Making time and space for reflection as a language teacher


Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash

In my very first post, I noted the importance of reflection for intercultural learning during study abroad—that is, it’s not enough to simply have intercultural contact, but it’s also necessary to reflect upon this contact.  This is also true for teaching—it’s not enough to receive training, and design curricula, and implement lessons, we also need to reflect upon our practices in order to learn from them.  Yet oddly enough, it is this step that is rarely built into our jobs as language teachers—we attend conferences and professional development, we make curricula, we design lessons, we teach classes, we grade, and all of these have specific times and places assigned to them.  Sure, we can get behind on grading, but we’ll still finish it by the end of the term, and we’re unlikely to show up to class without some sort of plan (hopefully).  Yet despite the importance of reflecting upon what we do and how we teach, there’s rarely scheduled time or space for this, and even when we recognize its importance, it’s the first thing to go in the crunch of grading and prepping (at least in my experience).  So, in honor of the end of the semester, I thought I’d share some ways that I’ve built reflective practice into my own language teaching (and our Arabic section as a whole).  

These reflective practices can basically be divided into two times/spaces:

1) During the semester (quick notes after class)

2) The end of the semester  (a meeting during finals week)

During the semester: Here, the emphasis is on quickly capturing thoughts and ideas, because the rush of prepping, teaching and grading means there’s not really time to reflect upon what these thoughts and ideas mean.    

1) Lesson Plan Notes: Many people I meet (who teach in higher ed) are surprised that I write lesson plans for teach class that I save with the materials for this class session.  It’s true that this takes a little more prep time, but I have found it absolutely invaluable when returning to the same lessons after a year or more.  Maybe I’d remember exactly what I did with those materials anyway, but I remember a lot faster when it’s written out in front of me! Even more importantly, my lesson plan template is set up as a chart (I love graphic organizers) and the last column is called الملاحظات فيما بعد (notes afterwards).  After class, generally when I’m entering the attendance, I put a few notes in this column, such as whether an activity went well, or took more or less time than I expected, or was too easy, or too hard, and so on.  This only takes a minute or two, and saves me so much time when I next teach the lesson and don’t have to remember how it went (unlikely to happen anyway) and can just immediately address those concerns.  Since our Arabic team shares all lesson plans, this also comes in handy if we are teaching a lesson developed by another teacher, as we have their notes to improve our lesson!

2) Curriculum Chart: In an ideal world, all of our lesson plans are united by a curriculum, but I’ve found that this is not always a reality, especially under the (unfortunate) textbook as curriculum model or (in our case) as we move away from the textbook towards our own Can-Do Statement based curriculum.  We use Google Drive to list all of our lesson plans for a class in a chart, which gives us a good overview of how they fit together as a unit (or don’t, as the case may be).  Using the comment function, we can also comment on a particular lesson plan, either based on the lesson plan notes above, or on how it fit in with the other lessons that week/unit/semester, etc.  I usually enter this right after the lesson plan notes above, again when I’m entering the attendance grades for the class, and it usually takes less than a minute.  

3) General Notes: In addition to notes on specific lessons, we also share a google doc that lets us write general notes on how the class is going, like “we need to address pragmatics” or “link culture to Can-Do” etc.  We enter notes in this throughout the semester as we think of them, and it basically acts as a receptacle to hold all of these thoughts until our reflection meeting.  In my experience, if I don’t make notes of these as I think of them, I won’t remember them at all!

Reflection Meeting:  At the end of the semester, we (myself and the other two Arabic professors) schedule two meetings, each 3-4 hours long: one for grading exams, and one for reflection.  This reflection meeting allows us to give some time and space to reflection, and to go through the information we’ve collected during the semester and use it to plan for future semesters. At this meeting, we discuss each class following (more or less) the steps below:

1) Reflection Questions: For each class, we ask the following questions (which I record in, you guessed it, a chart in a google doc):

—What were our accomplishments? How can we magnify these accomplishments?

—What can we improve? How can we improve this?

In answering these questions, we draw from our memories, but also from the notes we’ve made in the shared google doc.  

2) Curriculum Analysis: In this step, we look through our curriculum chart (step two above) as a whole, noting anything that seems particularly problematic or out of place.  We are currently moving from sequencing our Can-Do Goals according to the textbook, to using the textbook as a resource for texts related to the Can-Dos, to ditching the textbook entirely and using our own materials, so this step is useful in letting us see how streamlined our curriculum is, or if all of our lessons are leading to our overall Can-Do Statement targets.  When we identify ones that don’t fit, we can decide how to fix them, or if they should be dropped entirely.  

3) Plan for next semester: After asking the reflection questions and analyzing the curriculum chart, we have a pretty good idea of what changes to target for the upcoming semester, and which classes to focus on the most.  This lets us make gradual changes (because, again, time is pretty limited during the semester), but also make sure that these changes are the most important ones to us.  

Sometimes, when I describe this system to people (especially other language teachers in higher ed) they are surprised at the amount of time and space we dedicate to reflection, especially the detailed lesson and curriculum notes, and the reflection meeting itself.  It’s true that it is easy to skip reflection, especially when there is not time and space dedicated to it.  Yet this is also why I find it so important to make time and space for it, so we don’t lose out on our own learning opportunities.  

What do you think? If you’re a (language) teacher, how do you make time and space for reflection?