In a recent twitter chat for AP Literature teachers hosted by Talks with Teachers Brian Sztabnik, he opened the chat with a prompt: identify a poem befitting of the weather conditions. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Too on the nose, my husband would say. Yet for me–given weather conditions and classroom conditions–it felt natural, not as a text to teach but as a text to prompt the kind of introspection I needed. As a teacher, I am at a stopping point, a midway point in the year where I gain new students (I teach on the block schedule). I have miles to go before I sleep (#Englishteacherlife). But before I try to fulfill those promises to my new students, I need to go to the dark places, to the woods of my mind. And stop. Stop moving from one thing to the next. My teacher life desperately needs this stillness. In the woods of my mind, I can truly reflect and determine how to keep moving forward on the miles ahead, discovering the ways I can uphold my responsibilities to my students and to myself.
As I paused, visiting my own woods, I reflected and wondered yet again: do my students have enough opportunities to go their dark places, their woods? I don’t mean social-emotional dark places. Instead, I mean the darkness and woods of their learning journey as writers where they must ponder thickets and brambles and branches–the very things that trip them and rip them up as writers. No, they don’t. As a teacher who regularly pushes students to reflect because of its impact on self-regulation skills, this year I’ve gotten buried under new content and new approaches. It seems I’ve let my commitment to reflection on not just product but also process get covered up by the deep snow of other stuff. Yes, my students reflected at the end of each essay, but what were my students missing by not pausing for more profound reflection in the midst of their journeys? What chances to directly impact their writing processes did I miss?
My students’ end-of-the-term portfolios, where they presented artifacts and reflected on their writing process journey, certainly carried me deeper into the woods–theirs and mine–and I learned about what we missed.
Students not only narrated how their writing processes changed and what went well with their writing but also what could have gone better and what they would do differently if they could rewind and start over. Their reflections were lovely, dark, and deep. Here are a few samples.
Student A’s reflections:
Student B’s reflections:
Student C’s reflections:
As I re-read their end of Term 1 reflections and then later really paused to consider their Term 2 reflections, I recognized why I need to force those pauses in the midst of the journey more often. Yes, many of my students, like Student A, pondered their processes overall and showed improvement in self-regulation. But, Students B and C are far more indicative of missed visits to the woods. I could have mentored Student B more to take calculated risks throughout the process, and both Students B and C could have benefitted from more coaching regarding peer collaboration. There are, it seems, so many more opportunities for learning if I create the conditions for true pauses during the process. Sharon Pianko’s “Reflection: A Critical Component of the Composing Process” from 1979 (when researching the relationship between composing and reflection was new) speaks to this:
It is reflection which stimulates the growth of consciousness in students about the numerous mental and linguistic strategies they command and about the many lexical, syntactical, and organizational choices they make–many of which occur simultaneously–during the act of composing. The ability to reflect on what is being written seems to be the essence of the difference between the able and not so able writers from their initial writing experience onward.
I have a responsibility to help my students become “able” writers. And, now I’m all too full of eagerness to move, bells of expectation ringing, full of purpose toward that responsibility.
This term my colleague and I intend to schedule deep reflection time–true pauses to reflect on process not product–on a regular basis. We must prioritize this. Sure, at first, my new students might think it strange to stop. And to stop where we do. They might even think it’s a mistake. But I know better now. I’m inviting them to the woods, empowering them first to reflect and then to find their way onward, ably, through the snow.
For resources on reflection, check out two of my recent “go-to’s”:
Angela Stockman’s Blog Post “Ten Reflective Questions to Ask at the End of Class”: I appreciate question 7: it’s all about the journey. Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell’s Writing with Mentors: their checkpoint questions provide a systematic approach to the kind of reflection we’re after.
Kristin Jeschke teaches College Prep English (senior English) and AP Language and Composition at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She doesn’t mind the snow, enjoys the woods, appreciates the poetry of Robert Frost, prizes reflection, and loves her students. Follow her @kajeschke.