From the Classroom: Reflection as Looking Back, Looking Forward
By Tricia Ebarvia
The other day I announced to my ninth graders that we were about to begin our very last book of the school year, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Some students were, no doubt, excited about the arrival of summer. Others expressed surprise at how quickly the year had gone by.
The end of the school year always brings mixed feelings for me. There’s relief, to be sure, in knowing that the proverbial light at the end of tunnel is near. There’s also some sadness in saying goodbye to students I’ll miss the following year. But there’s always some regret, too, in thinking about all the things that either went wrong or didn’t get done. “I wish I’d done more of X,” I say to myself, or “I wish I spent more time on Y” or “Why didn’t I do Z? I should have done Z!!!”
In the short term, regret can weigh on us, and weigh heavily. But in the long term, regret also has the power to lift us up. In Medusa and the Snail, scientist and essayist Lewis Thomas reminds us that “what is needed, for progress to be made, is the move based on the error.” I know I make my share of mistakes in any given school year. But the wonderful thing about teaching is that every “end of the school” year ushers in the beginning of the next. They say you don’t get many second chances in life, but in teaching, each school year is a second chance. A chance to tweak where needed, find a better way, and sometimes, when something more daring is called for, start over again and try something new.
The key, I’ve realized, is to find time to reflect, even amidst the chaos and busyness of the 4th marking period and final exams. But reflection is what fuels us for the following year. Reflection is what fortifies us for our second chance. Below are just a few ways that I’ve been able to not just take time to reflect, but to also act on that reflection:
Keep a “Next Year, I’ll…” list handy. As ideas for the following year come to mind, I write them down immediately. If I don’t, I can almost guarantee that the idea is lost in less than five minutes (and in even less time if my 4-year-old is around). I create a Google Doc and name it “Ideas for Next Year” or something along those lines. Every time an idea comes to me, I jot it down in this document. Because it’s a digital document, I can add to this list anytime, anywhere so long as my phone is nearby (which it usually is). In the past, I’ve jotted ideas down in my writer’s notebook, but I’ve found that those ideas tend to get buried amidst all my other musings, quick writes, and ramblings. As much as I love writing in my notebook with my favorite pen, the ease and practicality of using my phone is just too good to pass up.
Start the list early. To maximize its benefits, reflection can’t be something that’s done just at the end of the year. Reflection has to be constant and ongoing. I usually end up starting my “Next Year, I’ll…” list sometime in October. That’s usually about the time something takes a turn for the worse, and I realize I could have done something better. 🙂 Plus, there is no way I could remember in May the ideas I had for a unit I did in November. Reflecting in the moment helps me to remember.
Take a 30-minute honest assessment. While I maintain my “Next Year, I’ll…” list all year round, I make time for a formal self-assessment at the end of the school year. I create a simple T-chart in my writer’s notebook. I title one side “What Went Well” and the other “Not So Well.” I schedule 30 minutes of uninterrupted time to list items for both sides. I’ve found that using one of my last hall duty assignments or study hall supervisions is a good time for this. I usually start with the “What Went Well” side because it always helps, at least for me, to think about the positives first.
Get student feedback. Student feedback has a way of bringing clarity to how successful—or not—a school year may have been. I use Google Forms to survey students’ opinions about the books they’ve read, favorite activities, favorite writing assignments, etc. In this survey, I ask students specifically about the “nuts and bolts” of how things went in the classroom. This survey isn’t about students reflecting on themselves (they complete a separate survey for that). I ask for suggestions for next year, and I’m always heartened by how insightful students’ comments can be.
Read a professional text. While personal reflection allows me to rethink my practice based on my own experiences, reading professional texts gives me the opportunity to hear from others. As I write this, I’m currently reading the third edition of Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle, and one of the things I appreciate in this latest edition is the attention Atwell pays to her own growth as a teacher, how what she does in her classroom today has evolved over time and through self-reflection. Reading a professional text like Atwell’s over the summer can enrich my own reflections from the previous school year.
Send a message to your future self. When I was in PAWLP’s reading and literature institute several years ago, the facilitators had the participants write postcards to one another. These postcards would then be sent in a few months after our institute had finished. The purpose of the cards was to send a friendly reminder about the things we had discussed during the institute and to provide encouragement and support once the school year was underway. As we all know, it’s easy to get caught up the day-to-day busyness of teaching and forget all the things we meant to do.
This upcoming year I thought I would try something similar. If the first step is to take the time to reflect, the second is to take action based on that reflection. Lists, t-charts, and student surveys are of little value if I don’t do something with that information. One way to remind myself of everything I’ve gathered is to do a version of the postcard activity from my reading institute. Instead of the postcard, however, my plan is to send a message to my future self via email. After some quick Google searching, it turns out that this can be accomplished quite easily by setting a delivery date in Outlook. I can write my thoughts down in an email now in May, but have it delivered to myself in late August as I prepare for the new school year. I can even set up multiple emails over the course of the year, like at the beginning of each marking period, with more specific reflections.
While the ideas are neither original nor innovative, they are simple and effective, at least for me and perhaps for you, too. I’ve also found that an added benefit to reflection is that I actually find that it gets me excited for the next school year.
And maybe that’s what reflection, then, is really about… not just looking back, but more importantly, looking forward.
How do you approach reflection at the end of the school year? Please share your thoughts below.
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand she’s recommended. She is currently writing daily as part of the “Slice of Life” challenge at her website, mrsEbarvia.com. She can also be found on twitter @triciaebarvia.