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My bullet journal adventure

So, two weeks ago I decided to join the bullet journal world.  I am in a space right now where I am learning so much and I have so many thoughts spinning in my head- I struggle to sleep and to concentrate due to the storm that brews daily in my head.  I thought this creative outlet might be a good way for me to organize my thoughts and new knowledge.  I had seen pictures of lots of fun and interesting journals and I was ready to ignite my creative fire.  I went out and found myself a nice journal with a calming cover, including the word ‘inspire’ etched in gold across the middle.  I bought a rainbow of colorful pens that made me feel happy and artistic, and I searched Pinterest for ideas and inspiration.  After two weeks and many days of getting my journal and pens out ready to create, here is view of my progress:

I really can’t put my finger on the cause of my mental block or my inability to be creative, but I have thought about how my bullet journal situation parallels the state education right now.  We, as educators, have so many thoughts, concerns, ideas, and new learning swirling like a runaway tornado in our heads and we have this blank slate sitting in front of us waiting to be filled.  We can’t turn the pages and look ahead for guidance because those pages are also blank. We may have nice new, shiny tools to begin our work, but it is challenging and scary to make that first mark.

I have had many conversations with extremely dedicated educators over the last few weeks who are feeling the same mental block that I am having with my bullet journal when it comes to their instruction and how to support learning.  Unfortunately for them, they do not have the option of giving in to the block by simply putting the journal away until tomorrow.  They have students showing up to their classrooms, Google Meets, or Zoom calls, and they are expected to perform.  Their current experience is one that is akin to putting together a 1,000 piece puzzle with no picture for guidance… and 20 random pieces missing.  They are exploring a new world using an outdated map and a toolbox that includes tools they have never even heard of.

The thing about a bullet journal is this:  they can serve many different purposes or a single purpose, they can be artistic and colorful or highly structured and monochromatic, they can be used to collect facts or thoughts.  What makes them different from a journal with blank pages is that they provide a grid of dots (or bullets- thus the name ‘bullet journal’) that help to provide some structure or framework to support the creator.  I realize that what I need to do is decide what the purpose of my journal should be and how I can use the grid of bullets to anchor my vision.

Based on my conversations with teachers, it seems to me that many educators have already done this quite well.  They clearly see their purpose as one of supporting student learning no matter what.  Despite all of the distractions and noise going on around them, they have placed students and learning at the very center of their world and desperately want to figure out the best way to maintain that as their focus.

As for the anchor or starting point for their vision, whether or not they use the exact language, it appears that many teachers are focused on the ‘3 R’s for Reaching the Learning Brain’ as defined by Dr. Bruce Perry1 a neuroscientist in the field of trauma.  He points out that it does not work to go straight to the ‘reasoning’ part of our students’ brains with an expectation for learning.  Instead he suggests that we help to regulate students, then relate to and connect with them, and only THEN engage in activities where they are expected to reason and articulate their thoughts.  If we think of the current reality of teaching and learning as the blank bullet journal and the three R’s as the dots on the page, perhaps dialogue can be the lines that connect the dots.  Challenging Learning Through Dialogue2 explores the tenets of effective dialogue and how dialogue can be developed and leveraged to promote learning.

Teachers recognize the need to regulate first- for themselves and for their students.  I see and hear about teachers who are starting their day with listening circles or other reflection activities intended to provide the time and space for everyone in the learning community to release stress and worry and find a sense of calm.  This is typically done through some sort of dialogue.  It is important to note, however, that “dialogue is not a natural form of talk and doesn’t always come easily to us or to our students … In reality, good dialogue requires planning and focused opportunities to make sure that it really happens in the classroom.”  p. 182  Dialogue is more than casual conversations, it is intentional and has a purpose.  In this case, the purpose is to regulate and calm members of the learning community.

Teachers are also utilizing lots of tried and true strategies as well as some new ways to relate to their students and build strong, trusting relationships.  The inclusion of authentic dialogue can be very useful in classrooms for building these relationships and connections.  The following quotes brilliantly situate dialogue into the creation of a positive and trusting culture that supports and cultivates learning.

“Opening a dialogue with students about the meaning and importance of trust is a valuable exercise in helping build a classroom culture that is inclusive, empathetic and safe. Everyone has experience with trust and can speak about the impact of its presence or absence in a variety of contexts and relationships. Making an explicit link between the development of specific character traits and the individual’s contribution to the group within a classroom is essential for students to develop a sense of belonging. When students feel this sense of belonging, then dialogue becomes authentic and meaningful. This then leads to deeper understanding of ideas and concepts.” p. 92

“Building relational trust is about creating a learning environment in which students feel they can take risks, make mistakes, express opinions, and collaborate.”  p. 92

Once students are regulated, have developed trusting relationships, and feel connected, they are in a much better place to reason, think and learn.  At this point, students are in a position to engage in exploratory talk which includes critical and creative thinking and involves questioning one another’s ideas and thoughts in a productive and positive way. In the Learning Challenge3, James Nottingham says that “dialogue is about working collaboratively to understand what has not yet been understood.” p. 1083.  Because dialogue is focused on asking and answering questions and co-constructing meaning, it “can help your students become capable thinkers, willing and able to learn, reason and express themselves clearly and confidently.” p. 162.

If we look at dialogue as the key to connecting the dots of the 3 Rs, it can help all of us to narrow our focus and begin to find some clarity in this extremely challenging environment.   In all that we do, we can look for opportunities to encourage exploratory talk, collaborative exploration of ideas and questions, and reflection about what we have learned.  This can be done through face to face interactions, breakout groups in Google Meets or Zoom, or written reflections and peer responses.  Strategies like Odd One Out, Opinion Corners, Concept Targets, Opinion Lines, and Mysteries are easily adapted to any and all settings- virtual and in-person. The key is that the dialogue should include opportunities for students to generate ideas, create meaning, classify, compare, make links, question assumptions, test cause and effect, speculate, and hypothesize.  It is not about finding the answers, but rather being able to defend and explain the reasoning behind the answers.

I am not under the pretence that this revelation about dialogue as a connector of the dots is a silver bullet or even a one and only solution.  The ideas and strategies that I have briefly touched upon here would need to be developed and explored within your own context in order to really make a difference.  I am just hoping to provide food for thought for educators because I am constantly looking for ways to help and support my fellow educators.

It is, at the very least, a starting point- an initial mark on a blank page.  Speaking of which, I think it is time for me to make a mark on my blank page….

1  Perry, B. (n.d.). The 3 Rs: Reaching the learning brain.
2  Nottingham, J., Nottingham, J., & Renton, M. (2016). Challenging Learning Through Dialogue: Strategies to Engage Your Students and Develop Their Language of Learning. Corwin Press.
3  Nottingham, J. (2017). The learning challenge: How to guide your students through the learning pit to achieve deeper understanding. Corwin Press.