How To Reflect: 5 Ways to Encourage Reflection in Your Classroom

How to Reflect

Today is an important day, a day all teachers cherish. Graduation. How remarkable to be able to share in this milestone year after year, class after class. What a privilege to take some small part in the upbringing and education of so many wonderful young people moving up and onto the next steps of their lives.

Every year this time, I’m verklempt by the flood of students parading in and out of my room in their caps and gowns, their hugs and photos, their thank yous and goodbyes. It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite poems I teach, “Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney, “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” And recently when tearfully thanking my students for sharing in great literature like this with me, one student jokingly promised to not turn bitter and rot like the molded over blackberries in the poem.

It gets me thinking. More accurately, it gets me reflecting—seeing the image of the year thrown back at me without being absorbed by it. Not yet anyway. That will happen in the fall when the yellow school buses pull up and a new year begins.

But for now, I’m reflecting on this year—what went well, what went not so well, where I succeeded, where I failed, how I helped and how I hindered. I reflect on another year’s experience of teaching because reflection is a powerful opportunity to learn and grow, both personally and professionally.

The same, of course, is true for our students.

I love creating opportunities for my students to reflect. I see on their faces the deep introspection that is the turning over of your own thoughts. It’s the class-magic equivalent of a room of silent readers all digging into a good book. But this time, instead of books, it’s their brains. And over the years I’ve noticed that reflection creates sound writing. Speaking of magic, there’s something about making sense of your own thoughts, feelings, and ideas that sparks creativity and, as we like to say around here, moves the writer.

Here are some ways you can encourage reflection in your classroom:

  1. Letter Writing

This is by far my favorite reflective activity. Aside from the beauty and nostalgia of a handwritten letter, the form lends itself to contemplation and introspection. It’s something I’ve only happened upon in my classroom. In letter writing, the task is clear—address a specific person and relay information in your own unique and authentic voice. Plus Letters of Note would sure make for some great mentor texts.

Here are two of my favorite letter writing activities:

The first is an assignment created by my teaching mentor Kevin Mooney, called Hello, It’s Me. The task is to write a letter to someone who you think needs it. There are a few stipulations, and that’s what yields considered writing. They are as follows:

  • The letter should be to someone real, living and available.
  • The letter should say what you haven’t had the presence of mind, the guts, the opportunity or the time to say.
  • The letter should be genuine, heartfelt, and brave.
  • The letter should represent your full effort to balance the scales, pay the debt, mend the fence or rightly honor the achievements.
  • The letter should be written to someone who you would send the letter to. And, I would suggest and prefer, it should be written to someone you think might appreciate or need or require a letter like this most.

My next favorite letter writing assignment is the Literature Letter to Your Teacher. My only requirements were that students read, enjoy, appreciate, and savor an assigned poem; to talk about it with their friends;  examine the writer’s craft, structure, literary elements; and then write a letter to me reflecting on it.

The poem was Wild Geese by Mary Oliver in case you’re wondering. And a poem like this certainly begs reflection and elegant prose.

The letter form was perfect for exploring the concepts of the poem. Students were freed from “academic style writing” and free to use their own voices. Here is one of my favorite letters:

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  1. Prove You’ve Been Here (an end-of-course reflection)

Here’s a fun little thought experiment. Give your students this prompt: It’s graduation day and the principal says, “Nope, you’re not walking today. You don’t have your English credit.” You stand there, clad in cap and gown, and you have to defend you did indeed earn an English credit this year. Your task is to prove you’ve been here.

Students have a lot of fun with this, and this playful prompt allows them to really explore what they have learned and achieved throughout the year. And while you’ll probably get a lot of genuine and heartfelt “thank yous” along the way, you’ll also get some surprising reflections from students you may not anticipate. Here was a student response that humbled me and made my heart swell.

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I do love playful writing, but beginning and ending the year with meaningful reflection is meaningful to students. Check out Liz Matheny’s post using the beautiful E.B. White essay “Once More to the Lake” as a way to open or close your year with reflective writing.

  1. SketchNotes

It’s no secret that visual arts is one of my tricks of the English classroom trade. This year, after my students studied Slaughterhouse Five and before assigning their Narrative of Learning essay, I asked my students to use SketchNotes as a means of reflection and a way to “brain dump.”

The meditative quality of sketching and coloring made this reflection style both unique and worthwhile. This particular form worked as scaffolding to my students’ end of novel essays, but in the meantime, it helped them continue to uncover ideas about the text and see connections they perhaps didn’t before. SketchNotes proved to be an effective form of pre-writing and reflection.

IMG_0438 Continue reading

Minute Papers: Short Sprints

Sprinting

As writing teachers, we have many different writing assignments of varying length. Students write timed essays, five-paragraph essays, formal research papers, poetry, and creative non-fiction. My classroom, for instance, included marathon-length research papers, a half marathon of a literary analysis, and a group-drafted rhetorical analysis project that is best described as a relay. But before I discovered Minute Papers, my classroom was missing a sprint.

In a track meet, the sprint events are my favorite. They are short, exciting bursts of

Wottle

Image via The Toledo Blade

athletic prowess that get me on my feet and craning my neck to see who finishes first. These are the events that the crowd loves.

To run my students through the track meet that is a school year and to not provide the excitement of the sprint events would be a disservice to their writing muscles.

Rules

  1. You must write for the entirety of the race (usually 2-4 minutes).
  2. You must stay in your lane. No disrupting other sprinters.
  3. Finish strong! Don’t give up in the last 10 yards of the race.

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Snake Man & The Nature of Time

When I was at Teachers College, we had a professor, Rick MacDonald. He was the chair of the high school program, as well as the Social Studies department. Everybody wound up in his courses at one point or another.

Ours was a small teachers college, made progressively smaller by the fact that I was a member of the last class admitted, and graduated from it. This meant that we had this really cool vibe happening, where about halfway through the program, your professors started treating you more as a colleague than a student. I think it was even more so for my class, as we would be the last.

Rick was a taskmaster. He was that kind of teacher that you feared. You were never late, you avoided skipping, and you made sure you did your best work for him. A super serious dude.

Which made it all the more impactful when he switched to colleague mode. He did it with a story.

He told us about his first year of teaching. He acknowledged his organization, his intense long term planning, and how he began his career that way. His first year was planned out. The whole year. Every single class. When he told us that, we weren’t surprised.

Then, he told us, about three weeks into the school year, the travelling reptile show came to the school for an afternoon. That van of snakes and lizards gave everyone the afternoon out of class, and threw his plans off for the rest of the year.

So Rick gave us a piece of advice that I’ve used throughout my career, and have passed on to many teachers,

“You can’t plan for Snake Man.” Continue reading

Discovery Writing

The Need for Writing

As I began planning my unit for The Crucible, I reflected upon previous years and noted the nearly complete lack of writing. Traditionally, the unit is taught as a close reading/character analysis unit with a strong focus on allegory and character complexity. However, I wanted to change that. I wanted a unit that would allow for deep and purposeful writing that led to ideas essential to the text. One of those essential ideas is Abigail Williams’s loss of childhood innocence, and my students reflected on this idea through Discovery Writing.

Discovery Writing

The idea of Discovery Writing came from the notion that self-directed writing often leads to personal truths. As learners, we are not looking for universal, capital-T Truth. Instead,

DiscoveryWriting

Students engaged in Discovery Writing

we are looking for personal, and oftentimes conflicting, lower-case-t truths. A great way to illustrate this lies in the difference between denotation and connotation. We are not concerned with Webster’s definition of Childhood Innocence. Instead, we are interested in what Childhood Innocence means to each student; we are interested in how they have come to realize and understand this meaning and what they are going to do with this personal truth.

The Only Rule

Students may only read, write, view, or listen for the entirety of the hour.

The Prompt

Demonstrate what Childhood Innocence means to you.

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Scaffolding Authentic Literary Analysis

The need for authentic literary analysis has been simmering in my brain for a while now. Rebekah wrote about 3 Reasons for it  a while back, and I’ve been working on how to help teachers support and empower their students to write without formulas.

I talked with my students about this issue, too. Not surprisingly, they thought the traditional 5 paragraph, formulaic essays were pointless. They didn’t see any connection to why they’d want to write them or who would ever want to read them in the real world. Every single student agreed that they’d rather write for real, authentic audiences in real, authentic formats.

So, I committed. For our literary analysis unit, I was not going to provide them with a list of topics or thesis statements. I wouldn’t start with an outline of how many paragraphs. They would write about something worth analyzing in a way that they felt was worth reading. But I quickly realized that even though they were empowered by choice, some of them still needed a lot of support.

What we started with:

To launch the idea of analyzing literature, we watched a short film together. (I used Borrowed Time. It’s beautifully crafted and packs an awful lot into its short 6 minute time frame. Really, any short or scene that elicits a strong reaction in its viewers could work, though.) I set it up only by telling the students that they would watch, write their reactions in their journals, and then we’d have an opportunity to discuss.

Borrowed Time

image via borrowedtimeshort.com

Their responses were varied: emotional reactions, wonderings, and postulating about meaning. As we wrapped up our conversation I said, “Did you notice how, for some of our conversation topics, there seemed to be a lot more to talk about? That feeling that there’s a conversation waiting to happen is where real literary analysis lives.”

I connected them to this idea by asking if they ever tweet or text a friend after they’ve finished watching a show. Of course they have. “What do you want to talk about?” I asked.

“How— (this character) — was so dumb,” someone replied.

“Yeah, or how I can’t believe it ended like that,” another student responded.

How we connected the concept of analysis to our reading:

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image via: amazon.com

I did a think-aloud with the book I was reading at the time, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I explained, “you know, there’s a lot about this book that I’m really loving. And I keep finding myself recommending it to other people because I want to talk about it with them! That feeling like I need to talk about an idea is a clue that it might be a good topic for analysis, since I sometimes think of analysis as a conversation about thoughts. So I’m going to jot it down in my notebook as a possible topic.” Then, I listed the following possibilities in unpolished, thinking-aloud wording:

 

  • I love how authentic the narrator’s voice is. Angie Thomas does a beautiful job making it sound like a teenage girl is talking to you.
  • I love how Angie Thomas doesn’t oversimplify or fall for easy stereotypes with her characters.
  • That reminds me of another thing. In a lot of YA lit, the parents are either absent or awful. Hers are neither. It’s refreshing.
  • It’s tempting to think that because it’s dealing with a hot-button issue, this book will be a flash-in-the-pan, but I think it has a lot of literary merit and could become a YA classic.

After modeling the thinking behind brainstorming, students went back to their own notebooks to generate similar lists of topics for their own reading.

How I scaffolded brainstorming with mentor texts:

As I conferred with my students, some were ready to hit the ground running right away. With these students, we studied a few shared mentor texts to examine how authors of real literary analysis support their claims. (Hint: they still have evidence, but there is no magic 5 paragraph formula.)

There were still a few kids, though, who were really struggling with coming up with their own topics for analysis. In frustration, one moaned, “just tell me what to write!” I hesitated. I wondered if maybe some kids would benefit from the concrete structure of a 5 paragraph formula, but even they had told me how pointless they feel that kind of writing is. I wasn’t willing to give up on authentic writing.

So, instead I pushed for more. After questioning them about what was frustrating, we agreed that it wasn’t that they didn’t know how to organize their ideas into paragraphs; it was that they still didn’t have ideas that they felt were worth analyzing.

That reminded me of a post by Hattie and a conversation I’ve often had with colleagues. As she described in her post, the hardest work of writing often isn’t always the writing itself. It’s the thinking. Sometimes we need to scaffold the thinking that goes into writing more than we need to scaffold where a topic sentence goes in a paragraph.

To do this, we went back to mentor texts again. (They’re the professionals. Why wouldn’t we?) Instead of reading an article carefully, we looked at as many headlines as we could. Students flipped through VultureA/V Club, Literary Hub, and files of mentor texts that I’ve pulled throughout the past few years. We recorded the titles of articles that stood out as being analytical, then once we had a bunch, we stepped back to see if we noticed any patterns.

Literary Analysis JackpotRight away, they noticed that  almost all dealt with a “why” or a “how.” Then, they noticed that they might examine the “why” or the “how” of a character, a particular scene, etc. (And I bookmarked the idea that the difference between “why” and “how” as it relates to rhetorical analysis might make for some powerful lessons later in the process.) As we collected these trends and observations, we started to form columns, and we noticed how you could almost mix and match to form analysis topics. In my head, I started to picture the columns as the screen on a slot machine where all of the components line up to give you a result. Obviously, we said, our topics shouldn’t be random like a slot machine, but this image helped them understand how different pieces could fit together to make a topic for literary analysis. Fitting together some pieces that they had observed themselves in real-world writing gave them the support they needed to add their own thinking.

After a few minutes and some more tooling around in their notebooks, everyone had an idea for something they were excited to explore in literary analysis and they were starting to draft – without ever asking how many paragraphs they’d need. Jackpot!

What have you done to scaffold your students in authentic literary analysis? Where do you find students usually struggle the most when it comes to literary analysis? Contact me in the comments below or @megankortlandt.

Teaching Each Instead of All

Differentiation: It’s one of those words that all teachers seem to use, but I wonder how many of us really feel confident doing well. When I went through my teacher prep program in undergrad, I thought I had it. Then, when I got asked in interviews about differentiation (and, let’s be honest, we’ve all answered those questions in interviews) I thought I nailed it. I talked about offering opportunities for multiple types of learners. I’d mix visual representations with auditory. And, what I thought was most impressive, I’d give the kids some chances to move around with some especially creative lessons that I peppered in. I thought I had this differentiation thing figured out and was ready for anything.

I know, I know. You can practically hear the sound of music screeching to a halt like in scenes from 90s movies where the parents get home and bust up the house party. I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t have it. The reality of a real-world classroom with a diverse range of learners set in. Some of my students were carrying around Jane Austen while others didn’t want to move beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Some wrote beautifully crafted prose while others struggled to remember where end punctuation goes.

differentiation

Image via: someecards.com

How could I be fair and reach all my learners? And why on Earth weren’t my carefully prepared, creative lessons helping? It seemed like all the hard work and time I put into developing these lessons was wasted because I never felt like they were reaching all of my kids.

And that’s where, I’ve learned, my mistake was: I was thinking in terms of all of my kids, when I should have been trying to teach each of my kids. The main difference between these two mindsets is grammar; “all” is plural whereas “each” refers to students singularly. Instead of trying to plan perfect lessons that reach all of my students at once, I’ve realized that I need to plan lessons with enough flexibility to adapt for each learner. Continue reading

Yes/No/So

Spring in AP English Language is always a little tricky. Stress levels rise among the students as the test looms, and they’re all desperately searching for the magical formula that will make it all click. It’s tough to keep them engaged in the hard work of revising and slowly improving their craft as writers when they want me to just tell them how to get a 5 already.

When I’m not working with those AP students in the afternoons, I’m working with struggling readers and writers as a literacy support coach.  I experienced some similar frustrations–and the same desire for a magical formula– when working with some ninth graders on a recent argumentative essay.

In both cases, the students were frustrated with building arguments logically. They knew they had to address a counterargument, but they weren’t really sure what that entailed. They knew they had to support their claims with evidence, but they didn’t know how to order their different claims in a way that made sense. They knew some of the evidence was stronger than other pieces, but they couldn’t wrap their brains around how to weigh one piece of evidence against another.

As I worked with all of them, I realized I did have a magic formula.

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Showcase Projects

On Monday, I visited the STEAM Fair at our local early years school. My oldest daughter is in kindergarten there, and my wife teaches there. My wife had shared what her students were doing, and my daughter was vibrating with excitement about the chance to show off her work.

My obvious highlight was watching my oldest share her project with us, patiently answering her little sister’s questions. However, moving around the gym, watching students share their projects, listening to parents brag, and getting steered towards projects by excited teachers, I was moved by the whole experience.

I spent some time talking to one of a teacher there, discussing our shared belief in the importance of the A in STEAM, the Arts. We divide the disciplines a lot more in high school, and each of those letters becomes the responsibility of a specific group of teachers. If you work with older students, and you’ve tried to sneak the arts into class, you’ve likely had a student remind you that you’re not teaching Art. Continue reading

From Facepalm to Firestarter: Embarrassment and Inspiration at a Writing Project Symposium

Facepalm.

By the second panel of the 2017 Greater Madison Writing Project symposium, “From High School to College: Engaging in Writing Dialogue,” you could have made a meme of me (or at least my inner monologue, since I managed to keep my outer composure), sitting like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Picard with my head in my hands. After a 6AM drive to the flagship university of my Badger State and just one hour of conversation about writing with other secondary and post-secondary professionals, I’d finally realized something about my classes that had always been in front of my nose.

Ugh. Facepalm.

Shaking myself out of my embarrassed gloom, I grabbed a sticky note to catch my thoughts: “ALL of my classes are literature-centered!” I scribble-screamed. “I’m almost ALWAYS assessing students’ writing in terms of what it shares or shows about their reading. I RARELY look at them as writers alone!”

I thought about the assignment I had just returned to my IB juniors, a practice writing that I’d touted as a no-fault attempt at the reflective writing we would be doing all semester (in preparation for an “official” version in the spring). I had returned the papers with suggestions for content and MANY corrective pink marks. In my hurry to share with them how an IB examiner might evaluate their work, I hadn’t really stopped to listen to students’ writing “voices.” Even my follow-up activity had focused on grammar and sentence structure–the very things I had asked my students to ignore when assessing some sample reflective statements!

FACEPALM!!

Peeling my fingers off of my forehead, I continued to listen to the panelists as they discussed ways to reinvent instruction and assessment to focus on what we value in writing. I started to imagine myself as another hero of science fiction, Princess Leia, this time lifting a finger to press a button on R2-D2 and send my plea for a facepalm-burn balm out into the universe: “Help me, Greater Madison Writing Project symposium, you’re my only hope!”  Continue reading

Planning

As I write this, I’m in my last full week of classes in the first semester of the year. The exam is written, and copied, sitting in a drawer. My students are putting the finishing touches on the last of their work.

And my head is pretty firmly a few days ahead in second semester.

Though I’m tired and stressed, this is actually one of my favorite times of the year. I’m finishing up with my Grade 11 and 12 students, getting ready for my 9s and 10s. I’m hyper aware of where I want the students I’m about to teach to be in two or three years’ time.

And that makes midyear planning so awesome. Especially exciting for me this year, as I plan, is that I’m working with a whole new team, and we’ve got a semester of working together under our belts, and have figured out how we work together, and collaborate. Continue reading