I was 100% the college student who rolled my eyes any time a professor mentioned writing a reflection piece. In fact, there were even points where I was offended by the task: Oh, right, because we’re English majors, we have to live in the hippie-dippie world of reflection; that’s why everyone makes fun of us. Fast forward to my first and second master’s degrees in Education and Educational Leadership: This is why no one respects teachers – because we’re too busy “reflecting on our feelings.”
I am here to tell you, I was wrong. Not only was I deeply wrong, but I was also childish and arrogant. I made the bitter assumption that reflective practice was not acquiring new learning or innovation. How could I be analyzing, evaluating, and creating if I am busy talking about my feelings? My first mistake was assuming that reflective practice was missing analysis and evaluation; that it was solely feelings-driven.
It was only when I had an ah-ha moment for myself as an educator that I realized the power of reflection, and more so, how I was never actually taught how to properly reflect – which is why I held such disdain for it.
It was my first official 7-12 teaching gig in New York City (I was working part-time at a college prior to it). I was at a K-8 school; I was tasked as the secondary English Language Arts teacher to 150 8th graders – which meant that the students had a primary ELA teacher and were mandated to take two periods (approximately 90 minutes) of ELA per day – one period with her, and one period with me.
When I was hired, I was literally told my job as the secondary ELA teacher was to “teach test sophistication.” The principal explicitly instructed me to teach the students how to take the 8th grade ELA exam.
I started as a good little soldier. I would give practice multiple choice questions and short writing prompts. I even wrote a Donor’s Choose grant* so my students could have their own copies of practice test books. I was doing everything I was told, I couldn’t understand why I had kids drawing penises on my desks, stuffing hamburgers into my harddrive, or urinating in my closet. I turned to the primary ELA teacher, who was a veteran, for help.
I quickly learned that all of the instruction I had in my master’s program about collaboration would be going into the toilet, as the “primary” ELA teacher had the students doing sustained-silent reading 3-4 days of the week; this was her form of “teaching,” as she flipped through Cosmopolitan. By the time the students came to my class, they were wired with energy and bored out of their minds because they had spent the last 45 minutes “reading.”
I threw away everything I was doing and started forming lessons around the books they were reading during their primary ELA class. I had them journaling, discussing, sharing, drawing, presenting. It was a huge difference; I finally was teaching, and while not all of my behavior issues disappeared (more on that in another post), the engagement and vibe made a drastic positive shift. I was proud! I was so proud that when my principal came around for my first unannounced observation in January, I was excited about the follow-up meeting.
I was thrown for a whirlwind when my principal gave me the biggest verbal thrashing that I had ever had in my life. I was chastised for “not sticking to the instructional goals” for “giving students too much freedom” for “not having control over the curriculum,” amongst others that my traumatized brain has hidden away after all these years.
I didn’t back down at that moment. I asked: “But isn’t the point to have students learn? They can apply the skills to the exam…”. I was cut-off and told she would be back in one week, that I had to submit all of my lesson plans to my assistant principal a week in advance, and the next observation would be formal.
That was the moment it hit me: I was being a reflective educator because I pivoted to do what I knew was best for kids. I used behavioral and anecdotal data (data doesn’t always have to be ‘numbers’) and made changes in my practice.
I wish this story had a happier ending for that school, but by the end of my second year of teaching, I packed everything up that June and started working on my resignation letter. It was by a stroke of good luck and perfect timing that there was an open English position at Staten Island Tech, my current school, and I landed the job there that August. I’ve been at Tech for the last 12 years and hope for many more.
I know that was a long story to get to the point about reflecting, but that is the reflection: Deconstruct and analyze the process. What went right? What went wrong? Why?
We must first reflect on our practice as educators. This is hard work. What makes reflection especially hard, despite my initial dismissal of it, is the fact that true reflection must be constant.
As I began my 14th year of teaching this year in this new, remote universe, I realized that this would be the absolute best time to do a deep-dive of my curriculum and process. No better time than this Wild West approach to education to throw away old paradigms and finally make the changes I have been itching to make for years.
You see, (I am going to be bold, brazen, and challenge you here) if you are not questioning your philosophies of teaching, learning, and schooling every few years, you are doing your students a grave disservice. The art of reflection lies in challenging your belief systems to always do what’s best for kids, even if that means starting over.
I asked myself these five driving questions:
- What do I want my students to learn?
- What do the standards say my students need to learn?
- How do my students best learn this content and these skills?
- How can they demonstrate their learning?
- How can they learn how to improve their learning?
These questions led me in a few different directions. Breaking down each question specific to curriculum design, this was my process:
- As a college-level course, what are my overarching themes, essential questions, concepts, and content?
- There are NextGen Standards and Priority Learning Standards; I must marry these two to provide clarity about what specific skills students will need to learn.
- Who are my students? What types of learners are they? What are their learning styles? What are their identities (culture, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.)? How do I approach curriculum design and lesson planning to give appeal and purpose for each type of learner?
- Honoring the differences I discover in question three, how can I create multiple approaches and opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery over content and skills? How could I style and design pathways for student choice and voice to give them ownership over their learning?
- As crucial as reflection has become for me, I realized reflection was also a necessary skill for my students to learn. I will not always be there to guide them with feedback, but they can always be there for themselves. If they constantly question their learning and practice, they will move from dependent to independent learners.
When teaching reflection to students, it’s important to give clarity around what reflection is. This was my problem as an undergraduate; I never understood what it meant for me.
You can start with “The Big Three”:
- What am I learning?
- Why am I learning it?
- How will I use what I learned?
“The Big Three,” as I call these reflection questions, are the main root questions you can adjust to any content area or grade level. These questions can drive your instruction, as well; imagine what the ideal responses would be to your lessons and design your instruction based on those goals.
Reflection lives in the greatest of all practice. Reflection is progress, not perfection. Reflection is the root of all growth: How can I (it, this, that, whatever pronoun) be better?
To help students move in the direction of reflection, here is a list of guiding questions adopted from the reflection worksheet I share with my high school senior students:
- What have you realized about yourself as a learner?
- What are your learning needs?
- How do you learn best?
- Where do you struggle?
- How did the teacher and/or your classmates help or hinder your learning?
- How did you come to understand your learning process?
- How do you connect with your learning?
- Has it inspired you?
- Has it created passionate responses in you?
- Has it made you question your own beliefs?
- Does it connect with any of your prior knowledge and/or learning experiences?
- How have you deepened your thinking?
- What pieces are you most proud of? What did you enjoy working on the most? Why?
- Where did you feel most engaged? Why?
- Where did you struggle the most? Why? How did you (or how are you) working to overcome that struggle?
- Is there anything you wish you were learning about? Is there anything you’ve learned that you found surprising?
- Did you ever procrastinate? Why? What strategies did you use to work through procrastination?
- Have you made a conference appointment with the teacher? If so, was it helpful or not? Why or why not? If not, why haven’t you made one?
- Have you ever conferred with a classmate? How are peer conferences effective for you?
- Do you use outlines, checklists, or other graphic organizers to assist you in improving your work? How does it help?
- What environment is best for you to learn? How did you come to this realization? How did you use this understanding to make you a better learner?
- Is there anything your teacher(s) have done that you have found to be helpful OR detrimental to your learning? What are those things?
Whether we are practicing reflection ourselves as educators, or teaching our students how to be reflective in their work, we are cultivating resilience. We are training students that reaching our goals requires motivation and discipline – the motivation to try, the discipline to keep trying when we fail, and the reflective combination of both to keep working at something to excel beyond satisfactory.
*This is a referral link.