Posts Tagged ‘reflection’

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So I have been thinking about class discussion. I have been having discussions about books with students for decades. (I am not exaggerating; I can honestly make that statement.)

Talking with students about what we have read is one of my favorite things to do. Do other people not feel this way? I find it hard to believe that a great conversation about what we noticed and thought about in a book/text/image/whatever and how it might connect to other art or ideas or anything would not be thrilling. This may be why I am still a teacher. Anyway, my enthusiasm is not enough. Good teaching that translates into significant learning does not happen automatically or automagically. It takes intentional planning, ongoing work, and regular reflection. Years of teaching do not get me (or anyone) a pass on careful preparation.

My standards are high for class discussions; I am not satisfied with walking through the chapters and reviewing what happened with a few thoughtful comments thrown in, unless it is a very challenging text; I don’t think that is enough. I aim for a discussion that includes both specific attention to the text’s words, structure, literary elements, “writer moves” and one that makes connections to the big picture. As a fan of the big picture, I love it when our conversations get there. However, I also know that unless we are all talking about those big ideas with real grounding in the text and basing our comments on that deep, specific understanding, it is easy for those big idea discussion to become too much BS. It has been my experience that smart students who are very good on their feet and comfortable talking about big, sweeping ideas, get carried away with generalities without being too bothered by those pesky details. Finally, I want students to be talking to each other and the group not just answering me and then waiting for the next question. That’s not a discussion; that’s a set of reading questions that we answer orally.

I want a lot.

This year, I’ve worried that not enough of our class discussions have hit that sweet spot. I took a look at various parts of the discussion equation.

First, the content of the discussions.

  • Fine reviewing/summarizing
  • Fine talking about big ideas.
  • Not fine putting it all together.

Since my English class this year is also interdisciplinary, there is even more reason to really push the big idea. However, I can’t in good conscience ignore the need for careful reading and examination of the text. So, I went to visit a colleague who loves to do detailed passage analysis with her students. I will admit that I do not necessarily love detailed passage analysis by itself. I need it to be done in service of a bigger idea or investigation. Sometimes this is hard at the beginning of a book when we need to be doing all that close reading, but we haven’t read enough of the text for some of the bigger ideas to be visible. After visiting my colleague, I decided that I could be more insistent that we stick with some particular passages longer in order to get at more and deeper analysis, but I also have some texts in my curriculum that do not necessarily call for the kind of analysis this colleague does with Faulkner, for example.

Conclusion: I need to be more intentional in the passages that we investigate closely and be more patient in waiting and prodding for that continued analysis. But, I’m not far off here. And, there is no reason we can’t come back to passages later. It may be easy to stick to discussing the passages from the particular assignment, but that should not dictate my planning.

Second, the format of our discussions.

  • I was too dominant a voice in class.
  • Too much talk was simply a single response to a question from me.
  • Not enough adding on to others’ ideas or responding to a classmate.

While I will admit that I can get carried away and want to participate a lot in a good discussion (in a very ‘ooh this is so exciting’ way), I am definitely not intimidating. I like to take notes on the board (preferably in multiple colors in a web with circles and lines connecting ideas) as we talk. This keeps me close to the board and at the front. The tables are usually arranged in a U-shape or a closed rectangle. However, most students sit at the sides and far edge of the shape. I try to move to the side and sit down, but then I am back up again. When we have what I call graded discussions (where I do not talk at all and give students a topic to prepare in advance), they do a better job of responding to each other as there is no other option. However, even in this format, I found too much serial opinion giving this year rather than collaborative discussion.

Conclusion: I have forgotten to remind students of some of my goals and expectations for our work together. In other years, I have been more intentional about this and, surprise, the outcomes were better in this area. I was reminded of some of this after I read “Bringing All Students into Discussion” on Edutopia the other day. It’s impossible to keep everything I want to be doing at the front of my brain, and the ideas in this article are not new to me; I just did not put them front and center. As I focused on some particular interdisciplinary goals and more rigorous and synthetic assessment design, I forgot to spend time in some other areas.

Classroom climate, which I see this as an outgrowth of, is one of the most important things to me. And while I know from my course surveys that students did not feel discouraged from participating or that there was a culture of exclusion, I want to get back to my previous levels of success here. When I talked with small groups of students, we had great interchanges–wrestling with ideas for projects or writing, working and reworking ideas. This leads me to believe that it is the whole class situation that needs attention. All of us, teacher and students, should feel responsible for encouraging and ensuring that all voices are heard. We should aim to be requesting feedback from others on our ideas. I suspect a lot of this change can be affected by me being more transparent and specific about my goals and then explicitly modeling and sharing strategies that we can all use. 

I’m already planning for September!


So, I’ve been thinking about reflection. Again. Always. It is going to be a theme for the year at my school.

See, how that is working out? I slowly got more people on board, kept talking about how it was connected to whatever anyone was talking about. . .

Anyway, I had planned to start off with some get to know you/reflection form with my senior class. However, with this and that getting in the way, my questionnaire was incomplete and I was about to scrap it. Then, I ran into a colleague who was also asking her class some basic questions, and I was reinspired. I’m so glad I was.

I thought about what I would really need to know and what would be helpful for my students to think about. I also thought about those posts going around the interwebs at the moment about asking students what they wish their teacher knew about them. Here’s what I came up with.


Nothing fancy, but seemed reasonable.

Once again, I am so glad I asked. How often will I say/write this before I stop being amazed? Hard to say.

I learned lots of interesting information. Several students noted that they are visual learners. Right away I altered the product options for the first assignment. Rather than everyone having to make a rubric, which is not all that interesting visually, I made a flow chart/infographic an option as well. My goal for the work is for students to consider the characteristics they do and do not appreciate in ‘good reads’ and then to create a tool to use in measuring these same qualities.I’m looking for sophisticated comparison and evaluation along several characteristics. A rubric will work, but honestly it’s not the only thing that will work. And, rubric making is not the skill I am looking to improve so no one has to do that for me to get the information I want. A well done if-this-then-that chart with plenty of options and alternative routes will show me just as much of the student’s thought process and let me evaluate the complexity of their evaluation just as well.

The added bonus of giving additional product options is that if one particular product is more to a student’s liking, then I am more likely to get better work and work that more accurately demonstrates the student’s understanding. What teacher wants to spend time evaluating something that isn’t a good representation of a student’s ability or knowledge? Not this teacher.

I haven’t seen the products yet. And, I may need to give a little class time for tweaking as I did not do much explaining of the assignment, although it was described on the assignment sheet. (How much should I have to explain an assignment such as this to seniors, if I linked to examples of rubrics? A post for another time.) However, I am going to put this in the win category in terms of using student feedback to inform my teaching. I hope the products are good too.






CCO public domain image from

CCO public domain image from

So, I’ve been thinking about our digital portfolio project. It started officially in 2014-15 with 6th grade and a few 9th grade courses. It continued this year in 7th grade, 9th and 10th grade, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades.

A quick review–our portfolios are process portfolios (rather than showcases) where students will reflect on their learning and habits. We are using google sites set up announcement style (like blog posts) made with a school template. There is a drop down menu for posts in each division. In the lower school, the posts will be organized by grade level; in middle and upper schools the posts will be on pages by subject. We went back and forth about the organizing structure. If When the portfolios take off, there may be too many posts per page, but we’ll figure that out when we get there.

So far, some grades certainly ended up with a lot more reflection than others. As one of the chief cheerleaders and salespeople for this work, I spoke with colleagues about our ongoing digital portfolio use. I stressed the power of the pile. I admit this is not an elegant phrase, but as anyone who reads this blog knows, I am not always an elegant sentence maker. However, it’s not a bad phrase.

I think the it’s worth talking about the pile and how its power will grow as the pile grow. First of all, counting on one reflection to be powerful enough to carry this new work seems to be asking a lot. One data point is just a point. Anything that is going to become a habit is powerful as a habit not as the individual act. Second, once the reflections start to pile up there is the potential to see patterns and to see change. Even though I can always draw a line connecting two points, I will see much more with a bigger group of points. Maybe one of those first two points is an outlier that is not even close to the best fit line I see with a bigger group? So, to some extent the early posts, while they might turn up some interesting ideas, as some have, are building the pile. They are now there to be looked back on, to be mined for metacognitive wisdom, etc. But the work, both of building the pile and building the habit of reflection, continues. When the new school year starts, students can go to back to the posts from the previous year to jump-start their thinking about their learning.

Another thing that I stressed in my comments to my colleagues is that each reflection should include commentary on work habits, process, or social/emotional skills that are not exclusive to the particular content. So, a department or grade level might choose several habits of mind or process skills that they want to ask about routinely. Again, this would help students build that pile and make the individual posts worth reviewing. Seeing incremental progress is good for the brain (which I learned a number of years ago from Judy Willis) and motivating. We all want students to be motivated to learn, and of course it is motivating to see your own progress.

In thinking about the coming year, I notice that my colleagues fall into a few categories in terms of how they approach using digital portfolios. The folks who tackle this independently are set. I check in with them, throw a little something their way, and they are off. Those who like to work collaboratively with me are also set. I make a point to meet with them, or they initiate working together either in or out of their class. We make it work together. One group I plan to work more closely are department chair people to help them develop a few go-to questions that speak to the behaviors/habits of mind/skills that are critical for success in their disciplines and grade level. Although I have rather extensive collections of potential prompts available for teachers (in easy to access locations), for those who are not in either of the first two groups, I think it will be helpful if I am more prescriptive in my support.

I am excited that next year (2016-17) students in grades 3-11 will be reflecting on their learning, saving it on a digital portfolio, adding to their pile.


Public doman image.

Public doman image.

So, I’ve been thinking about this question: Why do I need to know this? A group of colleagues got together a few months ago and one brought up the challenge of answering this question from students.

Here are my thoughts on the topic in a nice short list:

  1. I do think schools and teachers have a responsibility to continually review curriculum, consider relevancy, and look to create a curriculum that balances past, present, and future.
  2. I don’t think that teachers should have to defend each fact or piece of information as “useful” later in life.
  3. K-12 education is not the same thing as job training.

If I were to explain this in something more elegant than a list, I would start with the lovely idea (cue the dramatic music) that K-12 education should be a sacred time to be idealistic, luxurious, expansive in our learning for the sake of learning, a time to seek knowledge without the need to justify it as useful.

Ok, now back in the real world where harsh lighting, bells, and cumulative averages exist.

I cannot pretend to have any magic answers for how to find that magical unicorn of a curriculum that balances the divergent views of education as a search for knowledge and education as job training. I do think that when a student asks “why do I need to know this?” he or she may be saying a number of other things (thanks to @LisainPA who reminded me of this fact):

  • I don’t see how this connects to the rest of the class.
  • This is hard, and so I’m trying a diversionary tactic.
  • This entire subject is so not my favorite, and I am done with it.
  • I didn’t do this problem on the homework, so I am trying another diversionary tactic.
  • There are not a lot of things in school that interest me, and I have to spend so much time here.
  • I like to see if I can get you, the teacher, off topic because then we are talking about something I enjoy more.
  • I think I will have to spend a lot of time on this to learn it, maybe I can get out of that.

I could go on.

The point being, a balanced educational diet is just as important as a balanced food diet. It can’t all be cupcakes and ice cream, but neither should it be all kale and raw grains. As the chef of the classroom, it’s up to me to plan learning that is good for my students, interesting to my students, and maybe even useful in later life. Not every fact or assignment needs to check each box, but I have to hit a good balance over the course of a unit or semester. So when a student asks why do I need to know this, I know that if I answer the question as asked I know which food group(s) I am hitting. And, I need to listen for what other question is being asked and maybe answer that one instead.

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking and thinking about podcasting and getting an audience for my students’ work. I tried one version in the fall. Didn’t quite work the way I imagined, although students’ creative writing was really good and enthusiasm was solid.

I planned out a different version for this spring semester course. I tried to take into account some of what held the project back in the fall.

  • I thought about having a set time each rotation/week where some part of class would be devoted to this.
  • I thought about how to have regular, new content on our podcasting site and made a schedule for students to sign up for dates to complete work.
  • I thought about the ability to leave comments and decided to change to Soundcloud as the podcast home.
  • I thought about what I might not have thought about and asked my wonderful colleagues @TeacherDebra and @Betney802 to give me feedback on my plan.

Still not working out.

The varied due date thing is just not something that I can make work. This might be me, might be my second semester seniors, might be a combination. So, I ditched that.

Then, the audience part. This is something about which I feel very strongly. However, in reflecting, again, I think that it’s time to scale back on my audience. Instead of using Soundcloud, I am posting the podcasts on our class Moodle page. This does not give us a very large reach, but that’s where I’m landing. As I have mentioned before, I do tend to plan bigger than is realistic.

In discussing this with my colleague @Betny802 with whom I talk about the power of audience a lot, we realized that we might be able to work together next school year to get an audience that is within the school, but beyond my classroom. I’m just not ready to give up on this idea.

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching seniors, the pedagogy behind literature circles, and how I can know if my instruction is effective. (Yes, I do know about tests.)

I have been begging, harassing, talking about reflection and digital portfolios to anyone who will listen, or stand still, for years at this point. I will even walk with someone and talk about this if given half a chance. And, I know it’s hard to fit it in to an already packed curriculum. For me, if I don’t make a new strategy part of my regular teaching routine, it falls by the wayside as soon as a bird flies by the window or there’s something exciting for lunch.

Yet, once again I am reminded that asking the students to summarize their learning and reflect on it is valuable to me and my teaching practice, which through trickle down education theory (have you heard of that?) means it’s going to help the students.

Here’s what happened this time.

So, I have a small class (14) and even with that number, I don’t get a chance to hear from everyone or know what sort of impact my strategy du jour is making on individuals. Those who are more vocal, who give away more with their body language, who seek feedback or affirmation are easier to figure out. And I end up turning towards them in the sense that I get affirmation from them that what I am doing is working for them, so I do that more. Or, I get the idea that what I am doing is not good for them and I do whatever it is less. All good, hearts, unicorns, rainbows for those students and for me. However, what about those students who keep their cards close to the vest? I am responsible for and to them as well. My strategies must meet the needs of all my students. Not everyone is going to love the activity every day, but no students should come to class knowing that my teaching style or mode never works for them.

In my YA Elective, we have finished a two book, literature circle focused unit. Most class periods involved student lead discussion groups. I moved around and joined each group for some minutes each period, but a lot of the work was student driven, which means that some of it wasn’t up to the standards I might have set. After each round of 3 discussions (per book), I asked students to turn in a set of discussion summaries and reflections. (I wrote about how this convinced me to stay the course with literature circles a few weeks ago.) Yes, some of these are minimal. However, I am consistently enlightened by them. I learned that I had reached some folks; I learned that there are ideas in these books (which are not “hard” in the typical sense) which really grab students; I learned how unaware some of the students are about racial justice issues; I learned how thoughtful some students are about what it means to learn hard lessons.

This is a good example of another little known education theory: the if you ask it, they will answer theory (with apologies to Field of Dreams). I am never sorry when I ask students to tell me about their learning. I do have to take a deep breath sometimes, because as my if you ask it theory suggests, they will answer, but not necessarily with opinions about how wonderful I am. However, I give students feedback all the time that is about a what to fix or do differently; I surely need to be able to hear similar feedback myself. I have made some adjustments to my instruction already in our current unit based on this feedback.

What sort of reflection do you ask of your students and what do you do with what you get back?

So, I’ve been thinking about professional development and the TPACK model. As usual for me, this combination of ideas came about through various conversations with different colleagues that I then put together (the conversations, not the people).

First, I was at a department meeting where we were discussing some changes in courses for the department. The next day I was chatting with a colleague about the meeting, reviewing some of the key ideas, and I had a flash. I realized that with this big a shift some very specific, department-wide PD might be appropriate. (Have I mentioned how much I like to talk to people in my school? I’m not saying everyone is a rocket scientist, and I probably couldn’t have a very lengthy conversation with a rocket scientist anyway, but there are some super thoughtful and interesting folks walking amongst us.) So that’s the first part: targeted professional development.

Then I was talking with my fellow tech coach and one of the other people I talk to as much as possible at my school, @TeacherDebra, and she reminded me of TPACK model, which somehow I had put to the back of my mind.  The model shows the interplay of technical, pedagogical, and content knowledge (full explanation on the website).

Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by

We started talking about using it as a guide for choosing appropriate summer learning opportunities. Here’s how it might work:

  • a teacher would consider his or her teaching assignments,
  • compare those assignments to his or her knowledge base in the technology, pedagogy, and content areas,
  • notice areas of strength and challenge,
  • plan his or her learning accordingly.

Is that not a beautiful vision? I mean, how could we not all become better and better with all that reflection and focused learning?

Finally, I put these two conversations together: department specific needs and TPACK. I think the department chair group, which I co-lead, could use this model with their department members in relationship to professional learning this coming summer. I would like to support the department chairs and their ownership of what is needed in their discipline and with their teachers. Would this tool help them have conversations about professional development? Would this tool help them make some executive decisions about department-wide needs?

Well, we shall see. I am planning to contact the department chairs group (we don’t have a meeting for a while) and follow-up with the individuals that I support more directly. The key points I would like to make are:

  • TPACK model is a productive way to think about the range of learning that might support your department’s progress
  • Could the TPACK model help frame consideration of where your department is changing and if there is pressing need for some department-wide learning (a reading, a web course, articles, A/V or technical training, etc)?
  • Could the TPACK model help department members think about their own needs and strengths?
  • Could a department conversation using the TPACK model allow the group to consider specifics goals in relation to each circle?
  • Could this sort of investigation help department chairs have specific and personalized discussions with teachers and provide some direction for summer learning?

I have always thought that the TPACK model was an effective one, even though I routinely forget about it. I love a good color-coded chart; I believe in the importance of technological knowledge and use in the classroom; I think pedagogical knowledge is critical at every level of education. However, it’s a lot to think about in one chart.

So, I guess my question here is, good idea? Not so good idea?