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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Student ‘Reflection Needs to Be a Habit’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 19, 2015 17 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

How can we incorporate reflection in the classroom?

Part One included responses several guests - Jenny Edwards, Jennifer Fletcher, Mary Tedrow, Barry Saide, William Himmele and Pérsida Himmele - contribute their ideas on how to practically implement reflection in the classroom. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Mary and Barry on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find also see a list of, and links to, previous shows.

Today’s post features thoughts from Pernille Ripp, Sean Ruday, Jacqueline Darvin, Daniel Rechtschaffen, and Heidi Mills. You’ll also find comments from readers.

Response From Pernille Ripp

Mass consumer of incredible books, Pernille Ripp, helps students discover their superpower as a former 5th grade teacher, but now 7th grade teacher, in Oregon, Wisconsin. She opens up her educational practices and beliefs to the world on her blog www.pernillesripp.com and is also the creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, a global literacy initiative that since 2010 has connected more than 600,000 students. Her book “Passionate Learners - How to Engage and Empower Your Students” has been published by Routledge. Her second book “Empowered Schools, Empowered Students” was published by Corwin:

I always feel so guilty when my students are quietly reflecting. As if the mere act of having students think to themselves is somehow a waste of time, after all, our classrooms are supposed to be bursting with life at all times. And yet, within in our quiet reflections is when I see my students take the largest leaps. Sometimes they come up for air only to realize that they do not like what the questions are making them understand, and other times they come up with a smile, eager to share how successful they feel.

I moved away from a focus on grades several years ago, and while I still have work within the confinement of a public school system that asks me to label students with a number, I have been able to decrease the importance of that number through self-reflection. Some questions are tied in with an assignment, while other link to their human growth in order for the students to set their own goals and then reflect on how they are doing. Sometimes we reflect out loud, as in when we discuss our reading habits, and other times it is done privately as we face hard truths about the choices that are holding us back. I always reflect along with my students, often pondering out loud what I need to change to reach my goal, so that my students can see just how essential reflection is to the adult learner as well.

To many, taking time to reflect is not something they have the luxury of doing, yet to me, it is one of the cornerstones of our classroom, of our community, of our learning journey. Allowing time to think. Allowing time to process who we are as human beings and what our education is doing to us is indeed a luxury, but a necessary one. We do not want students who pass through our halls never stopping to think about the power of education to change them.

We want students, and adults, to realize how much control they have over their own journey, how much power they have within their choices, and how much strength they have to choose their own path. Reflection does that for us. It allows us to realize that learning is not merely something that is thrust upon us but a necessary part of our very existence. It doesn’t take much, but it does require dedication if you want results. So start as quickly as you can and ask the students; what do you wish I would notice? Ask the students; what do you need to work on? Ask the students; what can I do for you? Ask the students; what can you do for yourself? Then wait, give it time, and ask them to come back to it. Give them to reflect so that they can grow as more than just learners. I promise you won’t regret it.

Response From Sean Ruday

Sean Ruday is Assistant Professor of English Education at Longwood University and a former classroom teacher. To learn more about Sean and his work, follow him on Twitter @SeanRuday, visit his website, and check out his books with Routledge Eye on Education:

I was recently talking with a group of first-year teachers about what stood out to them during their initial years in the classroom.

“What really worked for you in the classroom this year?” I asked them.

“Reflection,” one replied. “Having students reflect on what they learned.”

“Yeah, definitely reflection,” responded another. “When students reflected, they understood material so much better.”

These comments not only delighted me, but also affirmed the focus that I place on reflection in my teaching. I believe that is very important to help students reflect on how they used a particular skill or strategy in their works and why that skill or strategy had an impact on the products they created. For example, if I am working with students on the writing strategy of sensory imagery, I will ask them to reflect on the importance of this strategy to their works by asking them specific reflections such as, “Why was the use of sensory imagery important to your piece?” and “How would your piece be different if you didn’t incorporate sensory imagery?”

Reflection questions like these help students think metacognitively about the importance of a particular strategy to their work. Students who never get the chance to respond to reflection questions still learn basic information about concepts, but are not given the opportunity to consider those concepts’ significance. One of the first-year teachers with whom I discussed the importance of reflection explained why requiring her students to reflect made a major difference in her instruction: “When I had my kids reflect, I knew they understood why something is, not just that it is.” At the conclusion of a math lesson, she helped her students reflect on why estimating is an important skill to develop and how it made completing the day’s math work easier. “I could have just had them learn to estimate,” she said, “but I wanted to be sure they understood why estimating is an important part of math.”

To maximize the effectiveness of reflection, I suggest giving students specific questions or prompts to consider as they consider a particular concept’s significance. Instead of vague instructions such as “reflect on what you’ve learned,” I recommend providing students with content-specific questions that help them consider the importance of what they’ve learned. While the details of the reflection questions can vary with different concepts, I recommend asking students to consider the following ideas:

  • Why the skill or strategy they learned is important.
  • How the assignment they completed would be different without that skill or strategy.

Students who reflect on these ideas will think deeply about the significance of the concepts they study.

Response From Daniel Rechtschaffen

Daniel Rechtschaffen, Founder of the Mindful Education Institute and the Omega Mindfulness in Education conference, has developed a variety of curricula for mindfulness in the classroom, and leads mindfulness trainings for schools and communities around the world. He is the author of The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-Being in Teachers and Students and The Mindful Education Workbook (forthcoming in Spring 2016 from W. W. Norton). Watch Daniel Rechtschaffen talk about mindfulness and education here, and visit him at http://danielrechtschaffen.com/:

Reflection is possibly the most unique and important of human faculties. So how do we inspire students to be reflective? Of course there are many great exercises to incorporate reflection into the classroom, like journaling, debriefing, and self-evaluation. The foundation of sustaining success with such exercises, though, is learning to foster reflection in students as an innate human attribute.

With mindfulness, we can help students get interested in their own minds, empowering them to become productive learners. For example, we can invite students to practice self-reflection by having them read a page of words and notice as they are reading how often their minds get distracted and for how long they are lost in thought. This kind of metacognitive reflection allows students to witness their own attention capacity and distractibility. We don’t do this to shame students; on the contrary, we show them the universality of our wandering minds. We can then offer attention practices for students to regulate their attention and strengthen their attention span. They can check in regularly to see how they are doing, like a track and field athlete checking their progress on their speed times.

One remarkable result of offering reflection skills to students is that they can learn to catch themselves when they are getting “dysregulated” and, instead of being sent to the principal’s office, either ask for support or use self-regulation exercises prior to acting out. Often students--and adults too, for that matter--don’t recognize their escalating stress levels until there is so much energy in their system that they either blow up or shut down. Biologically, we are always trying to find “optimal arousal,” which is the state in which we have enough stress that we remain engaged with the task at hand, but not so much that we are flooded with anxiety. All teachers know that teaching is much easier when students are regulated and not bouncing out of their chairs or falling asleep at their desks.

Through mindfulness practices, we teach students how to reflect upon their thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Once they gain the capacity to know themselves in this way, we can go further so that they realize how they are influencing the world around them. Remember how our preschool teachers tried to get us to reflect on how our behaviors affected the other kid on the playground when we were throwing sand in their eyes. With mindfulness practices, we slow things down so students practice remembering situations in which they were angry or sad and noticing what was going on in their bodies during those situations, giving them an understanding of the inner mechanisms of thought, emotion, and behavior. We see students who have been practicing mindfulness gaining a greater capacity to reflect on their actions and to empathically look at their effects on the world. When students have built this level of self-reflection, it is an easy step for them to reflect on their study habits and class participation. Higher order thinking skills are the byproduct of looking inside and really getting to know ourselves.

Response From Heidi Mills

Heidi Mills is an endowed professor at the University of South Carolina and Curriculum, Research and Development Specialist at the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a university-public school partnership in Columbia, SC. Heidi’s collaborative research with CFI teachers is featured in professional journals and books by leading publishers in education. Most recently, Heidi captured the joyfully rigorous ways the current CFI faculty unite content and literacy instruction in Learning for Real: Teaching Content and Literacy Across the Curriculum by Heinemann. Heidi consults with schools across South Carolina and the country to help them envision and implement content literacy and inquiry-based curriculum and assessment strategies:

Reflection matters. It brings all of the important learning we do in a day and across a year together. And we can make space for it easily enough: just five-ten minute chunks of time after students have practiced new skills or explored new content reap more student insights, strategies, content and wonderings than any teacher could hope for. As important, the open-ended nature of that reflection allows students to recognize all the ways that they own their learning.

Reflection needs to be a habit. The more children reflect the more natural they become at the process. They come to see that it’s more than a summative assessment of what’s important to them, but also a time when they can co-create curriculum with their teacher and fellow students as well as a time when they can fulfill a responsibility to their fellow learners (teacher and students) by offering thoughtful advice or building on their ideas. Templates and guiding questions like the ones that follow scaffold children’s thinking:

Quick Individual Written Reflections That Can Be Shared: Pass out post-it-notes when launching a lesson and the student engagement that follows. Invite students to document a strategy that worked, content learned, a question or struggle that emerged. Then invite students to share with the whole class or with their learning partners as a conclusion to that part of the day. Save the post-it-note reflections for your anecdotal records.

Guiding Questions: Questions can help students recognize how their knowledge and beliefs change. Here are some we use that work in different contexts:

  1. What do I think I know?
  2. What do I notice?
  3. What does it mean?
  4. What surprised me?

Once students complete the process they respond to two statements that make shifts in thinking or understanding visible:

  1. I used to believe.
  2. Now I think.

Student-Led Conference Protocols: If we are serious about giving students greater ownership of their learning, we need to involve them in the assessment process as well. Student-led conferences offer genuine reasons for students to reflect on artifacts and learning experiences across the year that best reflect their growth and change as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists or social scientists. “As students study themselves, they outgrow themselves by identifying their strengths as well as their struggles and envisioning new possibilities,” (Mills, 2014, p. 91).

To create the conditions for ownership in the process, teachers work with their students to co-construct templates to use during the reflection and reporting out phases of the process. Children use these templates for guidance and inspiration as they report their progress to their parents. Teachers often bind their students’ reflections and corresponding artifacts into booklets that soon become family treasures.

When School Mirrors Life

When we make space for ongoing reflection throughout the day, across the curriculum, we create the conditions that make learning in school more closely reflect learning in the world. Physicist, Ben Brabson, put it this way, “You go off and work, then get back together to reflect. You get feedback and fine tune your ideas with the knowledge of your colleagues. You have an extended mind when you have the benefit of everyone’s wisdom.”

And that’s precisely why reflection matters. The practice solidifies individual understandings while making individual insights part of the class thought collective... an extended mind.

Response From Jacqueline Darvin

Dr. Jacqueline Darvin, Program Director and Associate Professor of Secondary Literacy Education at Queens College of the City University of New York, received her Ph.D. in Literacy Studies from Hofstra University. Dr. Darvin taught secondary English and literacy for twelve years, and in 2002 received the prestigious News 12 Long Island Educator of the Month Award. She was also featured in a cover story of New York Teacher, the official publication of the New York State United Teachers’ Union, for her work in Regents level, standards-based literacy instruction. In May of 2015, she published a book with Teachers College Press titled Teaching the Tough Issues: Problem-Solving from Multiple Perspectives in Middle and High School Humanities Classes:

Although there are countless teaching strategies available to teachers, few are specifically designed to incorporate reflection in the classroom about controversial issues. In my new Teachers College Press book Teaching the Tough Issues (2015), I describe a series of pedagogical practices that I have termed Cultural and Political Vignettes or CPVs. CPVs are potential cultural and/or political situations, real or imagined that are presented to students so that they can practice the complex decision-making skills that they need in today’s diverse classrooms and communities. They invite students to dialogue, problem-pose, problem solve, and reflect on controversial issues that they need to evaluate critically and view through multiple perspectives or lenses. CPVs can be used as part of pre-reading, or during reading and post-reading and writing activities. They are designed to aid students in developing their own viewpoints on critical, contentious issues and actively reflecting on, listening to, and critiquing those of others.

CPVs deal with the kinds of sensitive cultural and political issues that teachers identify as being the most uncomfortable to reflect on and discuss with their students, such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, sex, sexual preference, bullying, and politics, to name a few. They are designed to ask students to reflect upon and dialogue about their values, ideologies, biases, philosophies, and actions. CPVs ask students to consider problematic situations and to practice or rehearse the thought processes involved in addressing the problems at hand, so that when they are later confronted with similar situations in real life, they have virtual or simulated problem-solving experiences on which to think back and base their decisions and ensuing actions. CPVs are designed to ultimately influence not only students’ thinking with regard to CPV topics, but their subsequent actions as well. The critical reflection and dialogue that occur before, during, and after the CPV activities and the ways in which the CPVs emerge from the classroom contexts are just a few of the elements that set them apart from similar methods.

CPVs can fulfill many different curricular functions and are appropriate in different classroom contexts. In some instances, CPVs are used to explore cultural differences and/or controversial social issues, such as homophobia or racism. In other instances, a CPV topic may be sensitive, rather than controversial, and deal with the various political nuances of a situation. Other CPVs are designed to be directly related to specific course content. Finally, at times CPV topics may be primarily employed to get respondents to problem-solve from multiple perspectives, but the various perspectives or the issues themselves may not necessarily be controversial. Examples might be CPVs that ask students to consider large, overarching themes that are present in literary works and informational texts, such as honesty, friendship, or overcoming adversity.

By employing the CPV model in their classrooms, secondary teachers can incorporate greater critical reflection on controversial and sensitive topics, encourage their students to reflect upon and clarify their own values, promote dialogue and learning about pivotal culturally and politically sensitive issues, and encourage students to take actions that lead to greater social awareness and justice.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Pernille, Sean, Jacqueline, Daniel and Heidi, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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