For many teachers, this fall has been a time of mourning. We mourn for the teaching strategies we can’t use right now, for the trickles of conversation before and after class that we used to enjoy with our students, for our feelings of self-efficacy in our chosen profession. Most of us are facing challenges that feel insurmountable, yet each day we rise to face them. We try to conquer them and move our writers forward another few steps.
My students and I find ourselves, as Pablo Neruda put it, “together in a sudden strangeness.”*
In my quest to explore the happy accidents that this year brings to my classroom, I felt especially perplexed this month. The gleam of the new school year has worn off, COVID cases and anxiety are on the rise, and I find myself engaging in that mental countdown before the upcoming long weekend.
Still, the glimmers are there if I look for them. As always, it is the students who make each day worth the struggle to traverse this unfamiliar landscape.
One thing I notice is that students are responding to reflective writing prompts with greater candor and depth than in the past.
When the high-speed, mag-lev train of the typical school year jolted to a stop last March, we all had the chance to do a little more thinking, to reckon with our goals, our habits, our faith, and our priorities. As I welcome students to reflect in their writing this year, it’s clear that teenagers experienced this same reckoning during the great slowdown, and perhaps this is the hidden blessing in all of our mourning.
In the past, it alway felt like students rushed through invitations to reflect or engage in metacognition. It seemed like they gave me what I wanted to hear and in the most bland, predictable terms possible. But this year I am asking them to reflect a little more frequently; this is partially for their emotional well-being and partially for mine. I need their reflective feedback to know whether my adapted practices are working or not.
Students are giving me fewer verbal clues about how things are going, but with an invitation, they are writing more.
Let me share two opportunities for reflective writing that I have given my students so far this year and a sampling of their responses.
- A Question on a Summative Unit Test
If you know my work at all, you know I start every class with a poem. There are myriad reasons why I do this, which I’ve written about elsewhere, but this year I wanted students to reflect on what they stand to gain as writers from this routine . So I included this question on their assessment for the unit called “Growing As a Reader and Writer”:
After reviewing the Poem of the Day slideshow, explain how reading one particular Poem of the Day has helped you to grow as a writer. The best responses will show how something in your Writer’s Notebook reflects something you learned from a Poem of the Day.
I had never asked this question on a test before, and I was curious what kind of results it would yield. Their answers impressed me. Consider these excerpts:
Kevin: One poem that helped me grow as a writer was the poem “The End of Sleep” by Elizabeth Twiddy. . . . This poem helped me grow as a reader by showing how a lot of detail can make a piece a million times better and make an experience so much more enjoyable. As a reader of this poem, it makes me feel that if I write like this with immense detail, it can make someone enjoy it.
Julia writes of a specific strategy she gained from the same poem as Kevin mentioned: “One of these strategies [the poet uses] is capitalizing a noun that will add some personification and emphasis to the word. Something I wrote in my writer’s notebook follows this format. “The being of Greed will brush its cool fingers upon you neck and without a moment’s notice, its nails will puncture your delicate skin, bringing each fleeting hope of free will out of you like a mist from a well.” This capitalized name gives greed a new much more powerful presence than before which strengthens the mood of the sentence.
Stephanie writes: The poem “Blackwater Pond” by Mary Oliver, has helped me grow as writer because the poem displays imagery that makes her writing much stronger. . . . Adding imagery will help the reader to not just read my writing and think nothing of it, but actually feel something. Imagery gives readers a whole new experience.”
Sean notes: “In the poem “Dust,” the first line says, “My words are dust.” After we read that poem, we tried to write our own poem with the same format as “Dust.” I really enjoyed the way that this poem used a metaphor to begin the poem, and even expanded on the same metaphor throughout. I liked how we got to practice writing like this poem in our writers notebooks as well. This poem helped me to better understand how to use a metaphor in writing, and it is certainly something that I would like to include in my next writing piece.”
The lines my students are able to draw between their experiences as readers and writers encourages me, and they give me clear insights into their values as readers and goals as writers.
I do not always see this readily in a hybrid setting, but inviting them to write this summative reflection made things clearer for me and for my students.
- A Reflection on Formative Records
This year our gradebooks evolved to base all marking period grades strictly on summative assessments. At the end of the first marking period, I asked students to reflect on what patterns they observed when they looked at their records of “practice” in my gradebook, the assignments that helped them to learn but did not contribute to their average and letter grade.
One of the questions I included on this reflective, unscored survey was: “What do you notice about your habits, and how can you maintain or improve your habits during the next marking period?” Here are some candid replies:
Madeline: I would like to improve my habit of reading regularly. Normally I would not be reading a free reading books as much as I I should and would like to improve this.
Calli: I plan on improving my current writing/reading habits by taking more time out of my day just sit down with my writers notebook or a good book. With the stress of this year it has been challenging to find time to just read/write for pleasure and I hope to improve on this in the next marking period.
B: I keep slacking off on writing in the notebook because it stresses me out just thinking about it, so I hold off. The only way for that to be improved is if someone doesn’t let me slack off on it.
I’m intrigued but how much I can learn from a reflective prompt this year that only requires a sentence or two in response. These reflections help me build a better working relationship with students because they show me where to move next as I try to move the writers in my care.
These are not major writing assignments. They are not breakthroughs. They do not replace the losses we have experienced teaching through a pandemic. But they do give me specific ideas of what to address with these students in our conferences this year. They give me specific things to celebrate. They help make my classroom more personable.
Most of all, reflective writing in 2020 reveal that these students have developed the power to describe their own learning. Is this because we all slowed down and caught our breath? Has isolation improved our powers of introspection? What might these students bring with them from these times when some semblance of normal returns?
Writing is hard.
The pandemic is hard.
Writing through a pandemic is hard.
Keep up the good work. Keep smiling as best you can. Keep welcoming reflection.
What questions are you finding that help students to write meaningful reflections? How are you reflecting on your own practice during the pandemic? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.
*Note: I first learned of the Neruda quote from this new anthology of poetry written during the pandemic. It’s wonderful, and I hope you’ll check it out!
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