Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Importance of Critical Reflection

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

Last week, I taught a class that was a bit of a train wreck.

This semester, every Monday and Wednesday morning, I teach an ESL class of Pre-beginners. I have 14 wonderful students who speak very limited English. They come from all over the world – Iran, China, Syria, El Salvador, Guatemala, Korea and Venezuela – and range in age from 17 to 76. They are truly the most lovely group of students a teacher could ever hope for, and I really enjoy being in the classroom with them.

However, teaching this very (very, very) beginning level is somewhat of a new challenge for me. (My teaching sweet-spot is really high intermediate level classes.) Fall 2017 was my first semester teaching a class of zero-English speakers. This spring, I am teaching the class again, but the “B” section, which means even though it’s the same class, I am using a different text book. So, I am in the middle of another semester of new prep and another semester of wrestling with materials that are not quite low enough in level. (I suspect the experienced teachers out there know exactly what I’m talking about!) This is all to say that this class is somewhat new for me, and there are bound to be hiccups along the way.

The Worst Wednesday Morning Ever

Well, last Wednesday was one gigantic hiccup. The book work was a bit dry and I didn’t create as many opportunities for interaction as I should have done. Also, the students appeared to know their numbers (a change from the class last semester), so I quickly decided to ditch a number review I had planned and leapt right into the collaborative writing activity that was next on my “practice” list. The plan was to give each pair of students a vacation photo and a colored marker. They were supposed to write a sentence based on a stem I projected in a PPT slide. Then, they were going to switch papers with another group and add a second sentence to a different picture based on the second stem, and then switch papers again. (If you are experienced with this level of student, you are probably already shaking your head and wondering what I was thinking.)











I rushed though the instructions and didn’t scaffold the sentence stems the way I should have. Even though we did one sentence together, when I handed out the papers, the students were clearly confused. Some wrote several sentences. Some didn’t write at all. The TA and I were racing around trying to get all of the partners to write the first sentence. Then, getting them to switch papers was like hostage negotiations. In the end, they all got some sentences down on the paper, but it was painful and chaotic for all of us.

There was still 15 minutes left of class time, so I tried to finish the class by showing a video and having the students complete a poorly copied worksheet. By this point, even the strongest students were tired and they only had time to do the first exercise on the worksheet before it was time for them to go home.

Admittedly, the class wasn’t a complete disaster. The students did learn something and enjoyed the first part of the lesson. But, the second hour of the class certainly wasn’t something I want to relive any time soon.

Where Critical Reflection Comes In

So, when I teach this class again in the spring semester of 2019, how can I make sure I don’t do this all over again? Well, certainly, by that time I will have more experience with this level under my belt and I won’t fall victim to the same misconceptions about exactly how complicated an activity can be and still be user-friendly for Pre-beginners. But, I know myself, and chances are that if I do nothing now, when I am reworking my lesson plan this time next year, I’ll see the “Vacation Story Switch Up” and think, “Hmmm. That looks like fun!”

It is at times like this that I am grateful for the teaching experience I had at the International English Institute in Nashville, Tennessee under the supervision of the wonderful Academic Director, Madeline Garr. Madeline used to make all of us teachers leave space in our lesson plans for reflection. We had to write notes after every class about how each activity had gone, what challenges our students experienced and what they enjoyed. Not only did we have to write our reflections every day, but we even had to turn in our reflections at the end of each term for her to check.

At the time, I didn’t mind doing it because I was a fairly novice instructor, and the practice was helpful for me. However, I expected that as I gained experience, I would stop writing down my reflections. And, to some extent, I have. I don’t write lengthy paragraphs anymore, and Madeline isn’t around for quality control. It just takes a lot of time, so when I’ve taught the same class for several semesters, I might find myself just writing a note here or there on my lesson plan to remind myself the next time around.

But, happily, even 25 years into my teaching career, I still sometimes teach new classes like Pre-beginning B, and find myself resorting to my old IEI habit of journalling, albeit in a much less formal way. Here is what I wrote on my lesson plan from that awful Wednesday:

I think journalling like this is really important for teachers who are new or new to a class. Not only does it help me plan better lessons the second time around, but it also helps me to think though why a particular activity bombed in the first place. I guess, simply put, critical reflection makes me a stronger teacher.

I would be very interested in hearing from you and how you critically reflect after you leave a lesson. How do you document success and failure so that you can have more of the former and less of the latter as you move forward?


Comment from Sharlyn Peterson
March 15, 2018 at 8:15 pm

Thank you for a therapeutic belly laugh at your description of getting students to exchange papers: “…getting them to switch papers was like hostage negotiations.” I also led a pair-switch writing activity this week that left my university students and me a bit frazzled as well. I found myself writing reflective notes about doing more prep and modeling for the activity next time.
I work in China, and I recalled watching a Tai chi group practicing in the morning as I left for class. Later, I thought to myself that I’d like my classes to feel more like Tai chi, and less like the first day of jazzercise!

Comment from Tamara Jones
March 16, 2018 at 10:46 am

It’s always nice to hear that my classroom mishaps are not unique! I also LOVE the idea of my classes feeling more like Tai chi, but a little Jazzercise now and again also sounds like fun.

Comment from Kendra
March 19, 2018 at 4:29 am

Been there! Agree 100% re: journaling, etc. Thanks for posting this. Helpful to have reflection from an experienced educator, knowing classes can bomb. As a new teacher, I was doing reflections daily at first, but stopped in the rush to accomplish all the minutiae of teaching (admin, data keeping, meetings, being ready for each class with materials, etc.) and eventually it caught up with me, i.e. lessons reflected lack of reflection and tweaking, which is something I was trained to do and vowed I’d always do! I’d say to anyone new, DO NOT give up the habit of journaling/reflection even for 10 minutes at the end of every day, if you can’t do it at the end of each class period. I kept an e-file for each class and just opened it and added my thoughts/comments in a stream, by date…I found scribbling it on the lesson papers themselves didn’t help as I wasn’t efficient with my paper filing. Don’t save reflection for only when things go wrong, either! Give credit when it’s due when things go well, and recognize what made it go well – was it the students? was it the scaffolding? was it the objective and sequence? Even the best ideas for a lesson can bomb if you haven’t parsed it out and THOUGHT IT OUT THOROUGHLY. My mentor would write nearly 24 pages of lesson sequence for one or two lessons (including the materials students used). I think the continual reinvention of lesson planning teachers must do EACH day to be ready for the next day’s challenges is unique to teaching and unless one is in it, one really can’t understand it. I agree that teachers are highly underrated and underappreciated for all they (aspire to) and do, do! I wish I’d continued my reflections because I have not succeeded as a new teacher and will not be renewed in my contract. I would say reflection is VITAL and is the life blood of what drives a good teacher. No wonder our professors emphasized it to such a degree. Don’t stop reflecting, or you get lazy and accepting of less than your best – and it’s not about you, anyway, reflection helps you remember WHY you’re busting your butt every day – it’s for THE STUDENTS!

Comment from Tamara Jones
March 22, 2018 at 12:59 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Kendra! I am sorry you’ve hit a road block in your teaching career. Don’t give up! It sounds as though you are a conscientious and dedicated teacher. Perhaps you need to think about changing schools. Sometimes it’s all about the right fit.

Comment from Claire McLaughlin
March 27, 2018 at 8:59 am

Thank you for sharing Tamara! It’s nice to know I’m not alone when I have these kinds of days. Your humor is much appreciated!

Comment from Tamara Jones
March 28, 2018 at 6:35 am

I’m delighted this post resonated with some readers! (It’s good to be reminded that we are not alone, isn’t it?) Thanks for your responses.

Leave a comment on this post