It’s a new year and this will be my 100th blog and podcast, so I’ve been thinking about reflection, the mental process of looking back and then looking forward. My two favorite books on how to develop good habits and improve behavior are Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman and The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Both books deal with how to set future goals by understanding past behavior. Eagleman argues that most of our behavior happens below consciousness and if we want to grow, learn, develop, and improve, we must have a plan that takes into account our former selves. Duhigg, on the other hand, writes about institutional change and the power of listening to all stakeholders. We should try a similar approach in our classrooms.
It’s important to give students the opportunity to identify what they need to improve on and create a plan that will help them achieve their goals. I allow students to list a few short goals after I hand back an essay and then at the end of each quarter. They can reflect on specifics in their writing or bigger things like how they will avoid procrastinating, complete the reading, or develop better work habits.
Teachers should also engage in actively reflecting on their curriculum and pedagogy by informally and formally asking for feedback from students. Sometimes I can be casual with students and verbally ask them what kind of activity they’d like to do to complete the work. Or I might have them complete an online survey about their preferences. I recently had my students read the beginning of two different novels, and then they voted on which one they wanted to study and read.
Teachers can also engage in reflection outside the classroom by getting fresh ideas and resources from other teachers. New teachers can benefit from the years of trial and error from more experienced teachers. But it’s also easy for experienced teachers to fall into a predicable rhythm by teaching the same texts year after year. Creativity often comes from an unexpected conversation with a colleague or a surprising revelation about how to make life easier. Convention can be the foundation for common sense best practices and convention can also be the weight that slows us down.
In my course, blogs, and podcasts, I’ve tried to focus on making life easier and more fun for teachers who want their students to create personal meaning from literature, think for themselves, and understand the relevance of stories. It’s more important than ever to teach students how to make sense of language and interpret evidence and get creative with visual art, short stories, poems, short films, creative nonfiction, podcasts, video essays, and projects.
It’s a difficult time to teach because of politics and the pandemic, but I still try to find the little things. Last week when we were remote, I had almost half of my class raising their virtual emoji hand to offer their interpretation of a short story. I felt sad thinking about how fun the conversation would be in person, but also laughed a little because it’s just funny to see a bunch of cartoon hands lined up. Life is not easy right now, but our students will remember how hard we tried to stay positive and make this all seem normal.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers