I was 100% the college student who rolled my eyes any time a professor mentioned writing a reflection piece. In fact, there were even points where I was offended by the task: Oh, right, because we're English majors, we have to live in the hippie-dippie world of reflection; that's why everyone makes fun of us.Fast forward to my first and second master's degrees in Education and Educational Leadership: This is why no one respects teachers - because we're too busy "reflecting on our feelings."
I am here to tell you, I was wrong. Not only was I deeply wrong, but I was also childish and arrogant. I made the bitter assumption that reflective practice was not acquiring new learning or innovation. How could I be analyzing, evaluating, and creating if I am busy talking about my feelings?My first mistake was assuming that reflective practice was missing analysis and evaluation; that it was solely feelings-driven.
It was only when I had an ah-ha moment for myself as an educator that I realized the power of reflection, and more so, how I was never actually taught how to properly reflect - which is why I held such disdain for it.
It was my first official 7-12 teaching gig in New York City (I was working part-time at a college prior to it). I was at a K-8 school; I was tasked as the secondary English Language Arts teacher to 150 8th graders - which meant that the students had a primary ELA teacher and were mandated to take two periods (approximately 90 minutes) of ELA per day - one period with her, and one period with me.
When I was hired, I was literally told my job as the secondary ELA teacher was to "teach test sophistication." The principal explicitly instructed me to teach the students how to take the 8th grade ELA exam.
I started as a good little soldier. I would give practice multiple choice questions and short writing prompts. I even wrote a Donor's Choose grant* so my students could have their own copies of practice test books. I was doing everything I was told, I couldn't understand why I had kids drawing penises on my desks, stuffing hamburgers into my harddrive, or urinating in my closet. I turned to the primary ELA teacher, who was a veteran, for help.
I quickly learned that all of the instruction I had in my master's program about collaboration would be going into the toilet, as the "primary" ELA teacher had the students doing sustained-silent reading 3-4 days of the week; this was her form of "teaching," as she flipped through Cosmopolitan. By the time the students came to my class, they were wired with energy and bored out of their minds because they had spent the last 45 minutes "reading."
I threw away everything I was doing and started forming lessons around the books they were reading during their primary ELA class. I had them journaling, discussing, sharing, drawing, presenting. It was a huge difference; I finally was teaching, and while not all of my behavior issues disappeared (more on that in another post), the engagement and vibe made a drastic positive shift. I was proud! I was so proud that when my principal came around for my first unannounced observation in January, I was excited about the follow-up meeting.
I was thrown for a whirlwind when my principal gave me the biggest verbal thrashing that I had ever had in my life. I was chastised for "not sticking to the instructional goals" for "giving students too much freedom" for "not having control over the curriculum," amongst others that my traumatized brain has hidden away after all these years.
I didn't back down at that moment. I asked: "But isn't the point to have students learn? They can apply the skills to the exam...". I was cut-off and told she would be back in one week, that I had to submit all of my lesson plans to my assistant principal a week in advance, and the next observation would be formal.
That was the moment it hit me: I was being a reflective educator because I pivoted to do what I knew was best for kids. I used behavioral and anecdotal data (data doesn't always have to be ‘numbers’) and made changes in my practice.
I wish this story had a happier ending for that school, but by the end of my second year of teaching, I packed everything up that June and started working on my resignation letter. It was by a stroke of good luck and perfect timing that there was an open English position at Staten Island Tech, my current school, and I landed the job there that August. I've been at Tech for the last 12 years and hope for many more.
I know that was a long story to get to the point about reflecting, but that is the reflection: Deconstruct and analyze the process. What went right? What went wrong? Why?
We must first reflect on our practice as educators. This is hard work. What makes reflection especially hard, despite my initial dismissal of it, is the fact that true reflection must be constant.
As I began my 14th year of teaching this year in this new, remote universe, I realized that this would be the absolute best time to do a deep-dive of my curriculum and process. No better time than this Wild West approach to education to throw away old paradigms and finally make the changes I have been itching to make for years.
You see, (I am going to be bold, brazen, and challenge you here) if you are not questioning your philosophies of teaching, learning, and schooling every few years, you are doing your students a grave disservice. The art of reflection lies in challenging your belief systems to always do what's best for kids, even if that means starting over.
I asked myself these five driving questions:
1. What do I want my students to learn?
2. What do the standards say my students need to learn?
3. How do my students best learn this content and these skills?
4. How can they demonstrate their learning?
5. How can they learn how to improve their learning?
These questions led me in a few different directions. Breaking down each question specific to curriculum design, this was my process:
When teaching reflection to students, it's important to give clarity around what reflection is. This was my problem as an undergraduate; I never understood what it meant for me.
You can start with "The Big Three":
"The Big Three," as I call these reflection questions, are the main root questions you can adjust to any content area or grade level. These questions can drive your instruction, as well; imagine what the ideal responses would be to your lessons and design your instruction based on those goals.
Reflection lives in the greatest of all practice. Reflection is progress, not perfection. Reflection is the root of all growth: How can I (it, this, that, whatever pronoun) be better?
To help students move in the direction of reflection, here is a list of guiding questions adopted from the reflection worksheet I share with my high school senior students:
Whether we are practicing reflection ourselves as educators, or teaching our students how to be reflective in their work, we are cultivating resilience. We are training students that reaching our goals requires motivation and discipline - the motivation to try, the discipline to keep trying when we fail, and the reflective combination of both to keep working at something to excel beyond satisfactory.
Kristen Fusaro-Pizzo has been working as an English teacher in New York City since 2007. She is a Peer Collaborative Educator and UFT Teacher Center Instructional Coach. When she’s not reflecting on trauma-informed instruction or culturally-responsive education, she’s reading and teaching about mythology, monsters, and the apocalypse.