It has been a crazy day full of morning meetings, project work, thoughtful discussion, laughs, minor crises and tears, a billion questions asked…three of which were actually answered. Before we know it, we’ve reached the last hour of our day. Sound familiar?
“Ms. Georgia, is it reflection time yet?” an eager student asks. “You betcha, Alex. Go ahead and grab your journal so we can get started!”
Then it begins. The time of our day in which we all have a mutual understanding about what will happen. This is our sacred and beloved time. Each one of us understands, no matter how triumphant or overwhelming our day felt, the time is now to take this space and reflect. We can marvel in our day with pure joy or leave it all behind on this single page. This is personal, meaningful, and a moment of empowerment.
But you cannot just say, “Yeah, let’s reflect. Go!” Before it approaches sacred ground, reflection is a learned and practiced process. In my experience, most students do not initially enjoy or understand how to approach reflective thinking.
In the beginning of the school year, I typically work with my students on the objectives behind reflecting and how one builds stamina. We explore through discussion times when writing has excited us and name how it feels to personally connect writing with personal thoughts that are tied with emotion. This is called being “in the zone,” and it is what we can achieve whenever we reflect. Then I go more in depth and talk with them about what makes a meaningful reflection. I ask them to consider if their reflection should sound just like their classmates, if it should be a reiteration of their daily schedule, and if not, why? We also consider how the reflection will inform their work and behaviors in the coming days. Does it make specific connections to the work that you will do to help you grow? Once we master the objective and sustainability of the practice, we then begin developing our quality of writing. I typically have students practice writing with more specificity and depth for the remainder of the year. However, that is not what happened this year, and I feel really excited about the change.
My class is a beautiful bouquet of thinkers and writers. I have the full spectrum—students whose thoughts are mature and thoughtful yet who struggle to get them down on paper; I have students who love to write page upon page but do not really know why they write what they do; I have some who get stuck right away; I have those who hate it when I announce that reflection time has concluded. You name it, this class has it. If no two students really felt and executed their reflective thoughts in the same way, I wrestled with why my expectation was for them to approach reflection from a similar perspective—journal out, in your seat, voice off, and writing complete thoughts.
In reading about constructivist classrooms, Brooks (2001) highlights the value of social discourse by saying,
“Having an opportunity to present one’s own ideas, as well as being permitted to hear and reflect on the ideas of others is a powerful experience. The benefit of discourse with others, particularly with peers, facilitates the meaning-making process” (p. 108).
In addition, Horton & Freire (1990) simply state,
“one of the best ways to educate is to ask questions” (p. 147).
Although this may not necessarily strike an educator as novel, I would argue that the practice of questioning is not used widely enough within classrooms. With questioning and discourse in the forefront of my mind, I decided to call a meeting with my class. I shared my objective for reflection—to make that time as meaningful for each student as possible, I told them reflection elements that I really wanted to hold on to and why—it being quiet, purposeful, and sacred. Then I said what I was willing to let go of—the location where they reflect, how they choose to get started, and the forms that their reflection may take (e.g., written, drawn, mapped). This naturally led to their questioning:
“Well, if we don’t have to sit at our seats, how will we know how to pick a good spot?” “What if someone doesn’t pick a good spot, and then I get distracted by them?”
All of this was great dialogue where opinions, concerns, ideas, and questions were voiced in a constructive manner. This experience showed me that students were concerned with preserving the same sacred reflection time that I too covet. Through our meaningful discussion, my need for maintaining control was eased. It naturally led to generating approaches to reflection that were more inclusive, as they came from student thought and teacher support.
From our class discussion on how to best individually reflect, students were able to brainstorm various writing locations and choose where the best fit was for them (e.g., laying on rug, propped on a stool, propped with a pillow, sitting at a quiet table). Students also chose how they wanted to start writing. I was able to offer scaffolds to meet their requests (e.g., with a picture, teacher or student generated reflection prompts, an idea map). Some questions that prompted these outcomes included:
“How can we brainstorm our idea without having to write down sentences that take a while?” “If my brain gets stuck, how can I get started?” “If I want to write about ___, could we add this prompt to our list?”
After implementation of the co-created reflection techniques, I noticed a few trending outcomes both expected and not. One outcome was that writers who before had hesitated to delve in the reflection process were now writing something with less time passed. I asked one of my students who struggled both with writing sentences and with thinking about reflection details,
“What has changed for you?” and he said, “Now I just draw or do an idea map to start and then it just helps me to write sentences. I am proud of what I write now.”
Another outcome was that I see more of the students’ personalities and spirit when they write their reflections. They are telling me more of a story, and the way they choose to do it reflects more of who I see in them as people—not just what I see them do throughout the day.
An outcome that I did not expect was students’ willingness to help contribute reflection prompts to my generated list from the beginning of the year. This added to the idea of a co-created, constructivist class, which felt extremely rewarding as a teacher whose objective was to achieve more student voice, choice, and engagement. A few of these prompts include: What’s on your mind? What are some goals you are working on? How is everything going at your table? What was the challenge of your day?
Writers who struggled before our reflection discussion now report more time focused to reflection with the writing scaffolds like idea maps or time to illustrate thoughts prior to journaling. There is more evidence of student voice and expression in student writing, as well as student motivation to co-create journaling prompts that best meet their reflective needs.
From opening up the discourse and simply fostering a co-constructive atmosphere where students could express their thoughts and ideas, I truly saw each student make their own meaning of reflection. I am now able to see each individual at the end of the day express, in his or her unique ways, what it means to be deeply reflective. Keeping the dialogue open and flexible helped me honor my students in their reflection endeavors. Soliciting both teacher and student ideas, equally, motivated the creation of personalized and meaningful work.
Brooks, J. (2001). The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). Educational practice. In BrendaBell, J.G. & J. Peters (Eds.), We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on education and social change. (147). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.