Teaching Opinion

Deepen Reflection, Deepen Learning

By Starr Sackstein — April 24, 2016 2 min read
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Student reflection can be THE thing to really change the way we understand student learning.

As we empower students to share their ideas about how and what they have taken away from different learning experiences, we gain a deeper knowledge of our practice and how to improve both instruction and feedback for every child.

Once students have begun to reflect regularly, the level of their work naturally develops with the practice.

Consider the following student reflection from a student in my senior class about her one act play:

For this assignment, we were asked to creatively interpret and show our understanding of point of view in a piece of drama. Using our understanding of drama, we wrote a single act using that knowledge. Through this, we demonstrated our knowledge of drama structure, style, and content of the plays. We were given the option of choosing between writing a Shakespearean style play or in an absurdist style. Through our class reading, we gradually became familiar with the structure (or lack of structure) each style contains. Somewhere among our eight pages of our play, we had to include an intersection from the play we decided to base our paper off of. There were certain restrictions, however. We could not alter the plot of the play or introduce characters that were in neither of the play nor the novel. We were recommended to choose a character that had minimal dialogue in the play, making for more opportunity to alter their identity and behaviors."

In this first paragraph, the student shares her understanding of what the assignment asked her to do with specific reference to how students were asked to approach the assignment. In particular, she addresses the idea of classroom assignments that enriched understanding prior to the assignment, so she’d be able to demonstrate an understanding of point of view after having read two different pieces of drama. She also addresses some of the restrictions and recommendations, showing me that she has truly taken in the expectations of the final assessment and all those leading up to it.

In this paragraph, if the student wasn’t so thorough, I would be to see where I may have fallen short in my communication of expectations to the class. Having the students discuss what they think they were supposed to do in their own words, shows us if and where adjustments would need to be made during this part of the process.

Next the student will discuss her process and specifically why she made the choices she did and what she feels these choices show about her understanding of both Shakespearean character and absurdist theater.

I chose the Priest, whose involvement in Hamlet, although small, communicated a much larger theme throughout the play. He is introduced at Ophelia's funeral and announces that she does not deserve a proper Christian burial because of "suspicious" circumstances. I thought dealing with such an authority figure like a priest would help me to build up existential questions that usually occur when dealing with religion. Something so serious and structured would contrast perfectly the absurdity that this style of play would bring. I struggled with the idea of introducing an omnipotent character that was categorized into one religious sect mainly for the sake of sensitivity to the subject. To even consider them a 'character' (an aloof, unaware on at that) seemed a bit facetious as well. Yet this is merely fiction and whatever message my play brings to readers is purely individual to them. I settled with introducing a Judeo-Christian god which is what I am most familiar with. Ultimately this helped me to reference biblical texts and events to heighten the complexity of my play. Before starting my play, I became particularly fascinated with an idea mentioned in one of the articles you sent us beforehand. It read "Creation of meaning is not a viable alternative but a logical leap and an evasion of the problem. He [Camus] gives examples of how others would seem to make this kind of a leap. The alternative option, namely suicide, would entail another kind of leap, where one attempts to kill absurdity by destroying one of its terms (the human being)". These thoughts led me to dance with the idea of focusing on Ophelia to express the existential themes I (hopefully) expressed. However, I thought an outsider's perspective on this idea left me more to work with. The Priest himself experiences doubts of his own, and this would help me extend these ideas even further than to the character who was directly affected. This would also add to the absurdity of a character who should be seemingly aware of his mortality to be left just as fearful as any common person."

In these two paragraphs, the teacher has a great understanding of the student’s thinking and process. With her specific examples again as well as showing how her work addresses the standards and expectations. She discusses her challenges and how she went about tackling them and her final product really does illustrate this understanding.

It is easy to highlight the absurdity of the human quest for purpose. It is common to assume that everything must have a purpose, a higher reason for existence. I did not want the conversation between the Priest and god to be obvious and didactic. A message should come from the play collectively -- even if dissected line by line it seems nonsensical. I wanted to question if one thing has a higher purpose, what is the reason for that purpose? Is there one at all? How should each new height we find be validated by a higher one? Of course this all sounds better in my head and I am not sure if my play was even close to raising any of these questions -- I guess that is up to you to judge! At points I felt as though my characters were not distinct enough to completely call them individuals on their own. I know that Stoppard implemented this technique when recreating R & G but this was not what I aspired to do! However, I was careful with every line of dialogue and did not let the absurdity get in the way of writing meaningfully. Regarding standards, I believe this connects to standard 6 "Student makes stylistic choices with language to achieve intended effects". Absurd in the context of absurdism can mean "out of harmony" or "without purpose". I wanted to be able to take these characters and makes their lives made of up acts. "Through the process of acting, man becomes conscious of his original nothingness" (J. L Crawford). Another standard I believe I have met is standard 1 "Students comprehend elements of literary text". I recognized Stoppard's use of symbolism, setting, and minimalistic writing in his play. Repetition helped gain more and more resonance and meaning among R & G, and the play takes advantage of a sparse landscape to drive home its existentialistic qualities. Hopefully I achieved a similar effect without being "overly influenced"."

The next couple of paragraphs specifically show the student’s understanding of technique and how she sought to implement that understanding in her own work, mentioning specific standards she is meeting and more importantly how she knows she is, drawing on evidence from the work itself.

I enjoyed this assignment wholeheartedly. I have been meaning to write creatively for a while now and creating an absurdist play is a great transition! By no means is this a masterpiece -- there are times when I struggled with my control of language and distinction of characters. My moments of creatively heavily depended on my mood, which of course if not a great method of approaching any academic assignment. However, I found that in my most natural state of writing I became more invested in my play and this led to a heightened awareness of my writing and personal opinions as well. Sometimes it is enjoyable (and necessary) to be anti-realistic and go against many of the accepted norms of convention, but it is also important not to lose control of your overall intent and hopefully I achieved this with this play."

At the end, the student is critical of her work, probably more than she has the right to be. Her play was clever and thoughtful as well as absurd. She showed a deeper understanding of the craft of absurdist theater in her development of big ideas and characterization. Ultimately, the fact that she enjoyed the assignment was something that was helpful in her pursuit of achieving mastery, but certainly not necessary.

In past assignments, students expressed not loving the work provided or expressing challenges but at least are still able to see the value in how they grew from the experience.

Teachers can learn a lot from asking students to reflect and self-assess against the standards and we do the students and ourselves a disservice by not making it an expectation. Perhaps writing a reflection like this isn’t appropriate for every class, maybe a video or voice recording would be better. Know your students and differentiate and scaffold reflections to best suit their individual needs.

How can using a reflection like this improve student individual student learning? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.