Friday, April 29, 2016

The Power of Doing, Then Reflecting

Student reflections on what they tried and what they learned in writing their short stories

Are you nervous about non test/quiz/essay assessments (like projects or creative writing) because you’re concerned you can’t accurately determine what students have learned?

Why not ask them? Whenever students finish a project, paper, or unit, ask what they learned—about content, skills, application, and/or process, whatever applies. Doing the subject (in addition to being tested on it) is important. And requiring students to reflect on their learning both removes from the teacher the dubious responsibility to infer the learning, and places squarely on the learner’s shoulders the lifelong learning skill of reflection.

Plus it’s really exciting to hear students articulating what they learned by struggling to do the subject!

I was especially struck with this when I took the risk of assessing my 10th grade short story unit not by testing over the short stories we had studied, but by asking students to write a short story of their own, using some of the literary ideas and/or content we had studied. I wrote a bit about this 2 weeks ago (here), sharing one student’s story and reflection,  and now that I’ve gotten permission from the rest of my students, I want to share some more of their reflections and writing.

Here are some of their reflections on what they were attempting to do and what they learned from it:
  • As I tried to develop dialogue in the story, I was trying to use different voices for each character. I also wanted to try to end with an unexpected ending.
  • I tried to use lots of semicolons like Kafka did. I originally wanted to use magical realism…but didn’t when I changed my story.
  • It was the first time I ever read anything like “The Bucket Rider,” and it really impacted me. In my short story I tried to use Kafkaesque [style] as well as iambic pentameter. (We didn’t study this but it took a long time to write.) I also tried to put irony in my story as well like “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” I love short stories like these, and I’ve never read them like this so I really enjoyed it.
  • I attempted to use good vocabulary and vivid description in the story….I learned that it’s very easy to come up with an idea for the story, but very difficult to finish it. 
  • For the ending I was trying to go for a closing last sentence like the one from “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” The last part where it said all he needed was 6 ft. of land was memorable. It like brought everything in and made a clear point. I couldn’t get that far, but I was trying to make a point using the three characters from the three stories.
  • I tried to do magical realism in my short story, just like the story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” I don’t think I did a great job on it, but I enjoyed doing something I never tried…. From this assessment I learned how short story/fiction authors are very talented.
  • I liked the idea of a little surrealism to break reality a bit, and unexpected endings. So I tried to incorporate those into my story. I tried to do the sentence variation technique that Murakami did in After Dark [the previous unit], but I found that I really like being detailed in my writing, and that it was really difficult for me to find a shorter way to express the same feelings. Speaking of feelings, I tried to center my story around the significance of feeling. I was recently thinking about how we wouldn’t know good unless we’ve experienced bad, so that was the inspiration for my weird “story.”*

*(If you want to read this whole “weird ‘story,’” I’ve copied it in below. It’s truly delightful, in addition to being one of the few completed stories, since we had limited time and I told them this was just a 2-day project to experiment with some ideas, and there was no requirement for completion.)

Reflection is powerful—after all, it’s why I’ve been doing this blog for nearly 4 years. The commitment to reflect holds me accountable to try something in my teaching worthy of reflecting on, and the act of articulating what I learned solidifies the learning.

How do you have your students do your discipline and then reflect on what they learn?


*The places I’ve been; a new place every second. Adventure is my life, quite literally. I’ve been through all the tremendous cities of America as well as the dull country sides. You dream of breathing the sparkling air of Paris, I am a part of Paris. All those vacation islands in the Caribbean? I’ve been there (and it does not live up to the hype, in my honest opinion). To walk amongst the rare beasts of Tanzania is a death trap for you, but they’re always so welcoming when I stop by for a visit. Having a perfect candle-lit dinner with your celebrity crush is your ultimate fairytale, and I’ve done that an innumerable amount of times. I’ve even done things that are physically impossible for you: explore the deepest trenches of the Pacific Ocean, share a burrow with a squirrel, aid your heart beat without a single incision on your skin. 
Are you jealous yet? Well, don’t be. I’ve experienced all these things and more, but there are still some things I have never done. I’ve never felt exhilaration, the rush of adrenaline pumping through my veins. I’ve never felt proud. I’ve never felt the sharp sting of a scraped knee. I’ve never felt a whirlwind of butterflies in my stomach upon looking into love’s eyes. I’ve never even tasted the richness of the average chocolate cake. Even with all the adventures I’ve been on and the infinite amount I have ahead of me, I will never feel the things you do everyday. What’s the point of living if you have no thoughts or feelings, no one to love or no one who loves you? 
       My point is: cherish the life that you’ve been blessed with. Be grateful for the stark-black, frost-bitten winter midnight, so that you will appreciate the song of cicadas and the magnanimous sun rays of July. Do not avoid heart-break, but accept it because it means you have felt true love. Don’t disparage your school teachers for educating you, but take advantage of that time to constantly soak up new intelligence and use it for not just your own benefit, but to change the whole world. That’s something to truly envy. If I could only feel something, just one time, I would be the most grateful bunch of particles to ever roam this planet. But sadly I can’t, for I am only a molecule of water. 

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