Using Dialogue Journals to Promote Student Learning in a Multicultural Teacher Education Course

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  • and Special Education online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/074193259801900104

    1998 19: 32Remedial and Special EducationM. Arthur Garmon

    Using Dialogue Journals to Promote Student Learning in a Multicultural Teacher Education Course

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    Hammill Institute on Disabilities


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  • Using Dialogue Journals to Promote Student Learning in a Multicultural Teacher Education Course M . A R T H U R G A R M O N

    A B S T R A C T

    /\l though keeping some type of journal is a com-mon requirement in many education courses, little research has been conducted on how journals are actually used to promote student learning. This study investigated the use of dialogue journals as a tool for promoting the learning of prospective teachers in a multicultural teacher education course. In this article I define dialogue journals and briefly discuss the events leading to my decision to introduce them into a course on diversity. Next, I provide a rationale for the use of dialogue journals. I then explain how I used dialogue journals as a tool for promoting student learning in the course. Finally, I discuss limita-tions of this study and present implications for future research.


  • journals. Holmes and Moulton (1995), investigating how 19 ESL teacher candidates responded to the use of dialogue journals, found that 1 of the 19 students responded nega-tively, and, thus, the authors reached the unremarkable con-clusion that dialogue journals may not be effective for all students. Finally, Roe and Stallman (1994) conducted a com-parative investigation of dialogue and response journals. The researchers found that although students considered both types of journals to be beneficial, they expressed a significantly stronger preference for dialogue journals on seven of the nine points of comparison. (There was no significant differ-ence between the two formats on the other two points.) Fur-thermore, qualitative data collected in this study indicated that students valued, in particular, the feedback they received with the dialogue journal and the opportunity to exchange ideas with their instructors. Dialogue journals represent only one of the various types of journaling that are commonly employed in teacher education programs as a means of pro-moting reflection among prospective teachers, especially during their field experiences and during their student (or intern) teaching. Despite the widespread use of journals, Ducharme and Ducharme (1996) observed that

    because teacher education researchers are increas-ingly using the journals of teacher education students in their scholarly work, we can con-clude that the student journals are helpful in their research, but the broader question of how they do or do not help or otherwise affect the prospective teachers remains to be answered, (p. 1039)

    In other words, although student journals are frequently used as data sources in teacher educators' research, relatively little research has focused on the journals themselves or on their benefits for prospective teachers.


    It is generally recognized that the demographic composition of our country is changing, with the number of minorities being projected to increase dramatically during the next half century (Pallas, Natriello, & McDill, 1989). Yet, at the same time, the teaching force is expected to remain primarily White, monolingual, and female (Grant & Secada, 1990; Zeichner, 1993). Across the country, teacher education programs are responding to these two trends by requiring prospective teachers to take one or more courses on multicultural education as a means of preparing them to work with an increasingly diverse student population. At my former university, I served as a teaching assistant in one such course, which also focused on special education issues (see Trent & Artiles, this issue).

    My decision to implement dialogue journals in my lab section of the course grew out of my dissertation research, for which I investigated the impact of the course on students' knowledge and attitudes (Garmon, 1996). I wanted to deter-

    mine whether or not students' entering racial attitudes medi-ated what they learned from the course. Specifically, I wanted to know whether students who began the course with more favorable racial attitudes responded to the course differently from students who began with less favorable racial attitudes. I also wanted to find out whether or not students' racial atti-tudes appeared to be changed by the course. At the beginning of the semester and again at the end of the semester I admin-istered a survey to all 200 students in the eight different lab sections of the course. In addition, 31 students volun-teered to be interviewed. From these 31 volunteers, I identi-fied the 7 with the most favorable racial attitudes and the 7 with the least favorable attitudes. I then interviewed these 14 students every 2-3 weeks throughout the semester. During these interviews I asked them about their perceptions of the course and about what they were learning. At one point in the final interview, I asked students whether or not they believed that their conversations with me had had any impact on their racial attitudes and beliefs. Of the 14 students I had interviewed regularly, 13 reported that the interviews had been very valuable to them.

    In fact, these 13 students seemed to feel strongly that they had gotten more out of the course because of the inter-views. According to them, the primary benefit of the interviews was that they had pushed them to think more deeply about the course material and about their own beliefs. For example, one student said, "Well, it probably helped in thinking about [issues] more, 'cause I 've had to think about answers I've given or why I think that way," and another student told me, "Just through talking to you, you made me realize a lot of things about myself that I probably wouldn't have realized unless I would have talked to you."

    As I analyzed these interview data, I began to wonder whether there was a way I could bring the benefits of being interviewed to a larger group of students. I realized that attempting to interview every enrolled student at 2-3 week intervals throughout the semester would be unrealistic, if not impossible. However, having had some past successful expe-riences using journals during my high school teaching, I decided to experiment with dialogue journals, believing that through their use students could potentially derive some of the same benefits that seemed to accrue from being inter-viewed. After discussing the idea with the lead professor of the course, I implemented dialogue journals on an experimen-tal basis in my section of the course during the fall semester of the following year.

    Of major interest to me was how the written dialogue might influence students' thinking about race. Although the course dealt with a broad range of diversity issues, including issues of individuals with special needs, I limited my analysis to issues of race. I contend that this limited focus is germane for educators of prospective special and general education teachers because of the purported overrepresentation of minority students in special education programs. For example, Mclntyre and Pernell (1985) argued that White teachers' expectations of Black male students are a primary reason that

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  • Black male students are disproportionately referred for spe-cial education placement. The authors asserted that these teachers' professional preparation failed to prepare them "to value, understand, accept, and adequately teach students who do not typify the majority culture" (p. 66). More recently, Artiles and Trent (1994), in proposing solutions for the overrepresentation of minorities in special education classes, echoed the call for more attention to multicultural education in the professional preparation of special education teachers as a means of increasing their cultural sensitivity and their ability to work effectively with learners of different racial backgrounds.


    My use of dialogue journals as a tool for promoting student learning in a multicultural education course is grounded in constructivist learning theory (Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Kroll & Black, 1993; von Glaserfeld, 1987) and in Vygotsky's (1978) sociocultural perspective. In constructivist learning theory, learning is construed as an active process of con-structing meaning rather than a passive process of absorbing information. In other words, meanings are not put into learn-ers; rather, learners construct their own meanings in response to new information and experiences. Because doing reflective writing can provide students with the opportunity to grapple with the ideas being presented to them in a class, to make connections to their personal experiences and beliefs, and then to construct their own understandings (meanings), it can serve not only to promote students' learning but also to enhance their self-knowledge and self-understanding (Emig, 1977; Fulwiler, 1997; Kelly, 1995; Mayher, Lester, & Pradl, 1983; McMahon, 1997; Staton, 1987). However, it should be emphasized that students' learning and growth from writing are not automatic, as Hoover (1994) observed: "While research and theory concerning language conceptually sup-port writing as a means of promoting higher level thinking, written reflection does not necessarily lead to more analyti-cal thought about the process of teaching and learning . . . " (pp. 90-91).

    From her research, Hoover concluded that written reflec-tion is most effective for prospective teachers when it is given appropriate direction or focus. She expressly recommended the use of dialogue journals as a means of challenging pros-pective teachers to think more critically. Similarly, Schmidt and Davison (1983), although not recommending the use of dialogue journals specifically, argued that teachers could use journals to push their students to higher levels of cogni-tive development "by virtue of the challenges provided via the instructor's written comments" (p. 566). This notion of teachers' pushing students' thinking through appropriately challenging their ideas seems consistent with Vygotsky's conception of the zone of proximal development, which may

    be defined as the area in which a learner can accomplish a particular task if given appropriate support (Tudge, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky believed that the learner is led by a more knowledgeable other beyond where he or she is able to function without help. The more knowledgeable other facili-tates the learner's growth by identifying the learner's current level of functioning and then providing appropriate guidance and support to help move him or her along toward higher levels of knowledge and understanding. Additionally, Shor and Freire (1987) have argued that dialogue between teacher and student is central to good teaching. They have asserted that "dialogue is the sealing together of the teacher and the students in the joint act of knowing and re-knowing the object of study. Then, instead of transferring the knowledge stati-cally, as a fixed possession of the teacher, dialogue demands a dynamic approximation towards the object" (p. 14).

    Dialogue journals enable teachers to engage in an indi-vidual dialogue with each student and, therefore, serve as a means whereby teachers can assist the student in developing greater understanding and in moving to higher levels of men-tal functioning. Thus, the idea of promoting dialogue between teacher and student is congruent with Vygotsky's views on the role of language and social interaction in learning (Gallimore & Tharp, 1990; Gavelek, 1986; Vygotsky, 1978). In addition to this theoretical basis for the use of dialogue journals as a means of facilitating student learning, some research (Garmon, 1997; Holten & Brinton, 1995; Staton, 1988; Staton & Peyton, 1988; Zulich, Bean, & Herrick, 1992) suggests that, in actual use, they have proved to be an excellent tool for helping teachers both to identify the level at which their students are functioning and to provide the appropriate support to promote their continued learning. The purpose of this study was to take a close look at the process of using dialogue journals to promote student learning. Specifically, the research question guiding the study was, How can the dialogue journal be used to promote students' learning about racial issues in a multi-cultural teacher education course?


    Data Collection The context for this study was the multicultural education course described by Trent and Artiles (this issue). During the semester of this study, I introduced the dialogue journal require-ment during the first class session. I told students that the journals would be used for reflecting on what they were learning in the course and for expressing their personal reac-tions to the lectures and class activities. I also stressed that the journal was to be a vehicle for engaging in a dialogue with me on the issues being studied. Toward this end, I told students that I would respond to questions they asked me in their journals, and they would be expected to respond to mine. Initially, students were required to submit two journal entries each week, one on Tuesday and one on Friday. However,

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  • after the 6th week, because I was finding it difficult to respond to all of the journals at the level that I wanted to, I had students turn in their journals only once each week for the rest of the semester. Each entry was required to be at least 30 typed lines (approximately one page) in length and was graded on completion, not on content, so that students could feel free to express themselves openly.

    I strongly encouraged but did not require my students to do their journals via E-mail because of the many advantages this medium offers, including ease of use, convenience, and the opportunity for more immediate response and because I would have a permanent record of each student's journal and of my responses to it. Mclntyre and Tlusty (1995) reported that electronic journaling not only gave prospective teachers more experience using technology but also led to greater frequency and more depth in their writing. This finding seemed to be borne out by my own experience with E-mail journals during the semester prior to the present study, when I discov-ered that I tended to write longer comments in E-mail jour-nals than in paper journals. In addition, Wang (1996) found that most students not only preferred E-mail journals over paper journals but also tended to ask more questions in E-mail journals. Interestingly, of the 22 students enrolled in my lab section during the semester of this study, 21 chose to submit their weekly journals via E-mail.

    Data Analysis The primary data source for this study was the journal entries of the 21 students who submitted E-mail journals. I read and reread students' journal entries, noting the occasions where they had commented on racial topics, observing how I had responded to their comments, and looking for evidence of changes in their perspectives on these topics over the course of the semester. After identifying journal segments related to race, I once again read and reread these segments, coding the various ways in which, through my written responses to my students' writing, I had attempted to use the journals to push their thinking on racial issues. Finally, I developed categories based on this coding process (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Maykut & Morehouse, 1994). In my analysis I opera-tionally defined learning as having occurred when students directly stated that they had learned something, when stu-dents indicated that they had acquired a better understanding or a new insight about something, or when students expressed beliefs about a particular topic that, in my judgment, were qualitatively different from beliefs they had expressed earlier on that topic.


    How Dialogue Journals Promoted Student Learning Analysis of students' journals revealed three main ways in which they appeared to learn from the dialogue journal assign-

    ment: through their own self-reflection, through information that I provided in my comments, and through having their ideas challenged by me. First, I found that, as is also the case with response journals, the dialogue journal provided stu-dents with the opportunity to reflect on the course readings, lectures, and discussions, and in so doing some students seemed to gain new understandings either of the course material or of themselves. For example, the comments of one older student indicate movement toward greater self-awareness:

    I was raised in a very segregated culture. My school, family, community, friends, church, teachers, etc., were all white. I remember when the first black student entered my worldI was a senior in high school and he was a new student to the school. His name was Terry James and he was in ninth grade. I remember feeling so sorry for him to be the only student "different" from the rest. I introduced myself to him and wished him well at our school.. . . Coming from a white-bred world where separate but equal is still the motto, it is difficult to overcome so many barriers that were placed in me before I knew the difference. I am realizing I have A LOT of growing to do before I become the teacher I want to be. [Carol E., 1/19/95]

    As Carol's comments illustrate, writing journals led some students to new insights without any direct intervention from me.

    The second major way in which dialogue journals con-tributed to students' learning was through serving as a vehicle for me to provide information to individual students in response to questions or misconceptions that appeared in their jour-nals. In other words, the dialogue journals enabled me to individualize instruction to some extent. When I found that a student had a misconception or was having difficulty in a par-ticular area, through the journal I was often able to provide the necessary assistance. For example, after having viewed a video on racism, one student's comments in her journal sug-gested that she believed gender and age discrimination were types of racism. In my italicized comments, I asked her a question as a means of checking her understanding of the term.

    Today's Lab taught me that there are different views on racism. Some people feel that it does exist and others feel that it does not. I feel that racism does exist in many different ways. Gender, age, ethnic and cultural background. [Deborah K., 2/1/95]

    * *Deborah, you still seem a little unclear on what racism is, even after Robert read his wonderful definition and after a couple other panel members explained their definitions of it. Let me just ask

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  • you this: Are gender and age racial characteris-tics?**

    Deborah's response to my question in her next journal entry indicated that she was, in fact, unclear on this point, so I attempted to clarify for her in my comment.

    You are right in saying that I don't fully under-stand racism. The definition that I wrote down was: refers to any theory or doctrine of skin color, hair color, acts. Also someone who is superior to others. I know that this is not a complete defini-tion. I agreed when a panelist member said that racism is a stereotype. What they were implying was that in movies and television programs the bad guy is usually portrayed as someone other than a white person. In society today people take those examples and say that people other than whites must be bad. This is how I see racism as a stereotype. Referring back to what you asked me about gender and age being racial characteristics, I would have to say that I am not so sure. Even though I said it in my last journal, now I do not know. [Deborah K., 2/5/95]

    * *Ifyou know a person's gender or age, does that tell you anything about their i(race " ? No, because you have people of both genders and of all ages in each urace." People ARE discriminated against because of their gender or because of their age, but that's not racismit's usually called sexism or ageism.**

    Thus, through this brief exchange in her journal, Deborah expanded her understanding of racism. Were it not for the dialogue journal, she may have left the course with her mis-conception intact.

    The third way I used dialogue journals to promote my students' learning was by directly challenging racial beliefs and attitudes that I considered to be problematic. My data analysis indicated that I employed several different tech-niques to challenge my students. My primary method was through asking them to respond to questions intended to make them think more deeply about a particular belief. On one occasion, in responding to an assigned article, one of my students expressed a questionable idea that I wanted her to think more deeply about; therefore, I asked her questions that would likely push her to reexamine her thinking.

    Perhaps I did not get out of the article what was intended. In my opinion, the article was suggest-ing that the history of America should not be com-pletely taught in schools. Again, that may not have been the issue at all. The only thing that I would like to say about that notion is: I feel that it is important to teach exactly how America came to be the nation it is. [Carla W., 1/20/95]

    **Aren't you assuming that there is a consensus on "exactly how America came to be the nation it is"? Because different people have different con-ceptions about how America came to be, I think your assumption is questionable. Who determines what is the most truthful and accurate account of American history ?**

    Another method I used to challenge my students' thinking was through offering information that conflicted with or clari-fied something that they seemed to believe. For example, when one student questioned the textbook's assertion that cultural differences contribute to lower minority school achieve-ment, I provided her with more information as a means of challenging her conception.

    I strongly disagree with the book when it said that most minority students do bad in a school environ-ment (or whatever they called it) because they are brought up differently. I know in a way this is contradicting my above statement, but the way I am thinking is that it is giving them an excuse to do poorly. [Stacey C , 2/19/95]

    **What is the basis for your disagreement? There have been numerous research studies which have supported the statement made in your textbook. In one famous study, Shirley Brice Heath (a white woman) spent a couple of years in a school dis-trict in North Carolina attempting to determine why black children didn 't do as well in school as white students. She certainly didn't go in with the idea of finding an excuse for the lower achieve-ment of black children; she just wanted to under-stand what was going on, and she simply reported what she found: there were cultural differences between white homes and black homes, and the culture of the school (which consisted mostly of white teachers) was much more like that in white homes; consequently, Heath reported, black stu-dents were at a disadvantage in school. As I said above, this idea has been well documented in numerous other studies. Why do you find it so hard to accept?**

    Finally, I sometimes used personal comments, suggestions, and rhetorical questions as additional means of pushing my students' thinking and, hopefully, challenging some of their existing beliefs and attitudes. When one of my students made the following observation, I attempted to push her thinking by offering a comment and asking a question.

    I see myself as someone who is critical of those who say they have been discriminated against. I don't feel I have ever been discriminated against so when I hear people say they have had a hard

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  • time with either the school, cultures, or people, I have a hard time believing it. [Darla C , 2/6/95]

    **Two things, Darla. First, you should be careful about assuming that just because you yourself haven't experienced something that that means someone else couldn 't have experienced it. Sec-ond, isn 't it possible that you have been discrimi-nated against (as a female, probably) but you just haven't realized it?**

    These were the primary methods that I used to challenge my students' racial beliefs and attitudes. Although for explan-atory purposes I have described each strategy separately, it is worth noting that in actually working with students' journals, there was considerable overlap between these methods, as illustrated in some of the examples I have cited. My use of these methods is grounded in constructivist learning theory (Brooks & Brooks, 1993; von Glaserfeld, 1995). From the constructivist perspective, in order to move their students to higher levels of understanding in a part icular area, "constructivist teachers engage students in experiences that might engender contradictions to students' current hypoth-eses" (Brooks & Brooks, p. 112). All of the methods that I used to challenge my students' thinkingasking questions, providing conflicting information, and offering pointed com-mentswere intended to raise contradictions for them to consider and, in so doing, to stimulate them to reexamine their beliefs. It is through this kind of revisiting and reexam-ining, constructivists believe, that cognitive growth occurs.

    Perhaps the best way to illustrate the power of dialogue journals as a tool for promoting student learning is to focus on the experience of one student over the course of the semester. In the next section of this article, through closely examining excerpts from one student's journal entries, I illustrate how having the opportunity for self-reflection in her journal, being presented with information in response to her questions, and having her ideas challenged by me all served to enhance this student's learning from the course.

    An Analysis of One Student's Journal Entries The student I chose to focus on in this analysis was Julie R., a White 19-year-old freshman from a suburb of a large mid-western city. Julie was a very good, conscientious student who never missed a class or an assignment during her semes-ter in the course. She was a quiet person who rarely spoke up during our class discussions. Because she appeared much more inclined to share her ideas and feelings in her journal than in class discussions, without the dialogue journal I prob-ably would have never known many of her beliefs, feelings, and questions. Apparently, she felt that the journal provided a safer environment than the class setting for her to express her ideas and to wrestle with her concerns. I chose to focus on Julie because her journals provided the best example of a sustained teacher-student dialogue on race-related issues.

    In her early journals, Julie volunteered information about herself that enabled me to begin to form a sense of who she was and where she was in terms of her level of racial aware-ness. I learned that she had attended predominantly White schools and had had very little contact with minority indi-viduals prior to beginning college. During Week 2 of the course, one comment in her journal seemed to reveal some-thing about her underlying racial attitudes and beliefs.

    Through the readings, I was confused by the ideas stated about disabled learners, among this topic, being black was often referred to as being a dis-ability. I myself being white do not see being black as a disability or a setback in any way. I may have misunderstood what I have read or got the wrong idea but I was wondering what you have to say about this. [1/20/95]

    I was somewhat surprised that she would even think that being Black might be referred to as a disability, but it was possible that she had simply misread or misunderstood the text. Julie's assertion that she did not see being Black as any type of setback suggested to me that, like many other White prospective teachers I have encountered, she felt that claims by Blacks that they are discriminated against are overstated, if not completely inaccurate. This is a misconception that I would typically challenge, but in this case I did not, perhaps because this was her first journal and I was more concerned at this point about building a relationship with her. It has been my experience that building a good rapport with students is an important key to being able to work more effectively with them through their journal.

    The first evidence of any change in Julie's beliefs appeared in her journal for Week 4. Her learning came about not as a result of any particular thing that I had done but apparently as a result of her reflecting on a classroom discussion.

    As for this week's learning, I have begun to understand the way I honestly think on certain issues, and also what I need to change about the way I think. For example, before hearing a comment from one of the people in the class, I believed that learning was an objective thing, at least in the case of math. After hearing the com-ment about relating problems to things that people can relate to, I began to think differently. I now think that all types of learning can be related in some way that people can understand. [1/31/95]

    In that day's lab session we had viewed and then discussed a video on racism. Part of the discussion following the video had centered on how tests can be culturally biased. Appar-ently, reflecting on this discussion prompted Julie to recog-nize how cultural differences can affect people's comprehension of test items, even in "objective" subjects like math. For someone who appeared to think that there were no disadvan-tages to being Black in this society, this apparent change in

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  • her perspective seemed like a significant one. In this journal entry Julie made other comments that suggested to me that she did not fully understand racism. Because increasing my students' awareness and understanding of racism was one of my primary instructional goals, I began using the previously described methods of providing information and asking chal-lenging, thought-provoking questions in her journal as a means of facilitating her learning and increasing her awareness. This journal marked the beginning of a thread of dialogue between us that continued for the next 3 weeks.

    One of Julie's statements in her journal during Week 5 seemed to provide evidence that the dialogue journal was contributing to her learning from the course. Even though in her journal we were carrying on a spirited dialogue about racism, Julie rarely contributed anything to our class discus-sions on the topic. In her Week 5 journal, she volunteered an explanation of her reticence in class.

    I have a few opinions and comments about some of the issues that were discussed in lab today. First of all I just want to let you know that I often do not say much on the topic of racism because I am trying to come to some conclusions of my own. I do not understand many aspects of it and because of the way I grew up, I feel I was seldomly exposed to it. Also, I am not sure I understand why a lot of this course is focused on the negative, and it often seems like the whites are being attacked and blamed for all that goes wrong according to race and discrimination. [2/7/95]

    The preceding passage from her journal seems important for two reasons. First, her comments served to substantiate my earlier impression that Julie did not fully understand racism; furthermore, her comments indicated that she was aware of her lack of understanding and that racism was an issue with which she was struggling personally. Second, Julie's admitted reluctance to voice her thoughts about racism during class discussions was most likely a reflection of her fear that her statements might be viewed as ignorant or racist by her class-mates, who she might have perceived as being more knowl-edgeable than she in this regard. Therefore, having the opportunity to discuss racism with me in the safety and pri-vacy of her journal was probably very important to her learning in this area. The dialogue journal provided her an opportunity that she might not have had otherwise to express her ideas and receive feedback on them from a caring, more knowledgeable other.

    In order to help Julie further her understanding of rac-ism, I felt that I first needed a better idea of her current level of understanding, so I asked her to explain what White racism was and why it was a problem. In her next entry she responded:

    You asked me to describe what I think white racism is and why it is a problem. I am not sure if you mean the actions that white people have taken

    against those who are different than them or if you want me to explain what has been done against whites as far as discriminating and problems. I am going to just give you a short explanation of some of my ideas. I believe that white racism is a prob-lem. I feel that other races do discriminate against whites because of what has happened in the past as far as history. I believe, as we discussed in the past lab, that it is true that white Europeans have caused many problems in intercultural relations, but that is the past and all who live today had nothing to do with what went on two or three hundred years ago. Blaming the whites who live today will do no good in changing the past; all we can do is work towards a better future. I am a little naive when it comes to all of this but I think that when people dwell on the past and even the nega-tive, things do not get solved, they only become exaggerated and remain a problem. [2/10/95]

    **/ understand what you 're saying, but I don't see how we can just ignore what happened in the past when people are still being affected by it today. I showed you some figures from the newspaper indicating that most minorities experience higher unemployment, earn less money, and do more poorly in school than most whites. Why do you think that's the case?**

    Julie's apparent belief that White racism meant racism against Whites was interesting. Also, it was very clear that Julie felt that Whites today were being blamed for the racism of the past, for something that "went on two or three hundred years ago." At the end of this journal entry, I wrote a lengthy note in which I attempted to address Julie's concern that Whites were being attacked. I also asked her a few questions as a means of getting her to think more deeply about the feelings that she was expressing. This comment is considerably longer than those I typically wrote in students' journals, but it is still a good example of how I used thought-provoking questions in the journals and attempted to really dialogue with my stu-dents about the course material and about their beliefs and feelings.

    Julie, In your last journal you asked me why a lot of this course was focused on the negative. . . Since white racism has been (and continues to be) the cause of many problems in this society, I feel that we have to talk about it in class, even though doing so seems negative to you. My primary goal in class was NOT to engage in blaming whites or in trying to make them all feel bad; rather, my primary goal was to examine the causes of the problems (even if doing so makes you uncomfortable) so that we can deal with them more effectively. In your last

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  • journal you said you felt as though whites were being attacked or blamed. You seemed pretty defensive. I have a couple more questions for you: Why did our class discussions about racism make YOU feel defensive? We weren't talking about you, were we? Do you feel that you are racist? Or, do you somehow feel responsible for what whites have done in the past? Why? Again, I understand that this is a sensitive and somewhat unfamiliar issue for you, but please try to answer these ques-tions. When you leave this class, I want you to not only know more information but also to know more about yourself and your feelings.

    Julie's second journal entry for Week 6 was almost entirely a response to my comments on her previous entry. Her opening remark suggested that I was achieving my goal of pushing her to think more deeply about her racial beliefs and attitudes, and this reflection on her part was apparently leading her to change her thinking somewhat. Furthermore, I believe that her continued engagement in this dialogue, when she had the option of writing about a number of other topics, was a clear indication that the topic of racism was of great interest to her or that she felt she was deriving some benefit from our ongoing dialogue.

    In your response to my last journal you had a lot of questions that really got me to start thinking of exactly how I feel about certain things including, well, I guess most of all my thinking. I understand that minorities may be experiencing blows for the past in today's society and I am truly sorry for that. Not to seem defensive, but last semester I studied that minorities also have a different way of living quite often in the U.S. To explain, often they are living in ghettos or in underclass commu-nities in the inner city which has some value systems that come along with that way of life.

    **Have you considered WHY minorities "have a different way of living"? Do you think it's simply a matter of choice? I seriously doubt that most people living in poor, crime- and drug-infested inner-city neighborhoods are living there by choice. However, given the lower educational attainment by most minorities, the higher unem-ployment rate, and the lower income rate, it is extremely difficult for many of them to escape these conditions. The discrepancies between whites and minorities in education, employment, and income are not as bad as 30-40 years ago when racism was more pronounced, but these discrepancies still exist (as my overheads illus-trated) and they still limit the opportunities for many minorities. **

    What about those who are born to teen mothers who can not afford to send their children to better schools or move out of the neighborhood, or those who do not have good family support at home? This may also attribute to why many minorities do not excel in today's society. Yes, it all may come down to what happened in the past and I am not trying to make any excuses for why these things happened. I know that the past can't be changed so we are going to have to learn from past mistakes. [2/16/95]

    In the preceding portion of her journal, Julie seemed to present arguments suggesting that she was trying to "blame the victims" for their problems in this society. I saw this as perhaps an unconscious attempt on her part to remove the focus from White racism to the minorities themselves. In responding to what she said, I provided her with additional information and tried to push her to think about why some of these conditions exist, though she did seem to be aware that what happened in the past is certainly a factor. In the next portion of her journal, Julie continued to wrestle with the issue of Whites' being blamed for past racial injustices.

    Although I am stubborn I still feel it necessary to change, maybe not change, but to enhance and learn more about the facts when it comes to racism and discrimination. I also understand that you weren't talking about ME in last week's discus-sion. You may not know me well but I have never done anything to all out hurt anyone in a racial way. I just get frustrated to see all of this happen-ing and I personally have never been affected by any acts of racism. And no, I do not feel respon-sible for what whites did in the past, and are you asking me this because I am white,

    **/ asked you this because in your sixth journal you said you felt like whites were being attacked and blamed, and I thought maybe you, being white, were feeling responsible for what whites have done to minorities in the past. In my com-ments I know I spoke strongly against racism, but as I tried to explain in lab on Tuesday, I don't believe that a person is racist just because they're white. Therefore, when I attack racism, I don't feel that I'm automatically attacking everyone who is white. **

    because in the same way I do not feel responsible for what any Hispanics, men, blacks, women, or anyone else did now or in the past, I can only be responsible for what I do. [2/16/95]

    By asserting that she had never hurt anyone racially and that she had never been affected by racism, Julie might have

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  • been attempting to prove to me (and to herself?) that she was not responsible for the White racism that has hurt minorities. Though I tried to make clear in my earlier comments that she was not being blamed as an individual, she still seemed to be plagued by a need to deny responsibility for racism. Although I was successful in increasing Julie's understanding of some racial topics, I evidently had not succeeded in helping her understand that the course instructors were not trying to blame her or the other White students for White racism, nor were we trying to make them feel guilty.

    In her entry for Week 7, Julie again responded to my comments on her previous journal. I interpret her following remarks as providing clear evidence that her understanding of racism and its effects have been expanded through our dia-logue.

    I have thought about the idea why minorities live this way and I agree that it is not by choice and that they do not like living in this manner. I under-stand that the cause of this may be, and probably is, due to past acts and current acts of discrimina-tion. Although I am still trying to become more educated on the whole idea, the idea of institu-tional racism and discrimination is becoming more and more clear to me. As for not feeling right about the way I think, as I explained in my inter-view, I sometimes catch myself thinking racistly (if that is a word), but I am finding myself think-ing less and less in these manners. I do not have anything against those who are different than I am; it's just a different situation than that I am used to at home. As I told you I was brought up in a predominantly white community, and my father often kept me from those who were different, I am not sure exactly why but that is the way he is and always has been. I believe that as far as the society as a whole I am slowly becoming a part of the solution. I still have a lot to learn and am anxious to do so. I am finding myself interacting more and more with those who are different than I am racially and culturally. [2/21/95]

    In several respects I found Julie's remarks in this journal to be encouraging because they suggested that she was learn-ing new things and modifying her racial beliefs. Apparently, she now understood that most minorities probably do not live in poor, inner-city neighborhoods by choice and that the poor conditions facing many minorities today are due, in part, to past discrimination. Furthermore, Julie expressed the belief that she was learning more about "the idea of institutional racism and discrimination" and that she was becoming less racist in her thinking. Each of these learnings seemed to be directly related to the dialogue that we had been having in her journal, supporting my contention that our interaction through her journal contributed much to her learning from the course.

    For a 3-week period Julie did not write any additional substantive comments on a racial issue. However, during Week 1 1 a guest lecturer spoke at length about racial issues, and some of his remarks, particularly some of his statements about Whites, evoked a strong reaction from Julie. It is worth noting that my prior exchanges with Julie had been largely cerebral and emotionally detached as we had discussed what she believed about various racial issues. Beginning in this week's journal, however, Julie began to express some fairly strong feelings along with her beliefs. In other words, she did not only tell me what she thought, she also told me what she felt, either directly or indirectly. By this point in the semester, Julie and I had built a good relationship, and apparently she had begun to trust me enough to feel safer about expressing her true feelings to an African-American instructor.

    I was pretty amazed at today's lecture! I am not so sure that I was impressed with Mr. C; in fact, I thought he was hypocritical in some of what he preached to us today. I also thought that he had some good points as well, but I had trouble fol-lowing him. For example he at first kept on saying how there is no "race" because technically every-one is a different color or shade of the race they claim to belong to. And later in his lecture, besides being very loud and giving me a headache, he spoke of "they" putting "us" into the news-papers for being the drug users and all of that. Sure I feel sorry for him, and that's what he made it look to be much of the time, but IT IS NOT MY FAULT!!! [3/30/95]

    **/ understand your criticism of Mr. C for the apparent contradiction in what he said, but I still don yt understand why you seem to take criticisms of the white "race" so personally. You seem to be reacting to what Mr. C said in the same way that you reacted to my comments about discrimi-nation by whites. Can you tell me what it is that seems to make you think that you are being PERSONALLY blamed for the bad things that whites have done to racial minorities? **

    Julie appeared to feel quite strongly that the speaker was blaming her for the problems of racial minorities. Though we had discussed this issue in her journal several weeks before and I had stressed that she herself was not being blamed, it was apparent that she had not yet come to terms with her feel-ing that racial minorities are trying to hold her personally responsible for what the White race has done to them. In order to help both of us understand the basis for this feeling, I asked her to try to explain to me why she felt as she did. In the next part of her entry Julie's outpouring of feelings continued.

    I am beginning to become discouraged by people making me feel bad because I am white and that

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  • because of my color those who lived before me made mistakes in the way they treated blacks. I don't feel bad because I had absolutely nothing to do with it!! [3/30/95]

    **You know, Julie, you say you don't feel bad, but the way you have reacted to people's criticism of what whites have done in the past suggests to me that you're hypersensitive about this for some rea-son. For your own self-understanding, you need to try to figure out why you're reacting this way. **

    In response to the strong feelings that Julie was expressing, rather than telling her that her they were inappropriate or misguided, I chose to encourage her to examine these feelings more closely. Julie had already demonstrated both a willing-ness and an ability to be reflective about her beliefs and attitudes, and I thought that asking her to engage in some self-examination would lead her to greater self-un4erstanding.

    However, in her Week 12 journal entry, Julie's response to my comment clearly indicated that my strategy had failed. Her response did not suggest that she had reached any mean-ingful new insight into herself; instead, she seemed to merely repeat what she had said previously.

    The reason I get so defensive is maybe because I am sick of all the racist issues around here, and I know I am not alone. I understand that blacks seem to feel that society owes them something because of what happened a hundred years ago but I do not want to be held responsible because my family wasn't even on this continent at that time. I do not feel guilty for feeling the way I do and it is true that I am very sensitive, and it is not only on this issue; maybe I am a little bit stubborn as well. I guess I tend to make judgments on my expe-riences rather than believe everything I hear. [4/7/95]

    Julie attributed her defensiveness to the fact that she was tired of all the talk about racial issues. I am not convinced that it was her being tired of the talk that made her defensive; rather, I think her defensiveness was a result of her perception that the talk was an attack on Whites. Unfortunately, though, I was unsuccessful in my efforts to lead Julie to considering that possibility. In hindsight, I wish I had presented this idea to Julie in one of my comments and then asked her to respond.

    In response to her previous entry, in which she had expressed ideas about affirmative action, I had asked Julie,"Are you denying that a lot of the advantages white citizens enjoy today are the indirect result of their oppression of minorities in the past?" Continuing in her Week 12 journal, she responded to my question.

    You stated something about me denying that white citizens have advantages because of the oppres-sion of society on minorities. I guess I can see that

    this is apparent in some cases and I feel that is not the way it should be nor would I choose for it to be this way, but I can not change this, except by appreciating people for who they are. And before coming to this university I have never heard so much stuff about who did what to who and black this and white that. And I was never so concerned about the color of my skin and that of others.

    I don't have time to touch on any points of the lecture but I see this as more important, and I plan to make a couple portfolio entries out of the lec-ture yesterday. Thanks for listening to me and I am anxious to hear your reply! [4/7/95]

    At the beginning of the semester, Julie's comments in her journal indicated that she believed that racism was a thing of the past and that there were no disadvantages associated with being a racial minority in this society. In the preceding passage from her Week 12 journal, however, Julie acknowl-edged the existence of White privilege, thus indicating that she had acquired a new awareness, even though she expressed it somewhat reluctantly. Although her new awareness was undoubtedly the product not only of the dialogue journal but also of a variety of course experiences, including lectures, videos, class discussions, and readings, I believe that the dialogue journal played an important facilitative role, because it is likely that, in trying to respond to my questions, Julie was pushed to contemplate and critically evaluate her beliefs in light of the new information that she had been exposed to in the course, and in doing so, she concluded that Whites do have special advantages in this society. Furthermore, her grudging admission in her journal that White privilege exists let me know that we were definitely making progress toward increasing her awareness of racism and discrimination.

    The final paragraph of the preceding excerpt from her journal is important also because it suggests that Julie placed considerable value on our dialogue journal conversation. Despite having said earlier that she was tired of the topic of racism, in her final paragraph she stated that she considered our dialogue more important than commenting on that week's lecture (which was on a different topic), and in her final sentence she said she was anxious to hear my reply. These two statements suggest to me that she valued our dialogue, even though her earlier statements imply that she had con-flicting feelings about discussing racism. Apparently, it was an issue about which she felt uncomfortable, and yet part of her still wanted to deal with it. As noted earlier, Julie's level of discomfort with discussing the topic in her journal seemed to be less than that associated with discussing it in class, and this constitutes yet another argument for the value of using dialogue journals.

    In her next journal entry, Julie included a short para-graph that seemed to corroborate my earlier conclusion that her awareness of racism and discrimination had increased.

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  • I can't believe that this semester is already almost over. I just wanted to take the time to tell you that I have really learned a lot in this course and thank you for making me aware of the whole racial issue. I understand that I came from a very shel-tered town and that I was never really exposed to discrimination but now I am aware that I need to be aware of it and do what I can to lessen the negative effects that minorities have in today's society. [4/14/95]

    Even though she did not provide any specific examples of what she had learned, the foregoing passage nevertheless indicates Julie's awareness that her perspectives on racial discrimination had been broadened. In contrast to her initial belief that racial discrimination was no longer a problem, in this journal she stated, "Now I am aware that I need to be aware of [discrimination] and do what I can to lessen the negative effects that minorities have in today's society." In my view, these statements provide clear evidence of a posi-tive change in her beliefs about racial discrimination, from ignorance (or denial) to awareness and acceptance of her responsibility to work against it. Although it is impossible to determine to what extent her new awareness was an outcome of our discussions in her journal, I have no doubt that they played a major role, because, whereas she rarely participated in class discussions on this issue, she was actively involved, obviously, in our journal dialogue throughout the entire semes-ter. In addition, I think it is noteworthy that, after saying she had learned a lot in the course, Julie then thanked me for "making me aware of the whole racial issue." I interpret this as a recognition on her part that much of her awareness had come from her discussions with me in her journal. This interpretation is strongly substantiated by Julie's comments in her final journal. For their final journal entry, I asked my students to identify what they considered to be the most valuable aspect of the course. Julie wrote the following:

    The most valuable thing to me in this course was the idea that our views were always being chal-lenged and questioned by you as the TA [teaching assistant]. This really made me think that maybe I am not always right about certain issues. Overall, I feel that I have become more open-minded and apt to take on a new perspective when dealing with unfamiliar situations. [4/27/95]

    Because Julie rarely expressed her views orally in class, the continual challenging that she referred to was undoubtedly that which occurred in her dialogue journal.


    This investigation of how I used dialogue journals to promote my students' learning illuminates several important potential

    benefits of their use. First, dialogue journals can be a very effective means of promoting reflection among prospective teachers in multicultural education courses. In the excerpts from Julie's journal, it was clear that she was engaging in meaningful reflection on the course content and on her racial beliefs. Kottkamp (1990) has argued that the act of writing is, in itself, a reflective activity because "we often pause, cycle back, reread and rethink the very descriptions and ideas we are in the process of formulating and inscribing" (p. 185). Numerous authors (e.g., Bean & Zulich, 1989; Francis, 1995; Holten & Brinton, 1995; Roe & Stallman, 1994) have advo-cated the use of journals with prospective teachers as a means of promoting their reflection and learning. However, as noted earlier, Hoover (1994), after concluding that written reflec-tion was most effective for prospective teachers when it was given appropriate direction or focus, recommended dialogue journals as a means of providing this direction. In this article I have illustrated how I used my comments and questions to guide Julie's written reflections, and, as a consequence, she reached some new understandings about racism and discrimi-nation. Without the direction and prodding of my comments and questions, I doubt that Julie would have arrived at these understandings during the semester of the course. As she herself indicated, it was having her ideas continually chal-lenged by me that pushed her thinking.

    Another benefit is that dialogue journals can help instruc-tors get to know and understand their students better, thus enabling them to adapt their instruction as necessary to better meet the students' needs. As illustrated in my analysis of Julie's journal, through my students' journals I learned about their backgrounds, their prior experiences, their misconcep-tions, their questions, and their beliefs and attitudes; plus, when my students shared information about themselves, the dialogic nature of the journals allowed me to ask for clarifica-tion or to probe for additional details when necessary. This information assisted me in planning lessons, because I had a sense of where my students were in their understanding of the material being presented in the course, and I was better able to identify particular topics that I needed to introduce or reexplain to the whole class. For example, at one point in the semester it became clear, from what they were writing in their journals, that my students did not understand affirmative action. Therefore, I took a portion of one class session to address the most common misconceptions and questions that my students had about this concept. In addition, the knowl-edge that I gained from the journals about my students and their backgrounds and experiences was helpful to my teach-ing in other ways. For instance, on more than one occasion I was able to call on particular students to share some of their prior experiences with the rest of the class, and I found that this kind of sharing often helped to broaden the perspectives of the other students and to increase their understanding of particular topics.

    A third benefit of dialogue journals is that they make it possible for instructors to provide individualized instruction and work within each student's zone of proximal develop-

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  • ment (ZPD; Vygotsky, 1978). As defined earlier in this article, the ZPD is the area where a learner is capable of achieving a new learning if provided appropriate guidance and support. The instructional support that a learner receives within his or her ZPD has been called "scaffolding" (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). In order to provide the most appropriate scaf-folding for a particular student, it is important that the instruc-tor know the student and his or her individual ZPD. The dialogue journal can serve not only as a source of information about each student but also as one vehicle for providing the scaffolding that the student needs. In the foregoing analysis of Julie's journal, there are numerous examples of how, through what she wrote, I learned more about her level of understand-ing of racial issues, and then, armed with this knowledge of the issues and questions that she was struggling with, was able to provide appropriate scaffolding by offering comments and asking questions intended to help her move to higher levels of understanding. Without the dialogue journal, not only would I have been less aware of her particular issues and questions, I also would not have been able to assist her in dealing with them to the extent that I did. Different students will be at different levels of development and, therefore, will require different types of scaffolding. For example, one of Julie's classmates was involved in an interracial relationship, and the kinds of issues and questions concerning her were quite different from those with which Julie was struggling. Therefore, the scaffolding that I provided for this student was different from that which I provided for Julie. In this way, dialogue journals allow an instructor to work with each student at that student's level.

    Dialogue journals have two major limitations, how-ever. One important limitation is that they can be very time-consuming for the instructor. I spent literally hours each week reading and responding to students' journals. As the fore-going examples of my exchanges with Julie indicate, some of my responses to students' journals were rather lengthy and were composed only after thoughtful consideration of the students' current level of understanding and of how I might best respond in order to push their thinking. As I indicated earlier, whereas I initially required my students to submit their journals twice each week, after a few weeks I reduced the requirement to once each week only because I realized that reading and commenting on the journals were consuming too much of my time. The amount of time that an instructor has available is likely to affect the depth of his or her reading as well as the quantity and quality of responses to students' journals.

    A second limitation is that dialogue journals are not equally effective with all students. I found that students differ in their ability and willingness to write reflectively and to engage in written dialogue about their racial beliefs and atti-tudes. For some students writing came easily, but others reported that they struggled to produce a page of writing each week. In addition, some students appeared to be simply less interested in and less willing to engage in written dialogue. I think the dialogue journal was particularly well suited for a

    student like Julie, who seldom spoke up in class and who seemed to prefer voicing her ideas and questions in the pri-vacy of her journal; plus, she seemed to give serious thought to each of my questions and comments before writing her response. For some students, however, as Holmes and Moulton (1995) have argued, writing may not be the preferred mode of discussing ideas.


    In this article I have described how I used dialogue journals in a multicultural teacher education course as a means of pro-moting the learning of preservice teachers. However, it has not been my intention to prescribe a certain set of procedures for using dialogue journals; rather, for maximum effective-ness, I believe the use of the journal has to be adaptable to the particular instructor, to the individual students, and to the dis-tinctive instructional context. Procedures that worked well for me may not achieve the same results with another instruc-tor in another setting. Nevertheless, from my experiences with dialogue journals, I offer two caveats regarding their use in a multicultural teacher education course. First, the impor-tance of building a positive relationship with students cannot be overemphasized. I have found that when my students feel comfortable with me as a person and as an instructor, they seem much more inclined to share honest feelings in their journal and to engage in meaningful dialogue with me about racial issues. Osterman and Kottkamp (1993) contend that "trust is perhaps the essential condition needed to foster reflective practice in any environment" (p. 45). For an African-American professor working with mostly White students and discussing racial topics, the issue of trust seems to be an especially important consideration. For this reason, I make every effort to become acquainted with my students as quickly as possible, and in the initial journal entries my primary focus is on building a relationship and establishing a safe environ-ment.

    The second caveat is closely related to the first: How an instructor responds to students' journal entries is critically important. As I explained earlier, through my comments and questions to students in their journals I generally attempt to challenge their thinking. However, there is often a fine line between challenging a student's ideas and attacking them. I have found that, with most students, challenging promotes reflection whereas attacking tends to promote defensiveness or leads to the termination of meaningful dialogue. My non-confrontational approach to responding to student journals reflects my belief that we, as teachers, cannot change our students' racial beliefs and attitudes. The most that we can do is to try to produce conditions whereby students will be stimulated to critically reexamine and reconstruct their own beliefs and attitudes.

    This study should be considered as a preliminary one that sets the stage for more rigorous inquiry. Because the study focused on preservice teachers in only one section of

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  • one course, the generalizability of the findings is limited. To further our understanding of how dialogue journals can be used effectively as instructional tools with preservice teach-ers, we need more studies of their use in other courses and in other settings. More case studies can lead to the identification of patterns in student entries and responses to instructors' questions. This type of data analysis may lead to a deeper understanding about how different students from different backgrounds (e.g., race, gender, socioeconomic status) respond to the dialogue journal experience. In addition, my reliance on students' self-reports as the means for determining the impact of the dialogue journals must also be regarded as a limitation. In future studies we need data from multiple sources (e.g., interviews, observations) in order to more fully assess how the use of dialogue journals may contribute to the learn-ing of preservice teachers. Another limitation is that the present study focused only on students' learning about issues of race. We need other studies that focus on the intersection of char-acteristics such as race, class, gender, and exceptionality to determine how students frame beliefs about difference within the context of teaching and learning in schools. Finally, this study examined the use of dialogue journals in a single course over a single semester. It may be helpful to have longitudinal studies that investigate the impact of their use across courses, practica and internship experiences, and the initial teaching years.

    M. ARTHUR GARMON, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Depart-ment of Education and Professional Development at Western Michigan Uni-versity. His areas of expertise and interest include issues of diversity in education, the learning of preservice teachers, the education of minority students, and systemic educational reform. Address: M. Arthur Garmon, Department of Education and Professional Development, Western Michi-gan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5192.

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    THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY Special Education Doctoral Program

    Our PhD program is based on a Criteria of the Next Environment (CONE) model, where the demands of your anticipated professional role become the objectives of your program of preparation. The faculty serve to model, shape, and provide opportunities to learn and practice professional com-petencies. Our Special Education doctoral program employs a mentorship model with individualized coursework and activities that directly relate to anticipated career responsibilities in higher educa-tion: scholarship and research, teaching, and professional service. In addition to traditional sources of institutional support for individuals seeking leadership degrees, faculty in the Department of Educational and School Psychology and Special Education periodically acquire external support for students desiring to complete doctoral study. For information on newly funded opportunities or ques-tions you have about our program, write to Special Education, The Pennsylvania State University, 227 CEDAR Building, University Park, PA 16802-3109.

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