5 Tips for Encouraging Meaningful Reflection in the Writing Classroom

In my last post, I introduced my goal for the school year: to be more deliberate about having students engage in meaningful reflection throughout every step of the writing process.  As I have been working toward this goal, I have found that encouraging the type of deep reflection that we want students to do requires a lot more work than just asking a few questions.  It’s about being deliberate about the kinds of questions we’re asking and also being strategic about how we choose to respond once students begin reflecting.

I have, by no means, mastered a perfect system for encouraging students to reflect on their performance and learning.  However, I have been working at this for some time now and am happy to share some of the wisdom I have picked up along the way.

  1. Think about how you’re framing the questions.

When I first started being more deliberate about encouraging my students to be reflective, I would draw a line down the middle of my board and scribble a plus sign on one side and a minus sign on the other.  I would ask students to jot down three things they were doing well on the “plus” side and three things they wanted to improve on the “minus” side.

This actually worked a lot better than I expected.  I was surprised at how candid students were willing to be, especially if I was willing to be vulnerable and admit my own shortcomings first.  And if I ever have a class that is difficult to reign in or isn’t cooperating, this is still my go-to activity; we drop everything we’re doing and identify what’s going well and what’s not.  This allows the kids autonomy in diagnosing how the class as a whole is doing and spares me (and them) the teacher lecture.

When it comes to writing, I have found that yes, the What are you doing well and what do you need to improve on? method still gets results.  But the problem I’ve noticed is that the responses students typically give are too broad.  They’ll have answers such as “I have really great sentences” or “I need to work on going into more detail.”  And while these are not bad reflections (I’m not sure a bad reflection even exists), they’re only scratching the surface.  We want our students to dive deep, to identify specific instances in their writing they want to work on and develop a plan for how to tackle them.

If we just change the way we frame the questions, however, we can guide students toward the type of thinking that produces results in their writing.  So instead of What’s going well?, perhaps we ask students to highlight a specific excerpt from their draft and explain why that chunk of text is worth celebrating.  Instead of What are the weaknesses here?, maybe we ask them to identify an area in their writing that could use more clarity and consider how they might rewrite it.  By reframing both of these questions, students are encouraged to become more proactive in their reflection; not only are they considering the pros and cons, but they are also diagnosing how to continue building on their strengths and how to combat their weaknesses.

  1. Avoid being overly specific.

Reflection is not a one-size-fits-all exercise.  Our students are all vastly different.  Their

experiences are vastly different.  What each of them is writing about and the approach they take in a given unit is vastly different.  Asking them very specific questions when they reflect over their writing assumes they are all the same.

Take this prompt, for example: Explain how your conclusion meets the characteristics of this genre of writing.  In this instance, the teacher was probably checking to make sure the student 1) had a conclusion and 2) had a conclusion that mimicked the style of the mentor texts examined at the beginning of the unit.  What this question doesn’t account for is that maybe the student deliberately chose to take a different route with the conclusion.  Maybe the student had decided that none of the approaches from the mentor texts were quite right for this piece of writing.  Maybe the student had decided that a conclusion itself wasn’t quite right for this piece of writing.

When we ask questions like these, we have the best intentions.  However, when we’re this specific, we end up pigeonholing students into writing a pre established type of text with pre established rules.  And I’m sure anyone who teaches using a workshop methodology will agree— that’s exactly what we don’t want.  The student from the example above was doing what real writers do by considering the best way to end their type of writing and forging new ground to make that happen.  We don’t want to burn out that fire by asking the wrong question.

Instead, I propose asking a question such as: Describe your approach to the end of this piece of writing and how you got there.  This question is more accepting of different avenues through the writing process and sends the message to students that it’s okay to veer away from what might be “standard” or “normal” in the genre; as long as they are deliberate about how they got there.

  1. Keep what’s most important in the forefront.

There are just so many possibilities when it comes to reflection.  If you read my last post in this series, you were reminded that we as teachers tend to reflect on everything.  All the time.  Unconsciously.  But remember, our students don’t do that yet.  First of all, their brains aren’t fully mature.  Secondly, they don’t have a lot of practice with this essential skill.

Asking them to reflect too much can have an adverse effect.  If I ask more than just a few reflective questions at a time, I’ve found, students tend to breeze through without doing the hard work of really considering themselves as writers.  It’s like starting a new exercise regimen— if we go too hard too fast, we’ll burn out immediately.  But if we ease ourselves in and set little goals, we can eventually accomplish big things.

So with that said, we have to be very deliberate about the questions we do choose and make sure they pack a big punch.  This requires us to be reflective first (not a problem, right?!).  What do I want my students to get out of this unit?  What are students struggling with most in this unit that I want to address moving forward?  What is happening in this unit that I may not know about that will help me best serve my students?  These are all questions I use to guide me in choosing what type of reflective questions to pose.

I found myself faced with this important decision last week in class.  After doing some teacher reflection, I realized that an essential part of writing workshop was missing in my class— celebrating students’ writing.  I had been so focused on delivering material and conferring that my students and I were not stopping to smell the roses.  Our routine had been established, which was great (and not easy to do in a hybrid learning environment).  However, this also meant there wasn’t a lot of novelty happening.  Class was getting monotonous.  So on a Friday, I decided to ask my students a very simple reflective question: What’s the best sentence in your draft so far?  They posted their responses onto Padlet, where we created a beautiful mosaic of mentor sentences.  It also helped some students realize that yes— being deliberate about using strong sentences was just as important in this unit (informative) than it was in the previous unit (narrative).

  1. Don’t negotiate the nonnegotiable.

Once I began making reflection a priority a few years ago, it really changed the environment of the classroom.  I started to feel more like students and I were working together toward common goals rather than as separate entities.  It seemed as if students felt more empowered and respected because not only were they finally being asked to share their experiences as learners, but they also had a teacher who was actively listening and making adjustments to instruction to accommodate the needs students were expressing.  Nothing has ever helped me build better rapport with my students than handing over the microphone and taking in what they have to say.

But I’ve also had to learn that it’s okay for me to draw a line in the sand, too.  Sometimes students will express a desire for something to change that I’m unwilling to budge on.  Take our notebooks this year, for example.  I, like many other workshop teachers, have adopted a flipped approach to the notebooks; prompts and mini-lessons are completed outside of class so that more writing can happen inside class.  Some of my students have expressed to me that this is a challenge for them; I teach seniors, so many of them work and/or have demanding extracurricular schedules.  It’s easy for work outside of class to sometimes be forgotten.

When students began expressing this to me, I did what I always do— reflected.  I asked myself if this was the best way to reach students and deliver class material.  Although it’s not a perfect method (What is?), I concluded after a lot of careful thought that having students complete the notebook prompts outside of class was, in fact, the best way for me to be able to confer with writers during class while we’re on shortened class periods.  However, I encouraged those students who had concerns about the notebook prompts to reflect on how to make time to fit them into their daily schedules.  I even provided some ideas, such as completing a week’s worth of prompts over the weekend prior to class that week.  I now make sure the following week’s prompts are available by the Friday before.

I want to be clear here: even though I was unwilling to budge on this particular approach this school year, reflection was still at the forefront of the process.  Students reflected and communicated a need, so I reflected, too.  And although what I decided did not exactly align with what they wanted, I encouraged more student reflection in order to help them understand my approach and to help them make it work for them.  I adjusted my instruction where I could by making material available sooner in order to help them.  With that said, it is still totally possible to achieve an environment of mutual respect between teacher and student without students always getting what they want; we just need to make sure reflection stays at the center of our practice.

  1. Allow for flexibility.

Anyone who has been teaching longer than a day knows our expectations as teachers and the reality students bring to the table are often completely different.  While this can be frustrating, it’s also where the real work of teaching begins.  We have to learn to make adjustments to meet students where they’re at and figure out what we need to do to get them to rise and meet expectations.  Sometimes, however, students will veer away from what we want them to do, and something beautiful comes out of it.  And I can think of no better time for this to happen than when we ask students to reflect.

I’ll give an example.  In my last unit, I asked students to reflect on how well they understood the characteristics of the genre in the unit we had just completed.  What I meant for them to do was think about the large piece of narrative writing they just produced and reflect on whether or not that piece of writing contained qualities of a narrative.  However, many of them ended up discussing the mini-lessons I had assigned through the notebook during the unit.  They pointed out some of the writing techniques that stood out most to them and discussed how they experimented with them in their notebooks.

As I read their responses, I realized that although many students did not answer the question in the way I had intended, they were still reflecting on their experience with narrative writing.  They were still meeting the goal I had set for them by asking the question; they just took a route I hadn’t predicted.  I also realized that I had worded the question in a way that allowed for them to do this.  So I told myself that during the next unit, if I want students to discuss the bigger piece of writing in this type of reflection, I would need to make that more clear.

In this example, my vague wording was what caused students to not do exactly what I had intended for them to do, so I take full responsibility.  However, we’re not always the ones to blame.  Sometimes students completely misread or misunderstand something, and we get a product that veers completely off course.  But that doesn’t mean there’s not something valuable there.  I’ve learned to ask myself what’s truly important when this happens; is it better that students meet my expectations or that they engage in meaningful reflection?  Even if a student misses my mark completely, I embrace it as long as they are showing evidence of learning.

What are some pieces of wisdom you have gained as you have encouraged your students to be reflective?  Share with me on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!

1 Comment

  1. This is great. My department read Pointless this summer. We are moving towards a grade that reflects a student’s learning based on goals and behaviors. Your questions will be helpful as I guide my students to reflect on the writing they have completed for this grading period. Yes, grades still exist in the school world.

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