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The Writing-to-Learn Summary/Reaction Journal
Kenneth Wilburn
Department of History
   
“History is personally relevant.” This statement, my professional and personal mantra, has inspired me to encourage my students to examine the homocentric relationship between the human past and their own experiences. In my History of Africa, History of the Middle East, and both World Civilization surveys, students explore what is meant by “I am they who were” and “They live on in me.”

Objective tests often promote responses dominated by nouns; in other words, short answer tests emphasize memorizing names, dates, and places, which, I believe, link students too abstractly to their past. To shake hands well with history requires context and a firm grasp. Knowing the past for the sake of the past was never enough for me, and certainly is not enough for my students. Knowing the past for the sake of identity, however—that is, to explore how to make the past personally relevant—has guided my students and me toward deeper understanding of our shared human condition. 

Confucius allegedly once said that the best teachers could only give their students one corner of the rectangle of knowledge. Students had to craft the other three corners by exploring, analyzing, and reaching their own conclusions. Or as one of my students once presciently and metaphorically remarked about driving a car, “Knowing your present and future is like keeping an eye on the rear view mirror, the past.”  My goal has been to help my students do just that—to discern their own lives in the homocentric history of humanity.

Until 1986 I required my students to write 500-word essays entitled, “Is History Personally Relevant?”  They researched at least three of the 2,000 philosophy of history books between D13 and D16.9 in Joyner Library to help them in this essay. Was history “One damned lie after another? An anthem to great white men? A series of lessons to be learned? The hallmark of objectivity? The victory of reason over faith? His-story rather than Her-story? Progressive, regressive, or cyclic? Just what is history and how is it personally relevant?”

During my years of service with the Writing Across the Curriculum Committee in the mid-1980s, I was introduced to important teaching techniques that encouraged students to become better writers and better thinkers, that is, writing to learn. As I examined ways to incorporate such writing in my history courses that would encourage students to express complex ideas in their own language, I noticed an increase in their knowledge and understanding of the past and my philosophy of history. I came to realize, as a result, that my single 500-word essay could be transformed into a more frequent and effective academic assignment. More practice would mean more likelihood of discovery and improved critical understanding. The summary/reaction journal held and has fulfilled much promise.   

Briefly, students summarize and react to all class activities and assignments. Whether a film, an online assignment, a text assignment, a lecture, a discussion, class speeches, or forms of primary and secondary sources, students are required to write in formal essay format (introduction, body, conclusion) a summary of their intellectual encounter. Afterwards, they are required to connect some part of that summary to their own experience. Almost everyday, my students practice formal essay writing in a historical context and establish how history is personally relevant. Over a few weeks, those abstract names, dates, and places have new context, which becomes bound to both the minds and hearts of students.   

Of course, like any assignment, there are problems with this one.  The two most pressing difficulties are the time required for assessment and incomplete, poorly written journals. I often plead, “Shake hands with that friendly writing schedule.” Many develop a bittersweet relationship with the journal—it is work, but serious students almost always appreciate the final product, because they realize that they have become better writers and thinkers as a result of doing it. They know that they are also better historians and can now take their more advanced thinking and writing skills to other disciplines. They realize the summary/reaction journal can have lifelong consequences that transcend our brief time together in a single course.

There is also a valuable benefit for me. Teachers realize that the classroom is a place of learning for them as well. Student reactions are rich blankets in a mine of knowledge for me. I can see over time what does and does not work in the classroom. Students will discuss such important issues as evolution, reparations for the Atlantic slave trade, and the character of the Prophet Mohammad, for example, in ways they are often reluctant to do in classroom discussion groups among their peers. Thus, the summary/reaction journal gives me access to their minds that I cannot otherwise gain.

To view detailed mechanics of the journal or sample journal entries, access my academic homepage and click on applicable links.  See: http://core.ecu.edu/hist/wilburnk/ Should my pedagogy, in summary form here, inspire a reaction you would like to discuss, please email me: wilburnk@ecu.edu.  I believe my approach to learning and thinking in the summary/reaction journal, adapted from English to History, can be adapted to almost any discipline. If my better students, perhaps a thousand now, have a message for you, it is this: history is personally relevant, and we students who have come to know this are better writers, thinkers, and historians for it.

View the Word document version of this paper.