"We learn to understand ourselves through explaining ourselves to others." - Kathleen Yancey
When I was in college (the first time), I took a photography class that required us to use a clunky manual camera to produce a set of photographs utilizing complicated techniques/settings. We then utilized the darkroom to develop the pictures and hoped the desired outcomes were achieved. There was one more thing, however, if you were not able to produce the image correctly, an allowance was made by the instructor to submit a paper explaining why you were not able to achieve your goal. A reflection (on the process), perhaps? This article brought me back to that time and got me to thinking about my professor’s teaching practice…..
Flash-forward nearly 20 years to this past summer here, at Kean. As part of the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute, I found myself, again, being asked (perhaps in a much more direct way this time) to reflect on my learning in a way I had never before been asked. Weekly reflections regarding the journey I was taking were (required) to be posted on the blog, and the class culminated in a lengthy “reflective overview” about my experience. Little guidance was given as to what these reflections should focus on, aside from connecting them to our work in the course. I found this process invaluable. When I sat down to write my reflections, I never quite knew where the writing would take me, but I found myself growing and learning more about myself-both as writer and a person-through this process. That being said, being a “jump-right-in” sort of person, I knew I had to give my own students this same opportunity for development. So, on day one of my new school year, I introduced my class to their new “reflective journals.” I fully explained my expectations and reasoning for the journal to my 5th graders and sent them off to “reflect” (twice a week on days of their choice, to be collected each Friday, to be exact). The students’ reflections on their own writing were eye-opening. I knew right away this was something they needed to continue to do!
Published in 1998, “On Reflection” is chapter one of Kathleen Yancey’s book entitled Reflections in the Writing Classroom. Yancey begins with a discussion of research studies done in the 70’s and 80’s surrounding the writing process, with a focus on that of Perl, Flowers and Hayes. She is quick to point out that these studies lacked any real focus on the idea of revision. She goes on to acknowledge current theory’s (Cultural Studies/post-process) widening view of the writing process. Still, aside from a piece by Pianko published in 1979, Yancey notes the lack of scholarship linking reflection and the composing process. She finds common ground with the earlier process researchers in the way in which students were looked at as “agents of their own learning.” “Ask ‘em” she says is one way to extract the knowledge she was looking to find. Basically, her idea of this reflective encompasses knowing what we’ve achieved, articulating it, and the product resulting from those processes. Yancey points out the the surge in interest in reflective process stems from the growing interest in the assessment of student work. I was somewhat surprised by the relatively large amount of text devoted to the ways in which human development psychologists’ theories (Vygotsky, Piaget, Dewey) connected to reflection. However, I appreciate his connections and explanations. I was particularly struck by Dewey’s quote which said, “While we cannot be taught to think, we do have to think how to think well.” I have to admit that there are times when I just want to scream “How can I teach my students to THINK?!?” This statement allows me to consider a more optimistic view on my role in their learning process. In addition, the psychologists’ concept of language being “a tool of conveying knowledge and assisting thought” had me perplexed when thinking about what impact it must have on the ESL writer. I liked the analogy comparing the two kinds of knowing to the “technical and the non-technical realm,” which made clear the idea that a classroom is latter and, therefore, messy and unpredictable, thus requiring the “expertise of its participants.” Yancey ends her piece with an anecdotal account of her experience in conferencing with students. “...little correspondence was made between my reading of their text and their account of what went into the making of that text,” she says. Yancey concludes with expressing her desire for reflection to be “woven into the curriculum,” but adds that the idea of requiring students to be responsible for their own agency seems oppressive. Unfortunately, after a seemingly convincing argument, the chapter ends with a somewhat contradictory stance on the whole issue of infusing reflective practice in the writing classroom. Hmmmm….
All of this ties in nicely with Sommers’ article, “Responding to Student Writing” (1982), in which she ponders the question: “Are they(our comments) making our students better writers? Sommers grapples with whether or not teachers’ comments effectively communicate their ideas and contends that such comments should be made during the process rather than after the writing process is complete. She begins her article by summarizing a study examining the commenting styles of teachers. In the study, 35 teachers from 2 universities wrote comments on a set of papers from 3 selected students, which were then analyzed for form and content. Simultaneously, a computer program called “Writer’s Workbench” was used to analyze the papers. I had never heard of this program and am interested in its capabilities and applications in the classroom. It was explained that within minutes it spit back a list of suggestions regarding a variety of mechanical errors with the writing. Here, I wondered what the program would have to “say” if asked to analyze a professional author’s prose. It might be interesting to see. Her research revealed a myriad of problems with the teachers’ commenting choices and discussed the possible negative outcomes of such. I found it also interesting that the teachers claimed that commenting was never part of their formal training. I would have to agree with that sentiment. The entire time I was reading this article, I had connections to my own commenting practice in the classroom which is simple: We don’t do it. At all. Ever. Through my training in the Writer’s Workshop curriculum, I have been taught and have gotten in the habit of not commenting on student papers. No red pen in my classroom. We teach general revision strategies that are transferrable to their own texts and future texts through modeling via whole-group (self-revision), utilize partner revisions strategies, and engage in daily teacher conferencing sessions, rather than commenting. These strategies are ALWAYS used during the process, rather than after. This article reinforced my confidence in using these methods. I agree with the concept of leaving the grammar and mechanic errors until the end in favor of working on developing the meaning and coherence of the piece first. In fact, the rubric allows for some errors “as long as they do not interfere with the overall meaning of the piece.” A lasting impression was made on me when Sommers declared that we should “force students back into the chaos” of their writing. I find that students get very attached to their first drafts but they quickly learn that they should be just that: drafts. Together, we muck them up and put them back together. Reflective Writing Curriculum Book