i feel alive and powerful
    this liquor of the gods is mine
    and i cherish it
    i thought he did too
    but then he stole my blood
    and sucked my innocence dry
    i was foolish to allow anyone so close
    to try and share myself
    that part of me is gone forever

The fact that she posted it for others to see told me that she was using the forum to lance wounds infected with regret. Several other students read and commented on her poetry. There were postings of support, and commiseration, and the responding students were sensitive to her pain and her willingness to expose it. It was healing.

Throughout the semester, City Cat shared other pains, writing poems about her struggles with bulimia, with her father, with the male species in general. Some postings got strong admonishing responses, while some incurred humorous ones. Sometimes the advice rendered was brutally straight: "Quit looking back! Get on with it!"

I had very little to do but provide the context, the platform and the safety net; the students, many of whom wrote beyond the 20 required entries, opened their hearts and minds and souls to each other and to me. It was real sharing, real communication, and it had an impact that was far from the traditional handwritten journal.

How could this dialogue have evolved in a notebook? Stacey's silent face in the classroom would not have told me of the emotional storms battering her inner landscape. I would have felt negligent had I not recognized that her poems were an admission of need; she would have persisted in thinking no one cared, had we not read her poetry and realized her poems were a call for help. As it was, I had gently probing conferences with her, but the real interventions had occurred through the online journal and the other unnamed, caring individuals in my classes.

Real Dialogue on Class Work

Not that all the messages were about angst. Some students began to talk to each other about the literature (Be still my heart!). Here is a portion of a recent discussion on Edward Albee's classic theatre of the absurd one-act, "The Sandbox":

    I understand the era in which this play was written, but regardless of that fact, I thought it was very very odd! Why was poor Granny doomed to die in the sandbox? Why did Mommy and Daddy know she was there to die? I just didn't get the humor in the whole thing. Anyone else find it just plain weird?

    I thought it was weird too. I started to think though that maybe the sandbox was just an illusion or something. Maybe she was really in bed but because the adults were acting like children, they used a sandbox to illustrate the place of death.
      Mary Poppins

    This play is not supposed to be simply FUNNY--it is supposed to be SATIRICAL. While the plot of the play may be strange, with the cranky old woman and the hunky angel of death, it has its message. The play, in its own way takes a shot at the way we treat our elders. It is critical of the thoughtless way we simply ship off our loved ones when they become a burden. It is funny in that it so perfectly portrays the truth in such an absurd setting--not JIM CARREY kind of funny.
      Miles Davis

What I find exiting about this exchange is that the student who "doesn't get it" or is afraid to ask a "dumb" question in class has the freedom of secrecy to ask it on the forum while saving face. This clears up a lot of confusion. Another perk is that the classroom expert, who normally sits through class bored and not participating, was actually roused out of stupor long enough to answer the questions the others had posed; again, without the others thinking, "Oh, HER again!" and dismissing the comment. In the forum, they are equals.

Sharing Personal Insight

They also write the kind of comparison to their own lives that we hope to elicit when we expose them to literature. Ibsen's drama "The Doll's House" produced an ongoing conversation for weeks. Long after we had moved on to other tasks, students were still talking with each other on the forum about the Helmer's marriage. As you can see from the following comments, it's not just the most able students who join in; the anonymous format allows everyone to participate without fear of judgment:

    I was just reading the beginning of this play and it really made me think. It's hard to imagine the days that this play was written in. I can't imagine a world where women are so confined and so disregarded. I guess we should remember that every time we as women think that we've made no progress.
      Las Vegas

    I agree that women don't make as much money, for the most part. Although I do pretty well, I believe that a man in the same position would probably be paid more. I wonder how much money Kristine would get paid compared to Krogstad. It could be even a more drastic difference in pay from then until now.
      Gypsy Queen

    Oh I am sure it was. That was probably a fact that Torvald took into consideration on hiring her. It would fit with his nature, wouldn't it?

    I really can't imaging living a life like the one Nora lives. I am the type of person who likes to give opinions to others and always have something to say. And when i don't like something i go ahead and express my opinion. I think Nora was to scare of what others had to say about her and her family and that's why she was so afraid to do something wrong.
      hello kitty

Challenges and Successes

And as this is reality, some were offensive to each other. One student called another "dumbass" about five times in one message (he got a severe warning and later was removed from the community for advising someone to take an, um, airborne fornication). But great discussions arose on popular culture icons, music, racism, and foreign travel, as well as expected issues like the insufficient student parking and teachers who all assign papers due the same week. It was a generous give-and-take, rewarding for the participants. As one student noted (as he scrambled to get all his entries in at the end):

    this is my last entry but I wish I would of listened to [Mrs. Woods] when she said don't do all at the end because no one will respond to them. today I noticed I have several remarks on a couple of my entries and wish I could of got some on the ones I entered today but I dont listen do i. I liked this journal thing though it was fun. I can say that. I liked to read other peoples and have mine responded to. Some people even wrote good advice and I wish I could thank them but stupid ol me had to wait until the last minute but it was still fun and just might do it again next semester just because. well by

There are, of course, drawbacks. The brevity of their entries can make it hard to pull out significant thoughts. An advantage of the paper-and-pen journaling is assigning free writing, then having students go back and circle key sentences that could lead them into more formal papers, a pre-writing technique Jean Wryrick suggests in Steps To Writing Well. Although I do require entries on all major works we read, when I have included a list of questions for students to answer, I get predictably limited responses and no interaction. I think the traditional notebook is preferable as a response journal, but since my goal is to get students engaged in discussion, not to elicit longer reflections, I am satisfied with the brevity of the online formats.

The freedom of give-and-take, the excitement of being secretive, the ease of electronic journaling - all these are positives that students pick up on quickly. I've had former students ask to join my current community because they enjoyed the camaraderie and missed it when they were done with my course. When did you last have a student beg to keep on journaling?

Remember Stacey? She finished the term with one final, far more positive poem:

    if you shoot me like an arrow
    from the very strongest bow
    i will run across the sky
    toward places I do not know
    so point me toward some peaceful plain
    a meadow in the mist
    among fragrant flowers
    with petals sunkissed
    aim well before you let me fly
    to you I do implore
    for where you choose to shoot me off
    i will be there forever more

Using an anonymous name with an online journal allows the reluctant writer a safe way to risk showing others who they really are, and what they really care about. By offering several forums, with the inclusion of more personal topics along with the traditional and the academic, I have finally succeeded in getting the highest percentage of my students completing this necessary task - and I enjoy reading their comments and seeing their communication skills grow.

Stacey may have been writing this final poem to me, personally, but I feel that every teacher has this potential, to fire our students across the sky; and Stacey herself is now heading towards that meadow in the mist. The online journal helped get her there.

Marcia Woods is an adjunct English faculty member at Grand Rapids Community College. Contact her at


Information on Blackboard is available at Information on free community forums is available at and at Other forums can be found through a generic search for "online communities."

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