Today is an important day, a day all teachers cherish. Graduation. How remarkable to be able to share in this milestone year after year, class after class. What a privilege to take some small part in the upbringing and education of so many wonderful young people moving up and onto the next steps of their lives.
Every year this time, I’m verklempt by the flood of students parading in and out of my room in their caps and gowns, their hugs and photos, their thank yous and goodbyes. It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite poems I teach, “Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney, “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” And recently when tearfully thanking my students for sharing in great literature like this with me, one student jokingly promised to not turn bitter and rot like the molded over blackberries in the poem.
It gets me thinking. More accurately, it gets me reflecting—seeing the image of the year thrown back at me without being absorbed by it. Not yet anyway. That will happen in the fall when the yellow school buses pull up and a new year begins.
But for now, I’m reflecting on this year—what went well, what went not so well, where I succeeded, where I failed, how I helped and how I hindered. I reflect on another year’s experience of teaching because reflection is a powerful opportunity to learn and grow, both personally and professionally.
The same, of course, is true for our students.
I love creating opportunities for my students to reflect. I see on their faces the deep introspection that is the turning over of your own thoughts. It’s the class-magic equivalent of a room of silent readers all digging into a good book. But this time, instead of books, it’s their brains. And over the years I’ve noticed that reflection creates sound writing. Speaking of magic, there’s something about making sense of your own thoughts, feelings, and ideas that sparks creativity and, as we like to say around here, moves the writer.
Here are some ways you can encourage reflection in your classroom:
This is by far my favorite reflective activity. Aside from the beauty and nostalgia of a handwritten letter, the form lends itself to contemplation and introspection. It’s something I’ve only happened upon in my classroom. In letter writing, the task is clear—address a specific person and relay information in your own unique and authentic voice. Plus Letters of Note would sure make for some great mentor texts.
Here are two of my favorite letter writing activities:
The first is an assignment created by my teaching mentor Kevin Mooney, called Hello, It’s Me. The task is to write a letter to someone who you think needs it. There are a few stipulations, and that’s what yields considered writing. They are as follows:
- The letter should be to someone real, living and available.
- The letter should say what you haven’t had the presence of mind, the guts, the opportunity or the time to say.
- The letter should be genuine, heartfelt, and brave.
- The letter should represent your full effort to balance the scales, pay the debt, mend the fence or rightly honor the achievements.
- The letter should be written to someone who you would send the letter to. And, I would suggest and prefer, it should be written to someone you think might appreciate or need or require a letter like this most.
My next favorite letter writing assignment is the Literature Letter to Your Teacher. My only requirements were that students read, enjoy, appreciate, and savor an assigned poem; to talk about it with their friends; examine the writer’s craft, structure, literary elements; and then write a letter to me reflecting on it.
The poem was Wild Geese by Mary Oliver in case you’re wondering. And a poem like this certainly begs reflection and elegant prose.
The letter form was perfect for exploring the concepts of the poem. Students were freed from “academic style writing” and free to use their own voices. Here is one of my favorite letters:
Prove You’ve Been Here (an end-of-course reflection)
Here’s a fun little thought experiment. Give your students this prompt: It’s graduation day and the principal says, “Nope, you’re not walking today. You don’t have your English credit.” You stand there, clad in cap and gown, and you have to defend you did indeed earn an English credit this year. Your task is to prove you’ve been here.
Students have a lot of fun with this, and this playful prompt allows them to really explore what they have learned and achieved throughout the year. And while you’ll probably get a lot of genuine and heartfelt “thank yous” along the way, you’ll also get some surprising reflections from students you may not anticipate. Here was a student response that humbled me and made my heart swell.
I do love playful writing, but beginning and ending the year with meaningful reflection is meaningful to students. Check out Liz Matheny’s post using the beautiful E.B. White essay “Once More to the Lake” as a way to open or close your year with reflective writing.
It’s no secret that visual arts is one of my tricks of the English classroom trade. This year, after my students studied Slaughterhouse Five and before assigning their Narrative of Learning essay, I asked my students to use SketchNotes as a means of reflection and a way to “brain dump.”
The meditative quality of sketching and coloring made this reflection style both unique and worthwhile. This particular form worked as scaffolding to my students’ end of novel essays, but in the meantime, it helped them continue to uncover ideas about the text and see connections they perhaps didn’t before. SketchNotes proved to be an effective form of pre-writing and reflection.
For those of you unfamiliar with the app, it’s a glorified walkie-talkie. And by glorified, I mean voice, text, picture, video, GIF, location, and attachment features. I use Voxer to connect with teacher friends (shout out AP Lit Help gang!), my friends and family, my colleagues, and as an experiment this year, my students. Voxer unleashes amazing amounts of reflective power because the think-aloud style allows others to hear your uninterrupted thoughts. Participants can listen to messages when convenient, and before responding, you can take time to really chew on the topic.
For Flipgrid, the best way to learn about it is to see it in action. Check out this grid of my STEAM Academy students discussing their vermicomposting units.
Here’s how it works: teachers create grids and topics; students post video responses addressing an assigned question or topic, and with the upgraded feature reply to one another; the class watches one another’s’ videos, and everyone has a chance to be heard. There are so many possibilities for using Flipgrid in the classroom, and I’m betting most of them require some pretty deep reflection before posting a video for all to see.
Who doesn’t love a good end of year project to get us through those weeks of warm weather, state testing, and end of year celebrations? There are a few projects that have been big hits in Room 729.
My go-to reflective activity for graduating seniors is the Senior Footprint Project, originally pitched by the amazing David Theriault. The idea is to reflect on what you’ve learned throughout your years in school. Students love this project. And they consistently blow me away by what they create. Here is one of my favorites of all time.
One more reflective project that’s been successful is the We Remember What We Think About end of year assignment. Daniel Willingham of Why Don’t Students Don’t Like School? says, “Memory is as thinking does.” For this project, I ask my students to think back and consider what has stuck from their year in English 10. Their task is to prove they’ve been there, that they’ve learned something, and that it has stuck.
The idea is that whatever students make should crystallize their learning. This project is challenging and reflective, and it serves as important feedback for me, too. I call that a win-win.
How do you encourage reflection in your classroom? What assignments, projects, or activities require students to reflect? I’d love to hear from you!