Improving Teaching and Learning Through Reflection

As the notes pile up, my goal is to focus strategies and activities, providing a more balanced learning experience. For example, maps are important to learning world history, so we will balance the digital maps and the paper-based. With paper-based maps, students work on their map and share as a class to a projected map on the whiteboard. 

Thinking back to my first year teaching, I wouldn’t have made it to my second if I didn’t reflect on what I was doing to improve my practices. My end-of-year reflection started without much organization – random conversations and informal goals based on memory. But it took form when my principal asked me what one thing will I focus on next year. That was the moment I realized the importance of going big with reflection.

My answer to her was, “Feedback.” The next day I found a copy of a chapter from a book published by ASCD in my mailbox. The sticky note said, “I thought this might help.” In a sophomoric way I wondered if anyone else had received reading assignments from the principal.  

Although the end-of-year reflections became more detailed and complex after my second year, and every year since, I was essentially building upon the goal I wrote at the end of my first year. Every goal since has been about some way to facilitate achievement of that goal.

Reflection Evolves Reflection

Year three led me to reflect on reflection, which is when I stumbled upon this quote from John Dewey. “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.” Since my mission was to set up the conditions for learning and my goal focused on feedback, Dewey’s quote inspired me to consider reflection as feedback.

The obvious decision was to teach my students how to reflect on their learning experiences, so I developed structured and unstructured reflections. After reflecting on the implementation of student reflections, I realized that they needed to do something with the information. After all, if it’s so valuable, should it not be used toward something that summarizes achievement or classroom performance?

Student Reflections on Learning

Dewey’s idea about reflecting on experience changed my approach to teaching and learning. Instead of the summary of achievement (grades) relying on a mashup of numbers that tell us very little about a learner’s experience, I wanted to figure out a way to make reflecting on learning a priority in our classroom.

I developed the following set of questions to make reflection more routine in our classroom.

  1. What did I do?

  2. What challenges did I face, and how did I overcome them?

  3. What did I learn?

  4. How can I use what I’ve learned beyond this class? … outside of school?

In addition to regular reflection on learning activities and assessments, my students maintained achievement tracking sheets. These sheets included every assignment – graded or not – and prompted students to indicate with a Y or N if they achieved 80 percent or higher.

Notice the tabs along the bottom. The first one on the left (not shown) is the directions, followed by the student work tracking. The next tab is summative grades, which are fed live from my Google Sheets gradebook. The “Assignments” tab is also a live sheet that I can push to all of the students from my master sheet.

The goal of the tracking sheets is to teach kids how to keep track of their work and achievement. They use the information and reflections to write a one-page narrative to argue their achievement level. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity for them to value all of the work they’ve done and focus on the real successes – overcoming challenges.

My Current Goal

Once again, I found myself staring at a screen of ideas for the seventh year, and I have not been successful at keeping it simple. My solution is to choose three things to focus on next year – a strategy I got from George Couros.

  1. Balance the use of hi- and low-tech tools. (paper and digital, movement, publishing)

  2. Engage students through course-long activities. (digital exhibits, goal, digital portfolios)

  3. Focus literacy strategies for comprehension and writing. (QAR, signal words and stems; text-to-text, text-to-me, text-to-world connections)

And now, it’s summer. I wrote these end-of-year goals so that I could disconnect from teaching and relax into other enriching activities, like playing outdoors with my kids and looking for the next good fishing spot.

I’ll return to school in August, and my goals for 2017-2018 document will be the first thing I read, refreshed and inspired to prepare for when the kids walk through the door. And they will. I can count on that.


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