Welcome to…The Presents of Mind!

Each spring, I use my discomfort with my school’s requisite summer reading assignment as a challenge: How can I make required reading work for my students and our wider community? How can I create some opportunities for student choice and voice that still allow some structure for evaluation?

This year, I really thought I hit the sweet spot: seniors would read short stories, and they could select those stories from contemporary works, “buzzy” books that both disrupted the canon while fitting the mold for our course’s prescribed list of texts. And all seniors would need to do after reading was reflect on how one or more of the stories addressed one of a list of global issues or the U.N.’s sustainable development goals. So much room for choice, so much freedom for thought and reflection. I waited eagerly for the great thoughts my students might submit on the first Friday of the school year. 

And then I was disappointed.

Despite the rich texts and the very flexible scaffolding in place, many of the summer reading responses I received were insincere word salads; students knew how to make it sound like they were thinking deeply about what they had read, but I really struggled to believe some of them. The paragraphs rang hollow, and I started to worry that students hadn’t read any short stories at all. 

Perhaps the summer and the system are to blame, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t read such detached reflection before, on assignments that weren’t connected to summer homework. 

My IB students are part of a program that declares reflection a pillar of its practice (and its learners). Tasked with so much reflection to compose, some of my students have, unfortunately, become reflection bots. Thus, the question I’m asking this year is, How can I foster authentic and purposeful written reflection in my classroom

It’s clear from the introductory essays I read more recently that my seniors are thoughtful, self-aware, and unafraid of a challenge: How can I help them transfer the good work that’s happening in their brains to the page? And if I don’t grade reflection (as most experts suggest I shouldn’t), how can I help students maintain the intrinsic motivation to reflect well? Are they simply forgetting to consider their audience, or can they really not recognize how easy it is to call their bluff? And how do I make sure that any reflection instruction I offer doesn’t turn into a tutorial on how to mimic or please the teacher? 

My first step toward a fresh approach to reflection has been to use the Question feature in Google Classroom to create a space for sharing overnight reading journal work. I ask students to reflect on their reading in a digital or paper notebook for homework, and when they arrive in class, they select favorite paragraphs to share in the response space. This week, I’ll study some of those responses, perhaps a more accurate measure of students’ abilities, since they are connected to more recent material, to identify some strengths and weaknesses.

At this point, I have more questions than answers, so I hope you’ll join me on my own Deep Dive into teaching reflection (thanks, Noah, for giving research a more adventurous makeover!). As I begin, I’m reviewing Paige’s tips from her own exploration of reflection last year, and I’m starting to gather some resources of my own. (For example, this article from Cathryn Berger Kay reminded me to consider the differences between cognitive and affective expression (and perhaps be more deliberate about what sort of reflection I’m expecting from students.)) Along the way, I hope you’ll share your favorite strategies for inspiring authentic reflection, too. I look forward to hearing from you, learning more, and reflecting on the whole process myself! Please reach out in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.

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