The Presents of Mind: Time to Inflate the Water Wings 

I often find myself telling students, particularly my seniors, that I am “throwing them into the deep end.” As the year begins, I may assign a task that’s beyond their skill or comfort to see how they perform. If things go awry, I try to figure out where the gaps are and fill them. As I do some of my own reflection tonight, I recognize that this method–diving into the toughest level and reverse-engineering my way back–was often how I, a student often left to her own devices when it came to seeking a challenge, learned. But it’s not a method that works for everyone, and it’s not actually a method that works for me when I’m in a learning outside of my strengths. As I described a few years ago when I was taking swing dancing lessons (dancing! In groups! I miss it!), while I crashed and learned new steps, one must still approach a whole dance in pieces. Sending students into the deep yields a lot of observational data…but it’s proving particularly difficult for my students this year (perhaps because the whole world has been treading water for a year and a half!). We need to pull back. We need to build a scaffold. It’s time to inflate our water wings and step into the pool gingerly, toe by toe. Read on for two ways I’m using reflection to buoy our future thinking and writing.

Reflecting with Help from Reading with Presence

Earlier this month, I dropped my seniors into the deep end by asking them to record their first “Individual Oral,” a spoken assessment for the new IB English curriculum. I didn’t send them in unprepared: they had a rubric, an official sample, and a graphic organizer designed by my curriculum trainer to guide their outline. But many students still floundered. After a year and a half of writing over-scaffolded essays and delivering few presentations , they struggled to organize their thinking and their presentations on their own. Their success on an assessment like this depended upon metacognition; before they could speak to an audience, they had to understand and articulate for themselves how the poem had worked on their brains. I realize now that I didn’t provide enough space for this sort of reflection.

Acknowledging that something was amiss, I asked seniors to share their insecurities about the IO in a Google survey. So many shared how difficult it had been to arrange their thoughts or decide exactly how to fill their five minutes. Some wished I had told them exactly what to include or given them a specific structure for organization. That’s not going to happen, but there is more I could do to demonstrate that, to paraphrase Glinda the Good Witch, they’ve had the power all along. 

Enter Reading with Presence by Marilyn Pryle, a book that might be familiar to many of you thanks to Rebekah’s work with it last year (this is not a paid post, but if you haven’t picked up this book, seriously…pick up this book!). I’m using Pryle’s ingenious and incredibly accessible Reading Response prompts with my ninth graders this year, but I wondered if this gem of a professional text could yield some solutions for my seniors, too. 

No surprise, it did. In Chapter 4, “Above And Beyond: Metacognition Investigation with the Reading Response Analysis Paper,” Pryle explains how she leads students through reflection over a quarter or semester’s worth of reading responses in order to better understand themselves as readers. Pryle’s prompts ask students to reflect on their process, preferred types of responses, their own metacognition when reading and writing, the surprises and changes that happen over the course of weeks of writing, and their overall thoughts on past work and goals for future writing, all in preparation for a Reading Response Analysis Paper that synthesizes those responses and supports the writers’ selection of their five best responses. 

I think I can easily adapt Pryle’s prompts about Reading Responses to the work students must perform when preparing for their Individual Orals. An important component of any assessment in IB English is personal response, and clear understanding of one’s personal response to a text almost always leads to more original, engaging, and authentic literary analyses. So, instead of filling out a graphic organizer from my IB workshop leader that demanded already-synthesized thinking, students will prepare for their next IO, an assessment that links literature to a global issue, by asking themselves questions like:

  • “What sort of global issues interest me most? Why?”
  • “How do I work through a poem?”
  • “What stands out for me when I read?”
  • “What is most difficult for me to see?”
  • “Do I take risks in my thinking when I interpret what I read? How?”
  • “Am I afraid to be wrong when delivering my IO? Why or why not?” 

Once they’ve done this reflection, THEN students will make their outlines and practice for their IOs. I’m eager to see if some more deliberate metacognition improves their next attempts.

Reflecting and Analyzing Together with Poetry Rx

Image by Ellis Rosen for The Paris Review

In addition, we’re going to write about our course literature in a way that isn’t so focused on future exam success. Last month, while searching for some more information on our last poet, Wislawa Szymborska, I came across “Poetry Rx” from The Paris Review, a poetic twist on traditional “Agony Aunt” advice columns. In the column, poets like Sarah Kay prescribe poems to readers to help them cope with their feelings. The poetry prescriptions are great examples of the reflective, thematic linking students must perform in their Individual Orals, so…we’re all going to be “Agony Poets.” Here’s how:

  1. Every student will write a letter to the Poetry Prescribers, sharing either their own problem or one from a character they create
  2. I will distribute the letters to my students, keeping all writers’ identities confidential
  3. The Poetry Prescribers will respond to the letter writers, recommending one of the poems we’ve studied this semester with ample evidence to support their prescription
  4. Letter writers will provide peer assessment by evaluating how helpful/persuasive their respondent was (this step is tentative)

By distributing the “water wings” of metacognitive prompts and playful ways to practice core skills, I hope to keep all of our heads above the water and the currents of our classroom smooth. As good teacher friends and I have frequently discussed, October is a crunchy month in classrooms; know that I am wishing you moments of peace and the joy that keeps us in this work whenever you can find them.

What are your favorite ways to prompt metacognition? Create any ingenious assignments lately? I would love to hear about them in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing how you are using “Poetry Rx” from The Paris Review as a mentor text for your students. I love how this authentic text creates so many opportunities for deep thinking for readers and writers.

  2. Hi There,

    Is it just me or are people having issues opening your site. My browser keeps telling me it’s unsafe. I feel locked out of brilliance. 😉 No need to respond to me, just wondering if I’m the only one having the issue.

    All best (and with adoration and appreciation for ALL YOU DO!), Stacey >

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