5 Questions That Help Build Our Reflective Capacity
Two nights before kicking off the 2017-18 school year, I am overwhelmed at the daily schedules, curriculums, management plans, procedures, passion projects, spelling programs, grading, testing, homework, positive incentives, etc. While these are the "things" of teaching that take up so much time to prep and organize, it is the questions surrounding the goal of helping students learn that keeps me up at nights. As Henry Ford once said, "Thinking is the hardest work there is which is probably the reason so few engage in it." I think back to my days as an athlete and I realize that if I wanted to be good at anything, I had to practice, to pay attention to skills that I was lacking, and I had to have repeated exposure to skills to create that muscle memory. Teaching follows the same philosophy. To be good at anything, one must be thoughtful, intentional, and reflective. Going through the process to become Nationally Board Certified, I learned work relied heavily on my self-reflective tendencies. The process pushed me to read, question, create, try new things, and critically examine my practice on a regular basis to deepen knowledge, expand skills, and incorporate new findings into my daily practice. To build my capacity for success, I needed to take charge of my learning and not wait for others to tell me what to do or what to learn next. It was my job to apply the new approaches I learned, and if I still needed support, it was up to me to access my administration, my peers, coaches, and mentors. I also needed to understand the purpose. I spent a long time with the question, "why am I a teacher?" Another question that really took some thoughtful reflection included, "Why am I doing what I'm doing?" I found that by linking my work with my purpose, I could take control over my own growth, development, and improvement.
When I am overwhelmed I find that when I take time to process and plan, I feel more in control, more productive, and more successful. This helps me stay out of survival mode and move into thrive mode. To continue to thrive I focus on 5 questions presented in The Reflective Cycle, as explained by Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral, authors of Teach, Reflect, Learn (ASCD 2015) as I process and plan.
#1 How Aware Am I of My Students, the Content, and Pedagogy?
A teacher with awareness is knowledgeable about each and every student. He knows individual academic levels, interests,learning profiles, instructional needs and every aspect of class instruction (Tomlinson 2014). To be aware means teachers know what kinds of prerequisite skills are necessary, what misconceptions students may have, and what learning styles will be supported with specific instructional practice to get maximized learning from each student. I have learning challenged students, students who come to me for part of their day from a transitional classroom, students identified as gifted, and as a result, I need to plan my teaching around their needs. Some will be set off by asking them to do a lot of writing, some will talk and visit and not engage if I do not plan a movement based activity during the lesson. All will shut down if I teach for longer than 10 or 11 minutes when presenting new material. I will need to chunk the information to engage my students more effectively. By focusing on this question before I plan my lessons, I am able to create more productive, efficient and powerful lessons for my students.
#2 How Intentionally Do I Plan and Deliver All Aspects of My Teaching?
The next step is for a teacher to take intentional steps to affect student learning. A teacher will look at individual learning styles, and pair that with research based instructional strategies and teach the concept deliberately. Did I think through the purpose of my lesson, my learner outcomes, plan effective learning activities and use strong management strategies to maximize learning in the classroom? To plan stronger learner outcomes, I choose different Total Participation Techniques (Himmele, 2017) to help affect student learning. By using these techniques, I am better able to plan effective learning activities to maximize the learning throughout the lesson.
#3 How Do I Know Whether My Actions Affect Student Learning?
I have planned and delivered purposeful instruction, and my next question needs to analyze whether or not this lesson resulted in the desired outcomes. Assessment tools must be varied and matched to the task and the purpose. I find myself using on-going student observations, performance assessments, quizzes, varied writings and I couple those with formative assessments using Think-Pair-Shares, Chalkboard Splashes, and Quick-Writes to assess whether my lesson outcomes are being met or not.
#4 How Effectively Do I Respond to the Results of Ongoing Assessments?
A reflective teacher is constantly using on-going data throughout a lesson to make adjustments, change a teaching method, regroup and modify, clarify misconceptions, address holes, increase engagement, and sometimes even stop and start over with a lesson. By intervening in specific and calculated ways teachers can get and keep students on track. I love to use the online Pensieve from Daily 5. This helps me keep track of all my conferences, observation notes, next steps and touch points from conferences I have had with students. I also use the Quick-Writes and other participation techniques that help me see my student's thinking as we are learning content in the lesson. The thumbs Up/Thumbs Down quick response check in really helps me gauge how students are understanding the lesson. I love to use this in math when presenting the material. They will let me know how much they are taking in and when they need more time to process the information. I can then pause, give them a prompt and let them Pair-Share to try to better process the content.
#5 How Often Do I Reflect About My Teaching and Student Learning?
Reflective teachers are hyper aware of the realities in their classrooms. They know which students have triggers, which students are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners, they know which students need manipulatives and which students need more extensions. Reflection is a habit and it requires practice in order for it to become one. Reflective teachers are doing this constantly and they do not wait for someone else to ask reflective questions, instead they are making decisions intentionally, assessing the impact of the decisions, and they take action to adjust when necessary.
We have one year, 180 days to impact our students with our teaching. There is urgency in our profession that comes from this timeline and we must take advantage of every second we are blessed with our students. We must use this Reflective Cycle to help ourselves develop our reflective habits, our self-directed learning, our analysis of students, and our critical examination of our belief system in teaching. By continuing to reflect and think about our own thinking, students will surely be the ones to benefit.