ERIC Identifier: ED365989
Publication Date: 1994-00-00
Author: Jenkinson, Edward
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Writing Assignments, Journals, and Student Privacy. ERIC
Nearly nine years ago, hundreds of angry parents descended on seven cities to
protest what they perceived to be some of the wrongs perpetrated by public
school teachers. The U.S. Department of Education conducted hearings across the
nation, giving citizens the opportunity to testify on proposed regulations for
the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, commonly referred to as the Hatch
Amendment. Grieving parents and teachers denounced courses, teaching methods,
and specific assignments.
Within five months of the hearings, Crossway Books published Phyllis
Schlafly's 447-page "Child Abuse in the Classroom." Advertised as excerpts from
official transcripts of proceedings before the U.S. Department of Education, the
book became a best-seller among critics of public school education. In the
introduction, Schlafly declared:
These Hearings provide page after page of documentation for the
foresightedness of former educator and U.S. Senator Samuel I. Hayakawa, who
warned the Senate in 1978 that the schools have become vehicles for a heresy
that rejects the idea of education as the acquisition of knowledge and skills
and instead regards the fundamental task of education as therapy. He said that
such inquiring into attitudes, beliefs, and psychic and emotional problems is a
serious invasion of privacy (Schlafly, 1984).
Many of the protesting parents accused the schools of invading student
privacy in sex and drug education classes, in counseling sessions, and in
English classes. Some of the parents denounced any questions and/or assignments
that call for students to express their feelings or opinions about anything.
Citizens from Oregon to New Hampshire gave hundreds of examples of questions and
activities through which teachers invaded the privacy of students and/or their
families. Here are only a few:
* Are you going to practice religion just like your
Who has the last word in your family?
What is your parents' income?
Do you believe in a God who answers prayers?
How important is making-out with a girl? Smoking pot?
Complete at least a 5-day daily dietary intake chart, and keep a health and
Discuss misuse of some substances by parents, for example, alcohol, valium, etc.
Some of the parents who testified at the
hearings also rejected journal writing and any speaking or writing assignments
that called for the revelation of personal experiences. But teachers of writing
at all levels know that powerful writing frequently explodes from a writer's
narration of personal experiences. Teachers also know that writing can serve as
an excellent tool for self-examination and for the discovery of solutions to
personal problems. Writing can be used as therapy, as a cry for help, as a means
of discovering how to bring order to a chaotic life.
Today, an ever-increasing number of teachers of all subjects give students
opportunities to write about a wide range of topics and a variety of
experiences. In their journals as well as in writing assignments, students
record impressions, experiences, ideas, likes and dislikes, dreams, and
responses to classroom activities and lessons. But many parents are convinced
that such writing should have no place in a classroom because they see it a
clear-cut invasion of privacy (Jenkinson, 1989).The professional issue here is
the kinds of prompts that teachers use to stimulate writing. Any direct requests
for specific information about the personal life of the family or the student
may easily be interpreted as an invasion of privacy. It is quite appropriate,
however, for teachers to remind students that effective writing often includes
personal experience and concrete details, but the students should have the
option of deciding what is to be shared with the teacher (Gowen, 1985).
Long before the hearings on the Hatch
Amendment, Norma and Mel Gabler found what they charged were invasions of
privacy in a variety of textbooks. As the founders of Educational Research
Analysts, the Gablers are self-appointed, independent reviewers of all textbooks
submitted for adoption in Texas. During the 32 years they have scrutinized
textbooks, they have attracted a large following of disgruntled parents and they
have had an immeasurable impact on schoolbooks for the entire nation
(DelFattore, 1992). They have provided their volunteer reviewers with a 3-page
listing of objectionable items to search for, including invasion of privacy. The
following are only two examples of textbook items that they objected to:
TEXT: Segregation because of race has been ruled illegal by the United States
Supreme Court. What other kinds of segregation can you think of? Should all
kinds of segregation be prevented?
OBJECTION: Invasion of privacy. This question deals with student values and
is inappropriate for the classroom.
TEXT: Do you sometimes feel the way they [the characters in the story] feel?
Then ask the children to set their own purposes for reading by asking them
questions similar to the following: What kind of feelings does the boy have?
What makes him have these feelings? Do you ever have the same feelings?
The boy in the story said he was happy because he liked himself. What are
some things you know how to do that make you like yourself? If you were feeling
lonely or unhappy or disappointed, what are some ways you might help yourself
OBJECTION: This section concentrates too heavily upon feelings both in the
story and by the students. This invades the privacy of children and is
objectionable to many parents (Quoted in Jenkinson, 1990.).
The Gablers object to questions that call for students' opinions or
declarations of values. They object to expressions of feelings, of thoughts, of
beliefs. But many of their objections would not be classified as actual
invasions of privacy by teachers of English who have strong pedagogical reasons
for asking students to respond in writing (Fulwiler, 1987).
If students are asked to reveal secrets which might cause harm or
embarrassment to themselves or their families, then such revelations could be
considered invasions of privacy. But questions that call for expressions of
non-secret, non-threatening feelings, thoughts, or beliefs generally would not
be so classified (Jenkinson, 1990).
INVASION OF PRIVACY
Here are examples of journal and/or
theme assignments that could
be classified as invasions of privacy:
a fight between your father and your mother.
Write about a time you cheated and were caught.
Write about a time you embarrassed your parents.
Write a factual account of an incident during which you broke a law or a school
A charge of invasion of student privacy cannot be dismissed lightly.
Teachers, counselors, and administrators must consider carefully the classroom
questions, activities, and assignments that call for the revelation of private
information about students and/or their families. Educators might wish to ask
themselves questions like these:
What educational objectives are being served by the questions, assignments, or
How do they add to the students' knowledge or understanding of the subject
Why must anyone know this particular information? How will it be treated? Who
will have access to it?
What harm might result to students or their families if other teachers,
students, or administrators have access to the information? (Jenkinson, 1990).
All too frequently, students volunteer private information without any
questions being asked. Many students reveal secrets about themselves and their
families because they trust teachers and administrators. When such information
is volunteered, it is certainly not an invasion of privacy by teachers or
administrators; however, it is imperative that such information be treated
confidentially, except in the case of child abuse, which must be reported
according to law (Gluckman, 1987).
Though many educators may find it hard to believe that teachers are callous
enough to ask questions such as those reported in the hearings on the Hatch
amendment, apparently some are guilty. It is helpful, therefore, to raise our
consciousness and to use some of the guidelines suggested by the National
Council of Teachers of English:
Explain that journals are not diaries but are concerned with the content of
Do something active and deliberate with what students write.
Award points for journals but do not grade them. Respond only to those entries
that pertain specifically to the class.
DelFattore, Joan (1992). "What Johnny Shouldn't
Read: Textbook Censorship in America." New Haven: Yale University Press. [ED 349
Fulwiler, Toby (1987). "Guidelines for Using Journals in School Settings."
Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. [ED 282 232]
Gluckman, Ivan (1987). "Student Privacy and School Responsibility." A legal
memorandum published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
[ED 279 064]
Gowen, Brent (1985). "Responding to Private Journal Writing."
"Exercise-Exchange," v31 n1 p32-33.[EJ 326 488]
Jenkinson, Edward (1989). "Classroom Questions: Respect for Student Privacy
Isn't Asking Too Much." "American School Board Journal," 176 (11), 27-30.[EJ 398
Jenkinson, Edward B. (1990). "Student Privacy in the Classroom." Bloomington,
IN: Phi Delta Kappa Foundation.
Schlafly, Phyllis (1984). "Child Abuse in the Classroom." Westchester, IL: