Teaching Reflectively OR How Can I Make This Better?

“Teach reflectively.”

“Practice reflective teaching.”

This is what my professors are constantly asking of me. As part of my student teaching course, we are asked to reflect weekly, in writing, on our week. In other courses, we have given mini-lessons to our peers, in which we received a public critique of our teaching strategies and assessments, and we were asked to reflect on the experience, in writing, afterward. In my English methods course, the professor actually videotaped us and we were forced to watch ourselves perform and reflect on it after receiving our public critique.

But what does it mean to “teach reflectively”? It sounds like the answer should be obvious, but I’m not always sure.

Sometimes, I think it means that I shouldn’t just slap a lesson plan together and expect students to learn. Sure, yeah. That’s it.

Other times, I think it means I should evaluate, post-lesson, whether the lesson sucked based on the level of student engagement (how many people were sleeping during the lesson), if things went smoothly, if I survived.

While I do think there is a piece of both those things in the act of reflection, there is definitely more to it.

Since I’ve been teaching, I have primarily been focusing on the idea of “how can I make this better?” with the added qualifier of “for the students”. I think that last bit is even more important that first part. I would take this even further by adding a “so they can learn” to the equation.

Now just to be clear, I’m not asking “how can I make this lesson less painful” or “how can I make this more fun” or even “how can I keep students awake/on task/etc.” These things are important and implied, but if one is able to answer the question of “how can I make this better for students so that they can learn”, those other things will come.

Let me share my most recent epiphany.

So, I’ve been teaching for a month and a half already. The school I’ve been assigned to is on the Southwest side of inner city Chicago. At this school, many students are challenged with the realities of poverty and violence. Many of my students have had negative school experiences that result in feelings of apathy and, occasionally, hostility toward classwork, homework and authority figures in the school.

Enter me. My cooperating teacher has asked me to teach a poetry unit. I’m excited. I’ve got some classics that I’m so sure that I can get students to like because my enthusiasm is totally going to rub off on them. But I’m realistic, too. I know that maybe even half of the class isn’t going to like poetry and that’s not going to change. Despite being an English nerd, I’m not a huge fan of poetry as I prefer literature, but I know what the “good poems” are and I’m not deterred.

Fast forward a bit. We survived the poetry-poetry part and we’re reading Chaucer now. This is the first big work we’ve tackled since I’ve been here. I thought I hooked the students will my engaging Powerpoint (complete with pictures of characters and some photos of the Canterbury Cathedral from my trip to England…look how fancy!). The students were all (okay a lot, but not all) engaged and nearly everyone took notes and things are going great.

We start the Prologue. Students are lost, heads are down, some are refusing to read, and a fight nearly breaks out in my second period class because of something someone else said on Facebook the night before (I kid you not. I was a bit worried that day). Afterward, I discuss the issues with my teacher. He suggested that I ask more questions of the students about the plot making sure that they know what’s going on. I thought I was doing that. I ask questions all the time. We discuss the meanings of words, references, and the “true meaning” of passages. He suggested I skip some bits that are unnecessary and focus on overarching lessons of the piece. At this point I’m thinking “how can we skip parts? They’re going to miss out on the awesomeness that is Chaucer!”

Nevertheless, I sat down and looked at the work and tried to see it through the students’ eyes. This is hard to do. I’ve read this stuff several times over. In Middle English, no less.I know the plot, I know the references, I know the jokes. The Chaucer course I took in college was one of my favorite courses EVER.

I looked over the questions that I came up with to ask during the reading. They seemed simple enough. If students are following along, they should get it. The answer is right there in the text. I don’t expect them to understand the more obscure stuff, but they should be able to tell me what’s going on. Right?

I remembered in my evening student teaching seminar that someone had mentioned using Bloom’s Taxonomy. I had heard of it and studied it in my Assessment course. I knew how to use it, but frankly I’m not too good about formative assessments (it’s my secret shame). In high school, we did the readings at home and we spent our class time analyzing and picking apart the literature. College was the same way. It was all very Socratic with the teacher asking probing questions and students answering and giving their own thoughts and observations about the work. That’s the approach I generally take when writing my lessons and teaching. I’ve received regular comments from professors about incorporating other teaching strategies, but frankly, it was all very vague. I don’t like to waste my time with worksheets or unnecessary games. I’m all about the text.

But I’m working with real students. I don’t want to fail them. I want them to understand and learn and enjoy being in school. Something’s wrong and I’m not sure what it is. So, I turn to Bloom’s Taxonomy and I think, perhaps there is something that I’m missing.

So I look it up and I stare at the same pyramid of categories (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation) that I’ve seen before. Then, I find this. A website on the practical application of Bloom’s. I looked at the question stems on the website and then I look at my reading questions. Then, my heart sank and I realized completely what I had done.

All my questions were about analysis minus a couple that were about evaluation. I completely skipped any checks for understanding, the base of the Bloom’s pyramid upon which analysis is built. In my preparation, I worked with an assumption that my students would know what was going on. The only thing I checked for in terms of comprehension was making sure that students understood what the more archaic words or phrases meant. I asked a few setting questions, but just looking at the pyramid, I realized I could have asked a ton more questions that would enable students to get a better grasp on what was going on.

I teach in a general education 12th grade English classroom in inner city Chicago. My students are at varying reading levels. Some are on point in terms of college readiness and some should not have passed the last couple grades. Some students are faster with comprehension than others. Some are struggling with understanding and using English language in general and some are struggling with understanding and the use of figurative language.

We don’t have books that the students can take home. Assuming that they did their homework (a lot of it doesn’t ever reach my hand), there is no outside time “let it all sink in”. We read the text aloud in class and I expect my students to “get it” in the moment, answer my deeper questions and move on without a blink.

This is wrong and bad practice. Once I realized my mistake, I added some different types of questions for the next day. I asked students to recap the previous day’s reading. I caught people up to speed. I asked more questions from the Knowledge and Comprehension sections of the pyramid. And nobody tried to start a fight. There was a different “something” in the air and I felt good about class that day.

There are still plenty of students that don’t get it. The poetic and old school language style is difficult. I know that. We’ve struggled with this same issue from day 1 of the poetry unit. Reading poetry is a skill that not everyone has mastered yet. A few have spoken to me after class and I’m trying to work with them to get caught up. In the meantime, we keep reading and I keep asking questions. Some students are able to respond and I work to fill in the blanks. At my cooperating teacher’s prompting, I’m also trying to use the board more and write down some of the key points for students to take notes. I was delighted today when students began to spontaneously take notes without a few choruses of “do you want us to write that down?”

They’re learning. And so am I.

Things aren’t perfect in my classroom. Far from it. Both the students and I are continuing to learn. Today, a student complained that she was tired of all the poetry. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. In another week, we’ll start Hamlet. They are going to really hate me then. I try to stay good-humored about it all as I continue to work to hone my craft. It can be a struggle.

There is a lot of connecting points that I didn’t really get to in this post. I can already see there will be upcoming posts on student engagement and classroom management. These two topics coupled with the topic of this post make up the triumvirate of issues that I’m currently obsessed with. But this is enough for now.


About fenifuego

Just trying to make sense of myself and the world.
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