“Reflecting on our practice also provides us with the substance of our stories.”
Vignette 1: February 10, 2014
It’s one week before the big final exams. I’ve instructed the students to form small groups and they’ve gotten together with their friends. The groups are well balanced level-wise. I pass out a set of review worksheets. I tell them that they have two class periods (100 minutes) to make the best use of their time together to prepare for the exam. Here is what I see:
- One of the groups pulls out their pencils and starts completing the review sheet. They are combing through their notes, filling in blanks, writing out paragraphs.
- Another group is working together, checking answers with each other, practicing completed dialogues, switching roles, practicing again.
- The last group is working on complex sentences. They take a bare-bones conversation and attach adverbial after adverbial to the end of each line of dialogue. Eventually, everything they say is like a teetering Frankenstein monster about to topple over under its own weight.
Ten minutes tick by and the group of heads-bent-over-their-desks hard working individuals shows no sign of doing anything but completing the worksheets in front of them. I ask them if just filling in the blanks is going to be enough for them to pass the speaking part of the test. A-San looks at me and says, “Do you want us to practice talking?” Yes, I think. That’s exactly what I want you to do. But I don’t say that. I say, “This is your time to work together to get ready for the exam.” Twenty more minutes tick by and one of non-talkers calls me over check if she’s understood the instructions for the last two sections of the review sheet. The sections which have no conversational content at all. The members of the group have now completed the conversational activities without having discussed anything other than spelling. “If you spend the rest of the class time doing the last sections of the review sheet, when will you have time to practice the conversation parts of the test,” I ask. My tone of voice is a little higher than it needs to be. I can hear the whine of a warning whistle in it. So can the students in the next group over who stop what they are doing to watch and see how things are going to play out. I’m defeated. I take a breath and flat out tell the non-communicative group that the dialogues which require some creativity and impromptu can really only be practiced in class. That they should take a look around at how other students are studying. That they should think about what it means to work together. And that yes, they should spend some time practicing speaking. And then I add, “or you can just break your desks apart and do the worksheets in different corners of the room. There’s really no need for you to be sitting in a group.” I spend the rest of the class time with that hollowed out feeling that comes with moments like this. I know how the Tin-Man felt, when he wished for nothing more than a heart.
Donald Freeman (as cited in Bailey, 1997) highlights the fact that teaching is more than just knowing what to teach, or even knowing the ways in which to teach it, but a dynamic interplay that requires a constant alteration of the what and how of teaching to meet the needs of the students in class at a particular time. Teaching is, “knowing what to do” within a very specific context, a context which is changing all the time. It’s like an orchestra conductor whose musicians are all playing instruments tuned to their own emotional pitch. I have a score that I would like to follow, but if I just start waving my baton around and giving directions, I’m going to end up with something that’s more noise than music. As a human, I often find myself simply reacting to what happens in class. It’s a series of stimulus-response moments. Reflection is taking the time to look at those moments, framing them in context, and trying to more clearly see what actually happened. I write class notes and keep a teaching journal hoping to increase the chances of making more music than noise the next time around. Do I need to be more clear with my directions? Do I need to check in with the students and see if they are planning to practice the conversation parts of the test with each other after school? Do I need to find a way to be more encouraging and provide positive feedback so students can recognise the importance of group work without such a heavy hand on my part? Reflection is my commitment to the fact that I am, always, a teacher-learner who is in the process of finding my footing and gradually learning this thing of “knowing what to do.”
Vignette 2: January 9, 2014
The winter break is over. Students are in the class and I am wondering what kind of impact the long vacation has had on my students. I’ve prepared a warm up activity that Anna Loseva has shared on #FlashMobELT. Students write out 4 or 5 hashtags about their winter vacation. Things like #grandmothersHouse, #TokyoDisneyLand, and #watchTV. Once they have their hashtags ready, they share them with other students who have to take the hashtags and use them as the base to make a series of guesses about what their partner did during vacation. As the students talk, I walk around the room and jot down some of the language that the students are using. After class, I go over the language with one of the other teachers in my program. Students’ conversations typically followed this pattern: “You went to Tokyo. You went to Tokyo Disneyland. You went with your family. You stayed for 3 days. You had a good time.” While going over the students’ language, my coworker wondered why I hadn’t pushed the students to produce more connected sentences as the activity was going on. He wondered what was the learning benefits of not challenging the students to produce more complex language. In all honesty, I had no idea why I didn’t jump in and see if students could have bumped up their language a bit.
John Fanselow (1988) points out that, “Each event we see can be interpreted in ways different from our usual ways of doing it because we are each limited by the ideas of reality we have.” Walking into class after winter break, I had decided that my students’ English had grown rusty with disuse. I had decided that what I needed to do was measure the thickness of this rust, like a mechanic grumbling about a negligent car owner. With one simple question, my coworker had helped me step out of the role I had made for myself and my students. Peter Maingay (1988, p. 119-129) says, “Much of what a teacher does in a language-teaching classroom is ritual behaviour rather than principled behaviour. The most important role of an observer…is that of making teachers think about what they do: of drawing their attentions to the principles behind the rituals, of leading them away from ritual behaviour towards principled behaviour.” One of my core beliefs is that my job as a teacher is not to just wind up the clockwork of activities and watch as students go through the motions. My job is to identify moments where learning can take place. I could have written up a their sentences on the board and then added a list of possible connectors next to them. I could have modelled a series of slightly more complex sentences one-on-one with students who were struggling. I could have helped them take the next step. I could have expected more from them. And from me. But to do these things, I needed to be aware of the assumptions that I carried with me into class. Identifying those assumptions often means sharing what I did in my classes with others. Reflection is my commitment to invite members of my community into my classroom. It is a promise to gather as much data about my classes and share it with others as honestly as I can. And finally, it is a willingness to put aside the hard shell of defensiveness and accept another point of view as the gift it is meant to be.
Vignette 3: January 13, 2014
Classes are over for the day. Most of the students are heading home, book bags slung over the shoulder, uniform neckties loose and just waiting to be removed. I’ve invited the International Course students to come and talk to me about the extensive reading program. It’s voluntary, and I figure maybe 3 or 4 students might drag themselves to room 403 to chat about the past few months of ER sessions. But the door opens and students file in and file in and file in. 12 students come in and we all sit down in a big circle. I throw out the first question:
Kevin: How did you feel when we first started ER?
S1: It was interesting. I had never just read a book in English class before.
S2: And it was really fun. I only read really easy books so I could understand everything. I used to read like 7 books a class.
S1: Yeah, but then I got better and started reading harder books. Sometimes I didn’t want to read a hard book. But I also didn’t want to read a book at a lower level either. That also would have felt bad. So I kind of felt like I was stuck.
S3: But I think reading like this is really necessary.
S4: I think so, too. But 20 minutes is too long. I think we can read for 10 minutes every day.
S5: Sometimes I can’t concentrate. Sometimes I’m just too sleepy to read.
S1: I’m always too sleepy to read. [laughter]
S6: When we do reading after lunch, it’s just impossible.
Kevin: What was the first book you read?
S1: Floppy. Lot’s of books with Floppy.
S5: The Magic Key. I loved those books. I think they went to a castle first.
S3: The one about that Biff kid.
Kevin: I was worried that you guys would think the books were too childish. Did you mind reading those kinds of books?
S1: If it was a Japanese children’s book it would be different. But it’s English. The pictures are all different. And the words are all different. It’s really fresh.
S7: They are still my favourite books to read. I wish we had more difficult children’s books. It like we have super easy children’s books or difficult adult books.
Kevin: What do you think you’ve gotten out of the ER program.
S8: English became easier to read. [all the students laugh]
S3: I increased my memory. Now I can hear and remember whole sentences in English.
As I’ve run the ER program, I’ve taken class notes, written in my teacher journal, and also collected a bunch of hard data to use to reflect on how things have been moving along. Over the weeks and months, students reading level as judged by text difficulty, reading speed per minute, and vocabulary have all shown marked improvement. But that’s only part of the story. That’s just so many numbers, hard and black on the page. So today I wanted to take the time to hear what it was like to take 20 minutes a day, two days a week to read in class. And the students told me their stories. Together we recognised the fact that ER, at least this year, for them, worked. “A sense of guilt and failure is common among teachers, and we rarely take the time to consider what gives us confidence in our teaching.” With this one sentence, Head and Taylor (1997, p. 30) highlight an aspect of reflective practices that is often forgotten as we pull our data together and look at our teaching again through the magnifying glass of memory. Reflection is not about finding fault. Like all learners, teacher-learners need the sunlight of success to continue to grow. Reflective practice means taking the time and making the space to recognise and celebrate success. Success as a teacher; the success of my students; the success of all of us as learners.
Celebrating that success requires including my students’ experiences, in their own words, in the process. Which isn’t hard to do once I realise that my students care about me in the same way I care about them. They spend their free time talking with me about what they got out of ER classes, or asking about my daughter, or making suggestions for tomorrow’s classes because, they too are hoping I can become more fully myself as I move from day to day.
Reflective practice, like teaching itself, is something that changes and develops as I continue to explore what it means to teach. Any mission statement I make now will most likely change over time. Perhaps in a week. Perhaps in a month. But for now, I am grateful to John Pfordresher at Observing the Class for the nudge to look at how I reflect on my teaching. And I want to thank all the other teachers who took part in this challenge (Ann Loseva, Anne Hendler, Hana Ticha, David Harbinson, Rose Bard, and Josette LeBlanc). You have helped me to tell the story of what it means to me to be a reflective teacher. And knowing that someone will be there to listen as I grope for the words to tell the story of my teaching is, for now, the final part of my mission statement. Reflective practice is the belief that what I have to say matters and, more importantly, the faith (and dumb good luck) that the teachers in my life always will be there to listen.
Reflective Practice Mission Statement
- Reflection is my commitment to the fact that I am, always, a teacher-learner who is in the process of finding my footing and gradually learning this thing of “knowing what to do.”
- Reflection is my commitment to invite members of my community into my classes. It is a promise to gather as much data about my classes and share it with others as honestly as I can. And finally, it is a willingness to put aside the hard shell of defensiveness and accept another point of view as the gift it is meant to be.
- Like all learners, teacher-learners need the sunlight of success to continue to grow. Reflective practices is about taking the time and making the space to recognise and celebrate success. Success as a teacher, the success of our students, and all of our successes as learners.
- Reflective practices means including my students’ experiences, in their own words, in the process. Because my students care about me in the same way I care about them. We are all hoping to help each other become more fully ourselves as we move from day to day.
- Finally, reflective practices is the belief that what I have to say matters and, more importantly, the faith that the teachers in my life will be there to listen.
[A special thank you to Kathleen Bailey and her amazing article Reflective teaching: Situating our stories. Much of my inspiration regarding reflective practices, observation and assessment has flowed from her insights. The false turns and meandering of this blog post, however, are wholly my own.]
Bailey, K. M. (1997). Reflective teaching: Situating our stories. Asian Journal of English Language Teaching, 7(1), 1-19.
Fanselow, J. F. (1992). Contrasting conversations. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Freeman, D. (2001). Second language teacher education. In R. Carter & D. Nunan (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (pp. 72-79). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Head, K. & Taylor, P. (1997). Readings in teacher development. Oxford: Heineman.
Maingay, P. (1988). Observation for training, development or assessment. In T. Duff (ed.) Exploration in teacher training: problems and issues. London: Longman Group.