[This post was also published on the British Council Teaching English blog. ]
I’m two weeks into a new course with a new class and one of the questions on the BC blog this month got me thinking about how I think about this class – and classes in general. Reflection is a slippery beast. It happens in the most inconvenient places and at the most inconvenient times. Washing up, walking the dog, waiting for a bus. Times and places when I can let thoughts and ideas run through my mind, but there’s nothing to pin them down. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, quite the opposite, but it’s not great if you want to capture and act on your reflections. And I started to think about how I do that, and how maybe I could do it more efficiently.
My first tool is my mini notebook that I carry around with me most of the time. This is where I jot down lesson plans, reminders for exercises and tasks, questions and doubts. This isn’t where I reflect as such, but it helps me to reflect. It helps me to look back at the lesson plan and compare the ideas on paper with what actually went on in class. It helps me look at the differences between the plan and the reality and think about how and why things worked out differently and whether that was good or bad or just different. Planning all the lessons for the same class in the same notebook helps when it comes to trying to capture an overview of what we’ve done so far, but also in strengthening links between lessons, planning consolidation and review, building on what has gone before.
My second tool is the lesson summary. This is a system that I’ve been using for some years with most classes. Basically we, me and the students, take it in turn to write summaries of the classes and share them with the group by email or on a blog. It takes a bit of time to set up, as do all systems and routines, but I think it’s worth it. Initially my main aim was to get students to review their classes, to take stock of their learning, to keep personal records of the work they were doing inside and outside class, basically to stop and reflect. But as a by-product I’ve found they also give me a space for reflecting that’s more structured than the washing up. Seeing the classes from the students’ point of view is really useful. Summarising an hour and a half, two hours, of work into a few hundred words is also incredibly useful when it’s my turn. It really helps me step back into the class, think about the language and the learning rather than the activities, try to highlight the “teachable/learnable” moments and put those into words.
We often kick off the next class by taking a quick look at the summary from the previous class and giving time for any questions that might have been left unanswered. This allows for another moment for reflection and helps me see what the students need from me. Which brings me to my third reflection tool: post-its. For each class I have a folder, and in the folder I have a stack of post-its. They usually serve for on-the-hoof micro writing tasks, but they’re also there for me to jot down ideas during the lesson for things to come back to at the end, or in the next lesson, or questions to think about as I plan my next lesson. I never know at the time where or how that post-it is going to fit in, but it sits there in the folder to jog my memory when I come to reflecting on one class and preparing the next.
I think I could definitely structure my reflections much more efficiently, and sometimes, when a class poses a particular challenge, then blogging becomes the best tool I know. Having to think through my thoughts clearly enough to be able to put them into words that I’m willing to make public is the best reflection tool I’ve found. Laying down action plans and areas for informal classroom research in a blog post helps me stick to them. It’s a kind of external commitment. And being able to “talk” through the lesson with an imaginary listener/reader is great. But it does take time, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. In which case I always have the kitchen sink, my mini notebooks and my stack of post-its.