Monday, May 26, 2014

Daily Reflection

During my year teaching third grade, I admit that I was absolutely scattered. This was my first year teaching, and I wasn't quite sure what to do or what worked for me, so I tried it all. I used various approaches, attitudes, instructional techniques, and discipline methods. I'll be the first to admit to the inconsistent nature of my teaching this year. It's possible that nothing in my classroom stayed the same from one month to the next.

Well, almost nothing. The constant from August to May was our Daily Reflection writing. We started at the last hour of the first day of class, each student pulling out a spiral notebook from their freshly purchased school supplies, and we wrote at the end of every day, right up to the last day of school. 

The assignment was this: reflect on your day. What made today special? What did you learn? What else is on your mind?

It took some guidance at the beginning, to be sure. We talked about what reflection means, to start with. You see your reflection when you look in the mirror, your very image on a piece of glass in front of you. Writing reflectively is similar--you take what's inside your mind and put it on the piece of paper in front of you. It takes a lot of work, especially if you haven't done it before, because your brain isn't used to thinking this way, and you aren't sure how to articulate your thoughts. It just takes practice.

And we came across many difficulties throughout the year, as well.

Frequently, during reflection time, I saw students sitting, perplexed. "What did we do today?" they would ask, sincerely lost. They honestly couldn't remember what they did six hours earlier. I tried not to help these students too much, for fear that they would become dependent on me to relive the day for them, unable to do it for themselves. I encouraged them to retrace their steps using time, from arriving at school in the morning, to sitting down with their notebook. Occasionally I would prompt with some big event that happened during the day, such as, "Did we do anything special in math?" or "Did anything happen when we got back from lunch?" But I didn't want to put words in their mouth. I told them that I could only reflect from my perspective, not theirs. What was important about the day to me wouldn't be the same as what was important to them. Only they could reflect from their own perspective, and that meant that they would just have to contemplate more. I tried to explain this as gently as possible.

Unfortunately this continued to happen throughout the final week of school for one or two. Even with ten months of practice, these students couldn't recall important events from the day without struggle. There are many explanations for this. The most likely, in my opinion, is that I am the first person to ask this of these children. Their brains weren't used to having to work in this manner, as I told them on the first day, and, for some, ten months just wasn't enough time to adjust. Another is this: by age nine, children generally have the capacity to delve into reflective thought, but, perhaps, when asked to do it on command, they froze, suddenly forgetting everything they held in their mind moments before. A sort of stage fright, perhaps. It's also entirely possible that there was something more serious going on with the student that this occurred most frequently with, as he occasionally showed signs of a minor learning disorder. Surely they couldn't really be floating through life, acting and doing without though, right? Regardless, despite the near-constant struggle, I have faith that this sort of mind exercise was beneficial for those one or two students.

Another set of students wrote down merely the subjects they practiced during the day. An entry like this, for example, may read, "We did math, read a story in the English book, and did three questions in social studies." This may have been a good start at reflective writing, but, unfortunately, I saw this up to the last week for some students, as well, despite how often I reminded them to add more details. "But you do these things every day," I frequently told them. "What made today special? What did you learn today that you didn't know yesterday?" This typically evoking a week of entries such as, "We did page 208 and 209 in math, read a story in the English book, and did chapter 13 in social studies." For some students, this was as many details as I could elicit, and the explanation as to why is probably similar to the above situation--their minds didn't yet have the capacity to think any deeper than that. Surely it couldn't be because they were too lazy to think harder, right? I would have hoped that with ten months of practice, one would make more progress than that, but perhaps that's as much progress as they could handle at the time. Regardless, I have faith that exerting just that level of reflection on a daily basis was helpful.

A third "problem" I came up against was reflection after reflection of only Islamic Studies and Quran lessons. From one student, in particular. I wasn't the teacher for these subjects, so such entries were largely meaningless to me, as I had no way of making heads or tails of what they meant, not sharing the religion. But who am I to say that this wasn't the most important part of his day? Perhaps those classes were the most meaningful to him. Or perhaps he wanted to remember these parts specifically to please his father. It's not my place to say or to make any sort of judgement, so, despite that his entries mainly consisted of what chapter of the Islamic Studies book they were on and how many suras he memorized, I said nothing.

But for the large part, my class of third graders did excellent, starting off slowly and building their way to, in some cases, multi-page reflections of their entire day and considerations of emotions, reasoning, and, occasionally, insights.

It was also a great way to get to know my students. My favorite grading by far (a participation grade, of course) was reading what my students had to say about the different activities we did during the week. I greatly enjoyed hearing each student's different perspective on common events, and frequently I received more information on social issues that helped me better understand situations and give advice, particularly with the girls.

Apart from all of that, apart from how beneficial it is to all students to begin thinking reflectively, or at least in a way they're not used to, one of the most beneficial things our daily reflections gave us was the expectation and practice of writing every day. And writing every day is the only way to become a better writer. So at the very least, I can say that my third graders are writers. Not a bad claim to be able to make, at all.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Initial Reflections of First Year Teaching: On Confidence

Well, this year just happened to me. It definitely wasn't how I expected it to be, but I think I learned a lot. Now if I can somehow articulate... everything.

I haven't touched my blog in literally six months, and that feels very strange to me. I suppose I have reflected just the minimal amount possible, not delving deep into thought once in all that time. And what a sad feeling that is, but I can't be too hard on myself. This was my first year teaching, after all, and I know that I was in survival mode for most of it. Not only was it my first year, but... well, I guess it needs to be said--I worked for a terrible school. One of the things I've come to realize as a young adult is that we aren't actually as put together as we seem to children. We're all just doing the best that we possibly can, winging it most of the time. But that being said, the private "school" I just spent ten months of my life at is honestly just masquerading as a place of education, causing me to make everything up as I went along, forced to reinvent the wheel many times over. It was definitely a learning experience, and I'm grateful for it to be sure, but, oh my goodness, was it stressful! I may want to explore this more when I'm feeling less bitter, because I think I can work some great ideas about what a school needs to be successful out of it, and that would be useful, particularly, because I like to consider thoughts about small, private schools. It's probably all in the hands of administration, really. But come now, enough on that for the moment, and we'll revisit it later. The point is that my thoughts and I have a lot of catching up to do while I decompress from the year and work out what I can make of it.

The first thing that comes to mind when I consider how I have changed from August is that I certainly feel more confident. Though I've been working and volunteering in schools since 2009, even spending a year working full time in a daycare, I could never really say that I felt comfortable with children. I suppose I was still working out what my role was and what it all meant, even up to my first day, no, even through my first few months, of actual teaching. I was uncomfortable speaking, giving lessons, even just standing. I remember thinking to myself, "How does one stand when one is in front of children? The feet go..? And the hands..? Clasped..?" I could never get it right. A direct sign of lack of confidence. I know that for some people, and I'm thinking specifically now of some classmates while I was in college, everything seemed to come naturally. They stood in front of the children and everything just fell into place. That was never me. I was always second guessing myself, stumbling in my speech and awkward.

And to defeat, it took day after day, hour after hour, of just being. First, it was the praxis, the swallowing my fear and awkwardness and just getting up there, speaking when I wasn't sure I had the right words and doing when I wasn't sure I was ready. Turns out that 180 seven-hours days is a lot when it comes to honing skills. Second, honestly, was probably, again, the terrible administration I had to put up with. At first I meekly followed instruction, doing my best to complete what was expected of me, but when faced with challenges, I found myself standing up for the decisions I was making in the classroom. "I am a good teacher, I am doing the right things, and here is my justification as to why," I had to declare many times. Apparently defending your actions to critics day in and day out does wonders for confidence, too.

And here I am today, far from the girl I was. The puzzle pieces of the past fit together to make the present, and every bit of experience makes me who I am now. I am grateful for the struggles of this year and how they only make me stronger.

I have declined signing next year's contract with this school. If nothing changes, it will undoubtedly crumble until nothing is left. It's unfortunate, but I did as much as I could for them. Perhaps in some ways I failed, but I can't allow them to take me down with the ship. There are better things in store for me, and I'm just getting started. Yesterday I hugged 14 third-graders good bye and with that, I started on my next path. Next year I'll be teaching English at a small, rural high school with an administration that appreciates my innovation and enthusiasm. I'm looking forward to reflecting more on this year, but, also, I'm ecstatic to see what kind of amazing things I can bring to the future.