Establishing a Learning Environment that Honors Reflection

If you were to get inside my head on my way home from school on a given day, you might hear an internal dialogue that goes something like this…

5th hour was a total mess today.  I could just feel a vibe from my students that they were not understanding the argumentative writing technique I was telling them about.  I need to go back and re-teach, but how?  Maybe I should do some modeling and writing alongside them.  But that will probably push everything in my schedule back because it’s going to take at least a day to do that.  Can I afford to lose that time?

I really liked that mini-lesson on the “Exploding the Moment” technique I did today.  I think that will help a ton with students who are struggling with their narrative pieces.  But I didn’t like how long that took.  How can I make my mini-lessons shorter and more efficient?  Or do I need to find a new way to deliver them entirely?

Teachers are reflective creatures.  Considering we make hundreds if not thousands of decisions a day, we have no choice but to be reflective.  Each time we’re faced with a difficult choice, we call on our years of experience, knowledge of clientele, and sometimes just our gut to do what’s best for our students.  Sometimes we hit the nail right on the head, and sometimes we miss the mark completely.  But mostly, our decisions lead us to wade around in a grey area of making progress and unwillingly causing setbacks simultaneously.  And when we get to the grey, we do what we do best; we continue to ask ourselves questions about how we got there, adding to our experience and body of knowledge so we will know better the next time we encounter that situation.  And then we face forward to the next decision.

Reflection isn’t just a habit of successful teachers; it’s a habit of successful people.  Inventors don’t release life-changing products without asking themselves what people need and how they can make their current ideas better.  Professional athletes don’t set records without analyzing their mistakes and working hard to correct them.  Authors don’t produce literature that defines our society without questioning what they see and what it means.  It is true that failure yields success, but there is another strand that I often think gets overlooked— and that is the willingness to look those failures and shortcomings straight in the eye and figure out the best way to tackle them.  Reflection is the other part of the success equation that often gets ignored.

But here’s the thing— successful people (including effective teachers) become so skilled at the art of reflection that it often becomes unconscious.  It’s been such an integral part of their day that they forget that reflection is actually a learned skill that develops over time and is oftentimes nurtured by a mentor.  I learned to be reflective in college.  I remember feeling frustrated that there was never “one answer” to the questions posed by my professors.  This was especially frustrating in education classes, when the instructors never told us the “correct” way to deal with certain situations.  My student teaching supervisor (shoutout to you, Mrs. Lighthall!) never told me what I did right or wrong when I taught.  Instead, she always opened the conversation by asking, “How do you think that went?” and encouraged me to analyze my own performance.

And I realize now that those college teachers and Mrs. Lighthall alike were saving my life.  Because once those supports were removed and I was on my own, all I had was my ability to ask myself questions.  I, like many others, failed so hard my first year of teaching and felt backed into so many corners.  But I never would have gotten out of those corners and learned how to swerve if it wasn’t for the skill of reflection I had developed in college.  Had it not been for that, I might be one of those teachers who refuses to see my shortcomings and blames all my failures on the students.  Yikes!

So this year, when Allison and Rebekah asked the Moving Writers crew to identify a theme for our posts, my answer was simple: I wanted to see how making some changes in my practice might yield more reflective students.  Reflection has done so much for me, and I want to give that gift to my students.  Of course I want them to be better readers and writers.  But through the process, I want them to learn to look at their strengths and weaknesses right in the face and use that knowledge to overcome an obstacle (or at the very least identify a way to get up and try to tackle it better the next time).  And if they’re capable of that, they’re capable of anything— including meeting any language arts standard in the book.  Including succeeding in the most trying of times and difficult of learning circumstances.

On the surface, this sounds simple.  When I first started being more deliberate a few years ago about reflection, I thought a little goal setting and end-of-unit self-assessments would be enough to do the trick.  And while these activities can have value, they’re often brushed aside as “afterthoughts” or “busywork” by the students, who often don’t provide honest answers.  No, what I’ve learned in the meantime is reflection needs to be a part of the culture of the class.  It needs to be an established routine, and one that is used regularly.  Students need to know they’re in an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s even more okay to admit to those mistakes.  Because if you hadn’t noticed— reflection can actually be really painful sometimes.  Especially to people (like some of our students) that don’t feel like they have a lot to fall back on.

Here are some steps I took this year in an effort to build an atmosphere that supports reflection:

I was candid with my students.  It seems like everyone is reading Sarah Zerwin’s Pointless right now, and for good reason.  Her class is undoubtedly built upon the idea of students reflecting and having agency in their learning.  I love the way she begins the year by writing a letter to her students in lieu of the traditional syllabus, and then has her students respond back to her.  I tried it this year, and you know what?  It was the best.  Students seemed to truly appreciate that I took the time to write to them.  It showed them that not only was I willing to do what I was asking them to do in my class, but also that I was willing to admit my failures and defeats.  We can’t expect our students to do this if we can’t do it openly ourselves.

There are no “gotyas!”  Yes, I know sometimes students get lazy and don’t put in the effort they should.  But I’m being very deliberate this year about not giving assignments just for the sake of keeping them on their toes and seeing if they did what I asked them to do.  When we do this, one message blares loudly and clearly to our students: We don’t trust you.  And if they don’t think we trust them, why on Earth would they engage in the honesty necessary for meaningful reflection?  I don’t do high-stakes assignments or activities requiring recall first of all because that kind of thing just doesn’t work in a hybrid learning situation, but secondly because they don’t truly assess what I’m looking for, which is students being deliberate about their progress.  Students who aren’t prepared will struggle just as much to reflect as they do with other kinds of assignments, but the difference is that they have an opportunity to go back and learn if the focus of the assignment is on reflection.

I am finding lots of little opportunities for reflection.  As I said before, students aren’t going to learn to reflect effectively if they only do it at the beginning or the end of the unit.  They need to practice the skill consistently if they’re going to get better at it, and we need to provide lots of feedback.  One way I’ve found to do this is going back to the basics— entrance and exit tickets— but with a reflective twist.   Have students start the day by thinking deliberately about the piece of writing they’re working on and asking themselves what they can realistically accomplish today that will help them reach their goal.  Sometimes, just taking a step back and “checking yourself” before heading into a large task can pack a big punch.

As I wrote about those three moves I made at the beginning of the school year, I couldn’t help but continue to reflect myself.  I’m thinking about how I would like to have more explicit conversations with them about what’s working and what’s not working for them in the class to further give them autonomy in their learning and feel comfortable in the learning space I am providing.  And you know what?  I think I’ll adjust my lesson plan to include that next week as we finish up our first writing unit.  I’d also like to have my students become a more active part of establishing the learning goals for the class.  I’ll make a note to remember that for next year.

There are so many possibilities out there— and reflection is a vital tool in allowing us to notice them and figure out what steps we need to take to try to make them happen.  I already love seeing my students take more ownership in their learning through this deliberate, reflective approach, and I’m eager to see what happens as the year unfolds and I continue to make reflection a top priority.


What do you do to establish a reflective learning environment in your classroom?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!

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