Tag Archives: reflection

From “Oops!” to “Aha!”: A Story of Reflection and Reflexivity

NCTE15

I’ve said this before: We can write our way out of dark places. I know because I’ve done it. But how much of the writing that we assign in school nurtures that kind of ability? If we want to students to better understand their own reflective and reflexive abilities, it helps if we develop those capacities in ourselves. Which brings me to a story …

Once upon a time I was stuck. I wasn’t stuck in everything. Home life was great. My classes were great. My colleagues were great. But my professional development just sucked, and I was stuck within some unconsciously self-imposed boundaries.

I’m not going to dwell on what was wrong with the professional development I was experiencing at my school. I don’t really want to re-live that other than to set up what came after. I didn’t agree philosophically with the ideas and practices that were being mandated and imposed. I despised the role I was being asked to play in promoting those ideas and practices, and I was horrified at how quickly this ugly blob was expanding.

My dissatisfaction with this one area of my professional life wasn’t really affecting my classroom or personal and professional relationships, but it was affecting my self. As I drove to work or mowed the lawn or wrote in my journal, I found myself reflecting on what I disagreed with, but I found that I couldn’t do too much about it. I knew exactly what was wrong but felt relatively powerless to change it.

Have you seen that video of people stuck on an escalator? They are riding up an escalator in a mall or business center, and it suddenly stops. They go into full meltdown about how awful it is, and how they hope someone will fix it soon. In reality, all they have to do is take a few steps, and they will be off the escalator and on to wherever they were headed. Of course, there is no reason to be stuck on an escalator. Just get off the damn thing. But that was me. I was stuck on the escalator of ugly professional development for a while, too long.

This is where reflexivity comes in. As I processed all this in my journal, first I complained, then wondered, and then epiphany: Get off the escalator!

Even though I couldn’t change the problem, I could reflexively re-define how I engaged with it. So that’s what I did. I just stepped back and stopped investing in that part of my job. I still had to go to meetings and do stuff, but I did the minimum amount, and I tried not to dwell on it.

But professional development is important! As I reflected on this some more, I realized that I had a narrow understanding of what professional development opportunities were available to me.

Then some doors opened. At the NCTE convention in San Antonio, I was talking to Jodi, a teacher from suburban St. Louis. She said she thought I would like Jim Burke’s new social media site English Companion Ning.

I went home and jumped on that, and boy did I carpe that diem! I found even more incredible colleagues, including people who have become dear friends. I found a place to help other teachers, ask questions, write about my ideas and opinions, and actually collaborate with others to build online professional development opportunities for a larger community.

Those energizing connections have led me to all kinds of rewarding relationships and valuable professional experiences, including writing, publishing, and speaking opportunities; renewed energy for the classroom; and authentic collaboration.

So, exactly what realizations did I gain from all of that active reflection? Here are three:

1. I had two sets of colleagues, one on-site and one mostly online. I valued both of them, and it seemed strange to me that they didn’t know each other. To my great satisfaction, many of my online colleagues are now people I see with some regularity, and my on-site colleagues and online colleagues have even worked together on some projects.

2. I realized the difference between my job and my work. My job is where I report each day, practice my craft, try to help as many people as possible, and earn a paycheck. My work is deeper and goes beyond the school where I worked. This realization served me extremely well when I retired from that job in 2014. My job ended, but my work has not ended at all. My work continues in all kinds of interesting, rewarding ways. I’m the most un-retired retired teacher you can imagine.

3. Although my job dissatisfaction never affected my work in the classroom, it did affect my underlying attitudes. When those attitudes became more positive and when the new professional development resulted in actual learning, my teaching and professional life became even more energized.

To put a fine point on all of this, reflection helped me understand the problem. Reflexivity helped me solve it.
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At last month’s National Council of Teachers of English convention in Minneapolis, I was honored to be co-chair of a session entitled “From ‘Oops’ to ‘Aha!’: Reflection as a Creative Act.” This is a slightly different version of what I talked about in that presentation. Thanks to everyone who joined us on that Sunday morning and contributed to this powerful session at NCTE15, and thanks to everyone who read about it here.

I always welcome and appreciate your comments, especially if you have ideas on how to expand on this idea at next year’s NCTE convention.

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The Mariner and Me: Telling Our Stories to Help Students (and Ourselves) Reflect

magritte_grande-familleStudents are usually interested in developing a résumé: leadership positions, extra-curricular activities, service projects, etc. They carefully choose and articulate each crumb of success and arrange them so that they will present the best possible version of themselves.

But what about creating a failure résumé? A recent blog post by Angela Skinner Orr entitled “#FML (Fail My Life): A Failure Résumé” inspired by Tina Seelig’s 2009 blog post “FAIL in order to SUCCEED” has me thinking about the power of reflection as an important tool for teachers.

One of the most important traits of an excellent teacher is a growth mindset—constantly searching for ways to improve one’s craft. Reflection—the act of stepping back and analyzing what worked and what didn’t work, either in writing or in collaborative discussion—is an important practice to develop.

As we reflectively process an experience or decision, we are not only generating new ways to benefit from what happened, we are also thinking about our own thinking and what we can learn from it. This deepens our understanding of how thinking and learning operate, and we can use that new learning for the benefit of our students and ourselves.

When we incorporate the results of our reflection into our practice, we may try new concepts or approaches, or we may try old concepts in new ways. These re-boots can then serve as fuel for future reflection.

I’m especially excited about helping students become more reflective. Learners become better at thinking when they better understand their own cognition. That failure résumé is a brilliant exercise for just this kind of activity, and Orr’s blog post can serve as an excellent model.

I would suggest introducing the failure résumé by telling a story to your students. Tell them about a time you struggled or failed. I guarantee they will pay attention. There is just something about a teacher telling a personal story revealing vulnerability that students respect.

Last year I told my class a story I’d never told anyone before. We were studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in which a mariner kills an albatross for no apparent reason and suffers both internal shame and public humiliation because of his act.

I began, “This reminds me of a time when I did a really stupid thing that I’ve never told anyone about.”

Do you think students who were moments ago less than enthused about the Coleridge poem perked up a bit? Oh, yeah.

“When I was about ten or eleven, I was really into archery. We had a big field behind the house, and I set up targets. Eventually I got pretty good at it. Across the road from the field our neighbors had an old barn and some ponies. I was free to roam their property, including the barn which was home to quite a few pigeons in addition to the ponies. One day I was shooting arrows in our field and then wandered over to the neighbor’s barn carrying my bow and arrow. The ponies were outside, but the rafters were full of pigeons.”

(Yes, the students are still locked on, and Coleridge is far, far away.)

“For absolutely no reason, I drew an arrow, took aim, and shot one of those roosting pigeons, sticking it grotesquely to the wooden barn wall. I immediately felt terrible about it. I climbed up a little ladder, pulled the arrow and the pigeon from the wall, went outside and threw the pigeon in some weeds, and put the arrow back in my scabbard.

“Until just now, I have never told that story. I have never understood why I did such a terrible thing, but I wish I knew why I did such ‘a hellish thing.’ I always think about this though when I read what the sailors say to the Mariner: ‘God save thee, ancient Mariner! / From the fiends, that plague thee thus!– / Why look’st thou so?’

“I can relate to why the Mariner looks stricken. Is it guilt, shame, or confusion about why he did this thing? I’m not sure, but I know something of how it feels to do a stupid thing that I don’t really understand.

“Now, shall we go on with the poem, or does anyone else have a story about a time something similar happened?”

And Coleridge always takes a seat on the bench for several minutes. When we go back to the poem, it’s with renewed interest and focus. It’s no longer a dead-white-guy poem; it’s about a situation newly infused with empathy.

Telling stories makes the learning “stickier.” Maybe it’s the inherent energy of a story and how human brains are wired to learn especially well when concepts are embedded in a story. Maybe it’s what happens when a teacher challenges the stereotype and becomes a little more human. Either way, modeling courage and maturity before students consider their own struggles or failures is likely to lead to more powerful reflection.

Tell stories. Reflect on how the stories affected the learning. Help students tell stories. Help students reflect.

As always, thank you for reading, and I’m eager to know your thoughts.

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