Take CHARGE Day 22: Reflecting forward
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
(To read Day 21, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)
Take CHARGE of the Classroom
If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.
Reflection is a powerful but underutilized tool. Instead of blindly moving forward and hoping that doing the exact same thing will yield a different result, teachers should spend time weekly, hopefully daily, reflecting on their classrooms. The amount of routine actions that teachers and students engage in lends itself toward getting into a rhythm in the classroom. The question is, Is the rhythm the right one?
Often misbehaviors come in patterns. During the same part of each day, or when a certain part of the lesson cycle is reached, teachers can sometimes predict that things are about to take a turn for the worse. If specific times, interactions, or activities typically result in an emotional outburst, it makes sense to analyze those trends and find commonalities. If there are certain triggers that appear, teachers can work to reduce or eliminate those factors.
Yet simply reflecting on the day isn't guaranteed to produce lasting changes. Undoubtedly you've done it before and still end up facing the same situations again and again. Even though reflection is an important part of taking charge of the classroom, it isn't as simple as it might seen. The danger lies not in the act but in the focus.
The dangers of archaeology
Most of us have tried reflection at one time or another. Someone gave us a journal, or a principal led the faculty in a reflection and goal-setting session. We've gone over our day or thought about our school year to that point, thinking about how things have gone and how to improve. More than likely, any changes you made as a result of that reflection was ineffective and/or short-lived.
The problem is typically not in reflection itself but its focus. For most of us, when we ruminate over our day we zoom in on what didn't work. We the kinks, the flaws, the times that we fell on our faces. Those moments are emotionally charged and will stick with us for months or years because of how they made us feel. Instead of helping us, though, that negative skew while reflecting paralyzes us.
The only time that reflecting on what went wrong leads to change is when an alternative solution is 1) Visible; 2) Within our power to make; 3) Doesn't require changing the dynamics of the situation. If, for example, your students got really loud for a period of five minutes because you hadn't prepared the materials for their activity, that's an easy fix. Prepare everything in advance the next time and you won't have five wasted minutes.
But too often situations that we want to remedy don't have any obvious answers. They involve dynamics that are either hidden from us or outside of our control. Typically, they involve students who we can't magically move to another teacher's roster. When reflecting on such an obvious problem with no obvious solution, it reinforces the fact that we aren't good enough. That's the danger of archaeology, of digging in the past. Often, it only gets us dirty without changing anything that's already happened.
Bright spot evangelizing
In their book Switch, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath point to an alternative than constantly digging in the past for healthy reflections. Called bright spot evangelizing, it asks us to ponder about what worked rather than what didn't work. Taking these bright spots, or these moments of greatness, we would do better to deeply analyze them than spend precious mental energy dissecting what we know doesn't work.
Instead of thinking about failures, which only serves to drag us down into the rabbit hole of analysis paralysis, find the bright spot in the day. What was a moment in which everything seemed to work? Go back and find a time in your recent classroom experience in which every cylinder was firing perfectly and you just hoped that your principal would walk in for a spot observation.
Now think about that moment and see if you can discover why it worked so well. Was it a particular subject that students found so interesting? Was it during a certain part of the day? Was it an activity or part of a lesson that engaged students and kept their attention? Whatever you can decipher about that bright spot is going to be the genesis of your classroom adjustments.
While you might never get to the root of what caused your classroom failures, largely because they include many causes outside of your influence, you can replicate successes. Take a minute to really think about that last wonderful moment. Analyze it and look beneath the surface. Find the conditions that made that classroom interaction awesome and think about how to extend it.
Ms. Webber was having a difficult time with her classroom management. Her class of 4th graders, mostly boys, just had so much energy that they always seemed to be an inch away from a riot. In fact, the only way they took a moment to breathe was during her read-aloud. Her principal had mandated a 10-minute period across the entire school that teachers would use for a read-aloud in an effort to promote literacy. Her students loved it because she read such wonderful books to them like There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar and The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks.
As she thought about it, Ms. Webber wondered if she could take the magic of her read-aloud and gain a few more moments of relative peace. Her biggest issue was right after lunch when she had 30 minutes for social studies. She tried her hardest to find videos for students to watch related to Texas history but they usually caused more trouble than they were worth. Instead, she decided to look if there were any novels she could read from to better engage her students.
After some digging, she actually found a children's novel that would relate to their upcoming unit. A Paradise Called Texas by Janice Jordan Shefelmen told the story of a young girl, Mina, and her family's emigration from Germany to Texas in the mid-19th century. Instead of plowing through dates and facts that students weren't going to remember anyway, she wanted to take a reading approach to the next section of social studies.
She couldn't simply read aloud all day, though. As much as her students might like it, there wasn't a novel about every subject. Thinking about what made her read alouds such a bright spot, she thought she had a reason. She loved reading to her students and she became very animated when making the characters come to life. That stood in contrast to mathematics, a subject she shied away from because it wasn't her strong suit.
To try and change the dynamics of her math instruction, she decided that she'd start each lesson with a word problem for her students to solve. She'd have to write it herself but she could easily create a little scenario involving some of her students that required the use of whatever skill they were working on that day. The word problem, which she'd read out with the same energy as a read aloud, would start the math block and also serve as the conclusion as students worked to solve the personalized problem and checked the answer at the end of the lesson.
Action: Think about a bright spot that you had with your students last week. Think about what made it so great and how you could replicate some of its principles in other areas of your daily instruction.
Reflection questions: When you think about the past, do you spend more time dwelling on failures or analyzing successes? If you pour over your mistakes, does that tend to motivate you to change or depress you? How might focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses give you the energy to improve?
Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2011). Switch: how to change things when change is hard. Random House.
To read Day 23, click here.