WHAT WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?

~The Valuable Role of Reflection

As the world attempts to reinstate “normalcy,” there are clearly different baselines or targets amongst countries.  For the United States, Costco in the news provides but one example. Just before the start of summer, their plans included “beginning a phased return to full sampling,” after 14 long months without offering shoppers microwaved mini tacos for nourishment? Society definitely needs nourishment, though I’m not sure mini-tacos will do.  Or, what about Lollapalooza, a three-day music event that drew 300,000 people in 2015, returning to Chicago from July 29 to August 1? Regardless of what is happening or is planned to happen, I have felt maybe more than ever before, a near mandate to reflect on where we have been.  

As an educator, a sort of responsibility has enshrouded me.  To do due diligence and attempt to make sense, as best I can, of the past school year. To draw out as much learning as possible from the many lessons the pandemic offered, or “forced” depending on how you might see things.  Three immediate if not glaring points stood out:  Change, flexibility, and rebirth.  In this, humanity is in the midst of a quasi-phoenix moment; a rising from the “ashes.” As exciting as the past year was tiring, for some reason, reflecting as thoroughly as I may have liked, continued to be put off.  Not one to procrastinate, this baffled me.

Then the other dayI happened upon a tweet. A teacher tiraded how educators should be left alone, nothing more expected, this is OUR summer and we have done enough to get through the past year.  I understand this sentiment as for many, the past 18+ months maybe have felt like being held underwater and summer finally is a time to come to the surface.  To breathe.  The myriad of unforeseen and often uncompromising situations the force that held us under.  Still, I harken back to an article I wrote a few years ago titled, “You Make a Difference~The Value of Summer Reflection.” Here I outlined the pivotal role of reflection and realigning ourselves to our purpose.  Summer, the essential pause. Yet, also a time to reflect.

 

Summer’s Kick-off

The day summer school teaching finished and summer “officially” began, I received an e-mail from a former student from another school.  The message began, Hey! Jennifer got stabbed in the leg by Wendell at the end of March which complicated the year..” Immediately, I was issued two parts opportunity to lend a consulatory response and one part the ability to gain greater perspective. The timing seemingly perfect, as I still had not done an “honest” job of reflecting on the 2020-21 academic year.  I desperately wanted get to the bottom of the question, “What was that all about? Another year of jostling between on-line and in-person learning.”

And so here I am. There is a ripeness to the moment where the catalyst is space more than time.  

 

Caught Up In The COVID Storm

Before the academic year came to a close, I did not entirely skip reflecting.  Oddly enough, it was something I asked students to do and also something I did with a colleague. Just not alone and to a depth that would appease.  In a final meeting over Zoom, a teaching partner and I met.  We attempted to simultaneously add our thoughts to a straightforward end-of-year reflection template that looked like this:

Biggest success this year: Biggest challenge this year:
Strengths data shows: Areas of growth to focus on:
One thing I learned this year: One thing I want to learn next year:
One change for next year: One goal for next year:

 

Surprisingly, at least for me, was how off the cuff nothing immediately emerged as a goal for next year.  This was the dawning moment of how I was both exhausted but also how I had been caught up in the COVID storm.  My vision not quite 20/20.  Ultimately I had not fully come to grips with the reality of the pandemic and one of the greatest lessons I learned.  The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.”  To remain flexible, adapt, and be forgiving.

 

Meta-Reflection

Over the years, I felt feedback received from students is a gift.  A window into their reality. A term I am coining here is “meta-reflection,” building off metacognition and thinking about thinking. Might we reflect on student reflections? It may even connect  well with a strategy many educators may employ with students.  Harvard Zero Thinking Strategy, “I used to think but now I think.” One question asked on the student reflection that led to more in-depth analysis was, “What are a few things in social studies class that I did to help you to learn?” A prevailing theme was evident, allowing for my own “I used to think but now I think.”  I used to think I was limited in doing meaningful project-based learning because of an overabundance of standards, but now I know that more wisely designed curriculum implementation is possible.  This I was able to deduce, as patterns emerged in student comments attesting to how they were reinvigorated in learning as a result of agency, authenticity, and purpose. 

The student reflections led also to a more philosophical goal. To continually remind myself to be the teacher one student envisions me to be, “You taught us in a way where you knew we would understand. You put yourself in our shoes and every day it felt like it was a brand new day for every student to do better and have fun.”  Comments are not all so glowing and when we model honesty in the feedback we provide students and invite students to do the same when  giving us feedback, there is a necessity to embrace vulnerability.   One student maturely commented in a way which resulted in pushing me to think more about a check-in routine I was using.  Her points not only honest but absolutely valid, leading to my immediate plan to discontinue the routine.. 

As a learning community, giving and receiving feedback is a skill we routinely practice throughout the year. In reading student end-of-year reflections I can say with confidence how students in 2020-21 stands out  for their high degree of insightfulness and graciousness. One individual’s honest yet humorous response is sure to not to be forgotten. The fill-in-the-bank question asked,  “If I were a middle school social studies teacher I would _________________.”  A common response for example attested to the role of collaboration. For example, “make more projects where students get to work together.” The particular student’s memorable response was but one word.  “Quit!”  Ironically he is also the son of two teachers.

A few years ago Rhonda Scharf was credited with posting on Facebook the following thought, “Teachers are not ‘off for the summer,’ they are ‘in recovery.’”  And if I can add, “in reflection mode.”

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Meeting Learners Wherever They May Be

“Making Bunny Ears” by woodleywonderworks (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

 

“Aim for the middle of the square,” I encourage an 8-year old boy on my basketball team.

 

The power of geometry on full display. Meanwhile, another player kicks the ball against the gymnasium wall, seemingly confusing basketball for soccer.  Two others chase each other in a game of tag. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot another dancing the Macarena.  The Macarena?  Is Tik Tok responsible for the one-hit wonder Spanish song of 1993 being brought back? Reaching for my whistle, I notice another player launching shots from beyond the three-point line.  In wonder I look on, taking a few seconds to just take in the full scene.

  

Weren’t the directions and demonstration clear?  To take shots from 3 feet away, stepping from side to side and aiming at the middle of the box. A timeless backboard drill.  

 

Before I am able to blow the whistle, it happens.

 

“Coach, can you tie my shoe?” one 4-foot tall player earnestly requests.  His large blue eyes match his dyed fringe.  The shrill tone of his voice resembling my 5-year old nephew’s.  

 

I look down at his knotted lace and caught up in the chaos, regretfully do not seize the opportunity to teach this “life skill.”  On the ride home, the moment continued to be replayed. Impossible to get out of my head, it stewed the next 48 hours.  

 

For a veteran teacher, this was a serious self-check.  An invaluable lesson to meet the learner, wherever they might be. A cornerstone of any education certification program, I would have guessed I perfected this lesson.  However, in the midst of “herding cats,” did I forget?  Mere negligence? Simply distracted?  Whatever the reason, I was embarrassed for myself.  A “wrong” to made right!  

 

Grateful to learn from the error, I was reminded how we may have a particular aim for a class or practice, yet of even greater importance than our plan, is that we remain flexible and respond to the learners right before our eyes. Differentiation sometimes a reflex, while at other times requires utmost intention.  

 

The next practice I approached the boy with the knotted laces and on bended knee showed him how to tie his shoe. Singing in a hushed tone, “Over, under, around and through, meet Mr. Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.”  Smiling, he gave it a try, his motor skills a clear challenge. The third attempt a success!

 

During my childhood a poster hung in our home’s laundry room.  It shared advice from best-selling author, Robert Fulgum and was titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Fulgum conveyed the simplicity and power of such adages as, share everything, and to play fair. 

 

Years later, a third grade teacher, I turned to look over my shoulder each time a student called, “Mister…”  I looked for my father, a bit bewildered because from one day to the next I had become a “Mister” myself.  Though the exuberance, joy, and energy of 8 and 9-year olds was a pleasure, middle school became my wheelhouse.  More than twenty years would pass before I would be in the company of third-graders again. 

 

This time, wearing the hat of coach. A chance to improve my well-conditioned skills in patience but also explicitness, assuming nothing.   

 

Not even that all the children can yet tie their own shoes.

Phang Nga Reflections

Photo by Artur Kornakov on Unsplash

 

A troop of monkeys skits across the barren beach.  A few others spy me from above on the branches of trees which attach alongside the precipice of the rock’s face.  Limestone karsts covered in jungle rise hundreds of meters out of translucent waters.  A rock climbers paradise, yet there surprisingly are signs threatening a 1000 baht fine if climbed. From first view, it is easy to see why Phang Nga was declared a protected national park since 2002.  More than 42 islands jut out of the water, their extraordinary shapes examples of erosion.  They too give credence to the name, Phang Nga literally translated from Malay to mean, “heathen, pagan, or primitive people.” The area, 400km2 definitely maintains an allure of “primitive.”  

Shade is cast by trees hanging out over the water.  The tide measured in the colors of the rock. The depths below easy to discern as the blues change from light to dark.  Hornbills screech in their distinguishable call, a much higher treble than the apneatic bass sound, a gurgling sound as water is pulled into caverns below and air pushed out. The earth clearly breathing.  Another layer of acoustics  is provided by the cicadas, their intermittent shrill droning, the result of a vibration from a ribbed membrane of their torso. Nature’s soundtrack. 

From time to time, small fish hurdle in arcs across the water’s surface; likey evading a predator.  Even lesser pisces appear, but as one large organism.  They jet in tightly knit groups by the thousands.  Rising up, sometimes breaking the tension of the water, are several species of jellyfish.  They suspend themselves as they pulsate forward. Their path buoyant, akin to a butterfly’s effortless float and glide. One species of jellyfish stands out as my favorite, for its beauty, not invasivity. Phyllorhiza punctata, has almost as many names as it does dazzling white crystalline spots. Native to the southwestern Pacific, it is also known as the Australian Spotted Jellyfish, Floating Bell, Brown or even White-spotted Jellyfish.  Approximately 20 inches in diameter, an individual jellyfish is able to filter as much as 13,000 gallons (50,000 liters) of seawater per day.  The downside being, they consume zooplankton, the food necessary for the survival of native species. Not to mention their painful sting.

Entering a cave revealed at low tide, refuse washes up. A message from the sea, as if to say, “humans keep your own waste.”  Numerous plastic bottles make up the flotsam.  Was it the naivety of my youth to think how a bottle in the ocean brought luck and would likely contain a message. Or, are we just polluting our waterways far more today?

 

Photo by yours truly