The Importance of Pause & Self-Reflection

Part of our first year experience curriculum includes self-reflection essays. During these essays, students are meant to pause–think–and write about what has happened to them as learners in the past 6 weeks, 12 weeks, etc. These are my FAVORITE essays to read because I learn a lot about how they see themselves, my class, our curriculum, and their own experiences as college students. I find these essays fascinating as an educator, and I also feel that they serve multiple layers of purpose in the classroom. Let me explain:

When I do their final self-reflection essay for the semester (in December and in June), I follow these steps:

ONE: I begin the class by listing all the courses that the students are taking on whiteboards around the room. I give the students dry erase markers and instruct them to write any/everything they read/wrote/did/learned in that course in that column. After they are done, we go from course to course and fill in blanks, talk about the work they did, I openly praise them for what they have accomplished (I mean, seriously, they are freshmen in community college learning to do ethnographic research–that’s impressive!), and I take a photo of them in front of their whiteboard of accomplishments. I must admit, they are in awe at what they have accomplished and that’s *exactly* what I want.

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TWO: I give them the essay assignment and allow them to work on it IN CLASS. This allows me the chance to conference with them about their progress if they get stumped. For example, last spring, at the midterm, a student called me over and admitted that he didn’t feel that he had made any monumental progress in this writing. I had to agree. This student had entered community college prepared for community college, therefore he did well in the beginning and then sat back contentedly and didn’t really work hard. I told him this. I told him that students who paled compared to him in September were now far better writers than him (this was in April) because they had busted their asses and he had merely sat on his. He agreed and wrote about that. In the end, his last paper for Composition I finally broke through and was significantly better than his other work (an emerging sense of voice, good use of multiple sources in one paragraph to argue a complex thesis). I honestly think that the 5 minute conversation we had that day changed him and that’s because I had them start the assignment IN CLASS.

THREE: I give them a clear outline on what I want them to think and write about. Honestly, the room falls silent. I know some folks aren’t into this, but I will let them listen to music when they write in class like this. Some kids put on headphones, some don’t, but everyone sits and writes. I could literally sit back and file my nails if I wanted to.

FOUR: The essays are not graded; they are not considered an essay grade but a part of their participation grade. I don’t want students to feel that they have to write for a grade here because I don’t want them to feed be fake answers to try to earn a higher score.

I think that all of us–teachers, students, professors, administrators–don’t take enough time to think about our practices, our progress, our trajectories…This website is that for me, but–as you can tell–I will often go months without posting when life gets busy. That is my signal to the world that I’m not processing, and not processing is not good for any of us.

Try this out in your classroom. Stop and celebrate the students’ accomplishments. Make them take a break from the daily routine of class and think about themselves as readers, writers, historians, scientists, mathematicians. Ask them to write about their progress, how far they have come, and where they’d like to go.

I’m sure meta-cognition is in the Common Core Standards somewhere…If not, it should be.

An essay example follows. Please message me if you’d like others:

Introductory Paragraph: How do you feel as the semester draws to an end? What was your greatest success? What was your greatest challenge?

Body Paragraph 1:  Reading: Do you feel you entered Guttman reading at a college level? Explain your answer with examples of what you found easy and/or difficult to read this semester and why. Which texts this semester (from any course) were your favorite? Why? Where do you feel you still need work with reading? What can we do to support you?

Body Paragraph 2: Writing: Do you feel you entered Guttman writing at a college level? Explain your answer with examples of assignments that you found easy and/or difficult to write and why. Which writing assignments this semester (from any course) were your favorite? Why? Where do you feel you still need work with writing? What can we do to support you?

Body Paragraph 3: Math: Do you feel you entered Guttman able to do your work in math classes (QR & Stats) at a college level? Explain your answer with examples of assignments/skills that you found easy and/or difficult. What parts of QR/Stats from the semester were your favorite? Why? Where do you feel you still need work with math? What can we do to support you?

Body Paragraph 4: Sustainability: Give your own personal definition of sustainability. Pick one topic from your study of sustainability that will stay with you after your semester ends and explain it to me, your reader. Did you enjoy studying sustainability? Explain.

Body Paragraph 5: FLASHBACK! Summer Bridge: Think back to your Summer Bridge experience. How would your semester have been different, if at all, if you didn’t attend Summer Bridge?  If you could go back in time and “re-do” Summer Bridge, what would you do differently?  If a high school student who is thinking about attending Guttman next fall asked you to explain the Summer Bridge program, what would you tell them? 

Concluding Paragraph: What are you looking forward to for Fall II? What are your personal goals for the next semester? Use this space to begin to think of your future at Guttman as well as to give any shout outs to your professors, peers, or people who helped you make it through your first semester of college. You did it! Be proud! 🙂



5 thoughts on “The Importance of Pause & Self-Reflection

  1. Hi! I mostly work with members and organizers around organizing, but in a popular education style. When I am luck, I get to include pieces on anti-racism and other isms. We always try and do a historical timeline and tie what we do to the larger picture. Fun!

  2. Thanks! I have missed writing, too, but just couldn’t fit it in. When I don’t write I feel a dull ache and it builds until I become a raging bitch. What kind of union education work do you do? Thanks for your always kind and positive feedback 🙂

  3. I tend to do this kind of work at the mid-term of the semester and at the end. These Self-Reflection Essays are built into our first year curriculum, and by the spring semester they are already acclimated to engaging in this sort of process. Sadly, it’s not a part of our second year/major coursework, and I missed it. I think I’ll have to find ways to weave it into my English classes that count towards the Liberal Arts major, too. Thanks for your feedback!

  4. This is an incredibly inspiring post! Thank you for sharing it. I teach courses on philosophy and religion, and I often have a personal reflection at the end of writing assignments, although it’s usually in relation to the specific ideas or themes we have been discussing. This post makes me think I should be more metacognitive as well.

    A question: do you have students do this kind of thinking in smaller doses as you go along, or is it more one large burst toward the end? I’ve been thinking more about how to cultivate these kinds of habits in students, so I’d welcome any thoughts…

  5. Thank-you I enjoyed this post a lot! And I have missed your posts! As an union educator, I agree, we don’t spend nearly enough time reflecting. In fact, adults resist it until they discover the value of it. Great curriculum!

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