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How to Reflect through Writing
Judi Fenton

Lately, it is hard not to hear the term "reflective practice" in education circles. As new teachers you've probably been told that it is important for you to be reflective.

But what does this term mean?

My favorite book, at the moment, is At The Heart of Teaching: A Guide to Reflective Practice (McEntee et. al., 2003). In this book, Joseph W. Check and Grace Hall McEntee (2003) say, "For us, reflective teaching is peeling back the layers of our own daily work, looking under the surface of our own teaching, making a conscious attempt to see our teaching selves as students see us, or as an observer in our classroom would. It also means looking at the wider contexts that affect our teaching -- issues of social justice, of school structure, of leadership." They continue, ".reflective practitioners combat passivity, constantly attempting to use their minds and to engage students in the same difficult activity, to dive deeper into their teaching and its effects, rather than drifting on the surface of practice."

There is not one "right" way to be reflective. Teachers struggle to discover what approach to reflection works best for them, together or alone, in pairs, small groups, or as entire faculties. They discuss, write, research, look at student work, look at the lessons and assessments they create, study individual students, and tell their teaching stories, among many other things.

A particularly time-effective approach to reflection is writing about one's experiences and then either sharing this writing or looking at it alone in a systematic way. When I have a problem I am trying to work out or after I facilitate a group or work with a new teacher, I find that by writing about what happened and then analyzing it, I gain perspective and insight into what I think and feel.

Hole and McEntee offer a nice Guided Individual Reflection Protocol, which they adapted from the Critical Incidents Protocol:

  1. Collect stories. Some find that keeping a set of index cards or a steno book close at hand provides a way to jot down stories as they occur. Others prefer to wait until the end of the day and write in a reflective journal.

  2. What happened? Choose a story that strikes you as particularly interesting. Write it out in as succinct a fashion as possible.

  3. Why did it happen? Fill in enough of the context to give the story a sense of meaning. It is impossible to include all the background. Answer the question in a way that makes sense to you.

  4. What might it mean? Recognizing that there is no one answer to this question is an important step. This should be an attempt to explore possible meanings rather than a presentation of what the meaning must be.

  5. What are the implications for practice? Again, this is a step about exploring the possibilities. Tell how your practice might change given any new understandings that have emerged from the earlier steps (p. 52).

The following is a protocol on such reflection that I, and my colleague Lena Cohen, have used successfully with colleagues and with groups of new teachers:

  1. Teachers write for 10-15 minutes about an experience or incident.

  2. Groups of 4-6 teachers share their writing by passing it around and writing affirming and non-judgmental comments in the margins or on post-it notes.

  3. Writing is returned to the writer and she/he reads the comments.

  4. As a group, participants identify overarching themes in the writing.

  5. The group chooses one of these themes and has a discussion around it.

I have found that writing, whether alone or with a group of colleagues, is a wonderful way to reflect on teaching practice.

Do you have a comment or question about this How To? E-mail Judi.


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