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I recently read an article by Michael Griffin and Manpal Sahota about improving one’s teaching through reflective journal writing.  It inspired me to write about my own amazing experience that proved their point.

When I am training teachers to reflect on their experiences, I ask them “What evidence can you point to that supports your interpretation?”  Evidence is our objective description of what did or didn’t happen. If we can’t point to something concrete that we observed, our interpretations may be faulty, incomplete, and even completely wrong.  I’m such a believer in the power of reflective practice that I always tell teachers if they just take one thing away from the course, it should be the skill of rigorous, disciplined reflection.

So is my belief in the value of reflection based on evidence?  Here’s my story:

In early 2014, at the end of a teacher-training course in Korea, feedback from the teachers indicated that I needed to work on giving clear instructions.  I brought it up at the farewell lunch with co-trainer Phil Thompson. Phil responded that he over-models how to do an activity to such a point that he worries he’s being patronizing.  (I later realized that Phil’s humility was really his graceful way of suggesting that I needed to work on modeling when giving instructions.)

On the 12-hour flight home to San Francisco, I had an inspiration. After a month working with talented trainers like Phil Thompson and German Gomez, who consistently walk the talk, modeling what we trainers say we believe about experiential learning and reflection, I decided to work on improving my instructions-giving by keeping a reflective journal.

My intention to purposefully reflect on how I give instructions and what helps and hinders students’ ability to understand immediately changed how I felt about the upcoming spring term. Suddenly, I thought of my class of adult immigrant beginners as my laboratory, where I could try things out, experiment with various techniques.  There would be no failures, and no disasters; whatever happened would simply be the results of an experiment.  Through reflection, I would process those results, and come up with action plans for the next experiment – the next class session.  This was positively liberating. In fact, it was exciting!

Here’s how it worked:  while planning my lessons, I resolved to actually write down word-for-word how I would say the instructions, how I would model the activity, and what I would write on the board.  Before going to class, I would write a bit in my reflective journal about my plans, especially about anything new I was going to try out, or something I feared would be challenging. Then I went to class, to conduct my experiment.  I noticed that before class I was much more relaxed, thinking “Whatever happens will happen. We’ll see.”

After class, I would have my usual reactions:  something worked really, really well and I was thrilled to be a teacher, and/or something failed horribly and I was the worst teacher on the planet.  I’m my harshest critic, practicing focalism,  a cognitive bias where I devote disproportional attention to the negatives.  While I drove home, I “reflected” on the puzzles from my lesson, but it was the intuitive, gut reaction, undisciplined kind of reflection that we all do automatically, and which often leads us to inaccurate conclusions. For the life of me, even with the intention of reflecting rigorously, I simply couldn’t do it in the car.

Once home, I immediately pulled out my reflective journal.  (I had “borrowed” one of the blank journals we give teachers taking the Korean course.) Then I sat and wrote.  I first wrote an objective description of a slice of the lesson where giving instructions was critical – whether successful or unsuccessful.  The description included everything I could remember about what I said and did, and what students said and did, and whatever else seemed like it might be relevant: the materials, how students were grouped, the environment in the classroom, etc.

Then I started writing interpretations.  This is where the magic happens in reflective practice.  What I couldn’t do in my head, in the car, literally poured out of me once I sat down with my journal and pen. I wrote down my initial gut reaction as to why something went the way it did, but I also came up with many other possible interpretations that I hadn’t thought of, and wouldn’t have thought of, if I hadn’t been doing this written reflection.  When I say this is where the magic happens, what I mean is that when we learn to reflect rigorously, we insist on 1) getting as much evidence down as possible, in the description, and then 2) coming up with multiple interpretations of the evidence, even if at first we’re certain that our initial instinct is correct.  It’s the multiple interpretations, which invariably turn out to be revealing and to contain precious truths, that make reflective practice such a powerful tool. 

Here’s an example of multiple interpretations.  During a Q&A activity to practice the use of the prepositions “on” and” next to,” I observed many students asking “What’s on next to the book?” using both prepositions together. I don’t remember what my preliminary conclusion was as I drove home that day, but I see in my journal that I came up with eight different interpretations of why students might have been using both options together in the same sentence!  Some of them had to do with how I gave instructions or modeled the activity.  Some had to do with the materials students were asked to use for the activity.  Some were more fundamental:  about whether I had sequenced and scaffolded previous activities so that students were ready for this one.  Each interpretation led to generalizations about what helps students, and to specific action plans for me to implement in the future.  My favorite action plan from this particular reflection was  “Don’t let the textbook push me around!”

Every experiment/class/reflection that spring term resulted in action plans, which I would implement in the next class session.  Here’s an example from the first post-teaching entry in my reflective journal:

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For me, hand-writing in a real journal was absolutely essential.  I have no idea why, or even how I knew to begin with paper and pen, since it has been years since I abandoned notepads in favor of the computer. In any case, I am certain that my reflections wouldn’t have generated so many ideas if I had done them on the computer.

This process turned the not-so-successful events in my classroom into useful evidence, which I analyzed so I could keep tinkering with how I gave instructions.  This produced a subtle, but wonderful shift in my attitude about my class, and about myself as a teacher.  It really invigorated my practice.  I tried all kinds of things that term. Some I ultimately rejected, others I still do.  Here’s an example of something I developed back then and I still do it now: I keep the upper left corner of the white board reserved for instructions.  There are permanent bullets and I add the details for each activity:

 Who?  (solo, partners, table group)

What?  (point to pictures, ask and answer questions)

Page?  (worksheet, page 72)

How many times?  (each partner 5+ times)

How long? (5 minutes)

When I’m giving the instructions, I stand near the Instructions Corner of the board, I point to the bullets, and I ask Comprehension Checking Questions (CCQs) like “Are you going to work solo, or with a partner?”  Then I tell students to begin the activity, before I move away from the Instructions Corner, so they know they can stop listening to me and focus on their task.

The reflective journal also helped me maintain realistic, healthy expectations for myself:  sometimes my instructions will be ineffective, sometimes a model of clarity.  And that’s ok. It’s the path, not the destination, that I’m focused on.

Did that spring term of written reflection result in permanent improvement?  Yes and No. I’m much better at giving instructions, and it’s no longer mentioned in trainees’ feedback at the end of courses.  I’ve even developed a fun and effective workshop on Giving Clear Instructions (which I do partly in Haitian Creole). But, as I re-read the journal I kept back then, I re-discovered some “ah-hahs” that I’d totally forgotten about. And that’s another reason to keep a written reflective journal. I will recycle some of those ideas, just in time for the new class that begins next week!

Taking that leap.

Josette LeBlanc recently blogged about “Taking the Leap” and “Playing Big,” Josette inspired me to try to start a Reflective Practice group here in Marin County, north of San Francisco. And I took the leap!  I invited all of the alumni of SIT courses in the “north bay” and all of the volunteer teachers at the Canal Alliance in San Rafael, where I teach.  Nearly 30 people signed up for the first meeting on June 14th.  So here’s how the “Playing Big” framework looks for me right now:

1. It gets you playing bigger now, according to what playing bigger means to you.

The chance for ESL teachers, who are often quite isolated here, to share ideas, grow and support one another. 

2. It can be finished within one to two weeks.

Well no.  My hope is that the group will become self-sufficient and that others will want to join me as coordinators and facilitators.  There is a lot of talent and experience to draw on!

3. It’s simple: an action that you could describe in a short phrase.

My phrase is – to facilitate a monthly reflective practice group for ESL teachers.

4. It gets your adrenaline flowing because a leap stretches you out of your comfort zone.  

At first it was scary, but then I started to get so excited and inspired by the possibilities.  In fact the planning and research I did put me in closer touch with Josette (a huge blessing!) and with Zhenya Polosatova and Wilma Luth, and even got me to start my own blog, which I never, ever even contemplated until the day it seemed like the next logical step! 

5. A leap puts you in contact with the audience you want to reach or influence.

I wanted to do start this RPG for two reasons: The first is the same reason that I became a trainer:  there are so many generous, hardworking ESL teachers who really want to make a difference in their students’ lives.  I want to help them become really effective teachers, so that they can fully realize their goals.  And the other reason is that I deeply believe that reflective practice is the most valuable tool teachers can have in their tool box.

Recently, Robert Reich interviewed David Brooks, for City Arts and Lectures, about Brook’s recent book, The Road to Character. (It’s about how we’re focused on developing “resume values” and have lost track of “eulogy values.”)  Reich asked Brooks why he wrote the book.  This is how David Brooks answered:

“I was in Frederick, Maryland, and I ran into some ladies, age fifty to eighty, who teach immigrants English and how to read. And it can take up to several years to learn this. It’s a very slow process.  And I walked into a room with them and they just radiated goodness, and they’re patient and they’re calm, and they make you feel valued & important, and they listen to you, and they’re not thinking about what great work they’re doing, they’re just not even thinking about themselves.  And so I remember thinking, I’ve achieved more career success than I ever imagined, but I haven’t achieved that inner beauty.”

This is my first post, ever.  I wanted to participate in the RP Reading Club started by my colleague Zhenya Polosatova, which is how I came to read the article I’m about to comment on.  Another reflective colleague, Wilma Luth, has already posted about her response to the article.  How wonderful to see the many dimensions through others’ eyes! 

Here is my take on the same article: Teacher Training, Development, and Decision Making: A Model of Teaching and Related Strategies for Language Teacher Education, by Donald Freeman  TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1 (27-45)

In 1989, Donald Freeman observed that language teacher education programs were focused on transmission of knowledge about applied linguistics, language acquisition, and methodology. He bemoaned the lack of focus on becoming an effective teacher.  Sadly, twenty-six years later, most of the ESL/EFL teacher training programs in my sphere of awareness are still, as Freeman wrote, “overlooking the core – teaching itself.”

Freeman proposed a framework for language teacher education consisting of two strategies for evolving the individual teacher’s craft:  Training and Development. (Freeman used both of these terms in the context of educating preservice teachers.)  Training and Development, both essential, are two different modes of collaboration between the teacher-trainer and the teacher-in-preparation.

Training, in Freeman’s model, is the transmission of knowledge and skills.  Knowledge is the subject matter (English, or another language), knowledge of the students, the context, and so on.  Skills are such things as presenting material, giving instructions, correcting errors, etc.  Training, as a strategy, is initiated by the teacher-trainer and focuses on discrete knowledge and skills.  The teacher-trainer knows both the questions and the answers.   These components of Training are what was being taught when Freeman put forward his model, and they are still, as far as I can see, the essence of what is taught in most MA-TESOL programs as well as some TESOL certificate programs.  Based on Freeman’s description, I see the Training strategy being applied in a trainer-fronted classroom, with teachers-in-preparation as the students. 

It’s Freeman’s exposition of the partner strategy, Development, that interests me today.   His concept of Development hinges on Awareness and Attention: the capacity to recognize, monitor and engage in some aspect of what is happening in the classroom.  Awareness scans the classroom and allows the teacher to focus Attention on something specific.

In the Development strategy, the role of the teacher-trainer is to draw teachers’ Awareness towards some aspect of what is happening, to focus their Attention in order to help them begin to reflect critically on their classroom practice.   This is usually done by asking questions, such as What do you think was going on with that student who didn’t participate? or How do you think the student felt when X happened?  Unlike Training, Development is a dialogue initiated by the trainer in a classroom fronted by the teacher-in-training, with language learners as students.  In Development, the trainer is helping teachers expand Awareness of what they do, and the impact of their behavior in the classroom.  The trainer must recognize the issues, but the solutions are the teacher’s alone.  Freeman says this is the critical difference between Training and Development.   Wilma Luth, in her response to Freeman’s article, discusses the value of a “shift in awareness.”

What stands out for me is that Development, viewed as a partner strategy to Training, is where a teacher learns to be effective.  And clearly Development must take place in an actual classroom with real students.  But this incredibly important and obvious aspect of language teacher education is missing from most MA-TESOL programs and some TESOL certificate programs.  There may be a practicum or internship, but it’s often casually arranged, and the teacher-trainer isn’t present.  It may be just a few, or even just a single teaching session, observed by someone who isn’t necessarily part of the dialogue between the teacher-trainer and the teacher-in-development.  The observation culminates in a checklist of knowledge and skills demonstrated by the teacher (aspects of Training, not Development).  As Freeman says, “Practicums and internships are often seen as the panaceas that will provide the missing link between knowledge and implementation.”  But they serve little purpose if the trainer isn’t present in the classroom, and if there isn’t a sustained development dialogue.

I am grateful to be able to train teachers in contexts where the Development dialogue — raising the teachers’ Awareness of what happens in the classroom — is at the center of their education.  And I’m sad for the teachers who aren’t in such programs, who don’t get the Development half of their teacher training, and who, when they finish their degree or certificate, still don’t feel prepared to teach.