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.

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An Alternative Assignment and What I Learned

Before I began my critical reading unit on The Tragedy of Macbeth, I designed a literary analysis final product that would serve as guidance for the unit as a whole. We would read the play through a critical lens in an effort to collect evidence for our essays. In short, reading with the final product in mind would allow students to be deliberate about their reading choices while paying close attention to specific literary devices that are used throughout the text.

The issue with the notion of a backward planned unit with a summative writing assessment like this is that the product itself is not differentiated. I differentiated the reading process for many students, and the content of the unit was made approachable to each learner with tiered companion texts. However, in terms of creating multiple avenues for a successful product, the assignment was lacking.

One of my students fancies himself to be a hip hop artist and a rapper. Normally a difficult student to motivate, I sat down with him and discussed the possibility of creating a final product after reading Macbeth that would motivate him to engage in the reading process while also appealing to his interests.

This student has released several mixtapes and has demonstrated a legitimate skill in songwriting and producing. We agreed that, rather than writing the summative literary analysis that his peers were assigned, this student would write and produce a song about Macbeth, his tragic flaw, and details from the play. This mirrored the content of the literary analysis paper while providing the student with the room for agency and creativity that he craves. Continue reading

Metacognition: 3 Questions That Matter

In my recent graduate work as well as in my classroom, I read, write, and think about metacognition constantly. I’ve read, heard, and said that “metacognition is thinking about thinking.” That concise statement is handy enough to elicit a few nods and grins, and it is the graduate school equivalent of using the word “hegemony” in an undergraduate Literary Analysis course. It makes you sound smart, and we all want to sound smart.

But I’m ready for more.

So what? What does this have to do with my teaching? How do I actually allow my students to do this? How does one metacognate?

Out of this desire for more came the development of the three most important questions I can ask as a teacher. These questions push my students to reflect upon their learning and they actually lead to thinking about thinking. Even better, the three metacognitive questions are conducive to writing and writing instruction.

What did we do today?

How did we do it?

How did it change your thinking?

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