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Critical Reading Journals help Culver Academies students reflect better

Tom Coyne

Sophomore Meg Rafferty presents her Critical Reading Journal to humanities master instructor Kim Bowman. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


Sophomore Meg Rafferty pulled out her Critical Reading Journal during a one-on-one conference with humanities master instructor Kim Bowman and explained how it helped her to better appreciate the book “The Swallows of Kabul.”

She told Bowman the journal she kept helped her to better grasp and think about the book’s more intricate details and consider different aspects of the relationships between characters. Rafferty said she changed her thinking about the book by taking more time to contemplate.

“It helped me see different writing styles and these conferences helped me to get my ideas together,” Rafferty said. “It helped me see a different way of reading.”

Critical reading journals are a teaching tool a number of Culver Academies instructors are using to help students more thoroughly understand what they’re reading by taking time to reflect. Bowman said the journals also introduce the students to a new type of writing and thinking about how other texts connect to the central text. 

The goal of the journals, or CRJs, is for students to develop critical thinking skills. While reading they should be asking questions, such as, “What is the author trying to say,” or “What is the author’s main argument?”

Emily Uebler, Culver’s dean of professional development and a humanities master instructor, also uses CRJs. She said the conferences are an opportunity for students to state their cases about how they’ve grown as a reader, writer and thinker.

“So, they might say, ‘Here’s one of my first answers in my Critical Reading Journals and you can see it wasn’t robustly developed,’ Or, ‘I didn’t have very well-selected textual evidence. Compare it to this one a few books later, and my interpretation of the character is more nuanced, and I built on my ideas with more appropriate textual events,’ ” she said. “The idea is to get them thinking more about their evolution as a reader and possibly a writer.”

Bowman, who has been teaching at Culver for 17 years, said the journals give teachers the opportunity to intervene early and often in assignments with suggestions.

“The CRJs help students develop new habits and reflect on habits they should change,” Bowman said.

In Bowman’s sophomore “Global Perspectives” class, students spend the third term studying Islam, the history of Afghanistan and the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan around 9-11.

“A lot of students come in with thoughts and ideas and feelings about all of those things, but not necessarily well founded,” said Bowman, who began using CRJs in 2013. “My goal over the term is to challenge what they think they know and ask them to update their thinking.”

This term students read “The Swallows of Kabul” and at different points read five different supplementary texts, two chapters from David McRaney’s “You’re Not So Smart,” a TED talk, an article about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and a document defining literary terms. An example is Bowman might ask a student to defend, challenge or qualify whether Mohsen Rammat, a character in the novel, is in control of his actions.

The students then write a one-page paper using the supplementary text to answer a question about “The Swallows of Kabul.” The goal is to help them develop their synthesis writing skills.

Bowman asked the students to set a goal each time they start a new assignment.

“This time I'm going to actually integrate evidence properly. This time I'm going to make sure that I have some synthesis writing at the end of the paragraph,” she said.

The class culminates with a six- to eight-minute one-on-one CRJ conference where a student shows through their assignments how they have to reflect on their growth, strengths and weaknesses in reading, writing and thinking over the course of the term.


Humanities master instructor Kim Bowman reviews Meg Rafferty's Critical Reading Journal. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


The goal is for the students to identify not only their strengths and areas where they’ve improved, but also areas of weaknesses they need to work on.

Uebler said she’s using part of the CRJ strategies in the AP English Literature course she is teaching this year. She said she gives students homework asking them to answer questions about a book they are reading. Uebler sometimes asks a student to begin a class by having them read their response.

“It puts the student in charge of opening the discussion and it puts pressure on them in a good way to have something to say in response to an interesting question about a piece of literature,” Uebler said.

She said it’s a great way to generate thoughtful discussion. She said it also helps give other students to hear a perspective they may not have considered.

She also sometimes gives quizzes and then discusses the answers, allowing students chances to expand on their answers.

“I’ll tell them that the way to do poorly on this quiz is not to add to your answers. I should see you writing in a different color ink so I can see what you added,” Uebler said.

But it’s not just humanities instructors using CRJs. The journals are being used throughout campus. Lizziey Sherk, a senior instructor in The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur, believes CRJs are critical for success in students taking “Foundations in Innovation,” a one-term introductory class.

She asks students to write for five minutes in their CRJ every night she assigns homework, summarizing what they learned or writing out questions they have. Once a week she has them do a deeper dive by answering prompts where they give more polished answers written out in full sentences. She has the students share their answers in class.

“The main point is to get them thinking, to get them talking, to get them writing in a way an entrepreneur would write and then to dialogue with others,” she said.

The CRJs help students learn the vocabulary of entrepreneurship and to challenge their assumptions.

“It’s a way that we can all learn from each other in a community,” Sherk said. “In entrepreneurship it’s important to be a strong writer, it’s important to be a strong reader and speaker, but it’s also essential to be a strong problem-solver. We really feel the Critical Reading Journals are a way to get to all those avenues.”

Students at the end of the term have to present a problem that they’ve identified and propose an entrepreneurship solution. The final CRJ they write is a reflection of how they have used the entrepreneurial mindset and the entrepreneurial method in class and how they plan to use it going forward.

“I have students write that they see how learning the entrepreneurship method has made me a better human and this is how I want to grow,” she said.

Rafferty said having learned to keep a CRJ in “Global Perspectives” will help her next year when she will have to use multiple books to form arguments about what she’s read.

“This helps me see what I need to do better and what I need to work on,” she said. “I’m happy that it gave me a challenge and I learned from it.”

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