End of Semester Review

Photo by  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash

As I’ve mentioned before, my larger scale unit of planning is the semester, and I’ve discussed how I make my semester plan for Fall and Spring.  At the end of each semester, before making the plan, I also conduct an end of semester review, looking at what went well and what didn’t, and what I want to focus on or change in the following semester.    I’ll share my Summer plan at the end of this post (yes, I plan summers too!), but before that I thought I’d discuss how I do my end of semester review.  

Reflection Questions

First, I start with my standard reflection questions, which I also use for reflecting with students and teachers

1) What did I accomplish this semester? How can I magnify this?

2) What can I improve? How can I improve it?

When I list my accomplishments, I do it from memory first, and then go back and look at my monthly reviews to see what I missed.  Usually, it’s about 50% of the things I did, which is one reason I like keeping track of everything—once I see the notes I remember that I made those revisions, or organized that part of my house, or completed that service project, but without going back my sense of what I’ve accomplished is at about 50%.  

After this, I move on to the next two questions:

1) What do I want more of? How can I get it?

2) What do I want to let go of? How can I let it go? 

I should probably consider renaming these the space and stress questions, since it seems like mental and physical space is always the answer to the first question, and stress is always the answer to the second.  There are some variations, such as wanting more sleep, or wanting to let go of rejections, but even these related to the first (quality sleep=more mental space and rejections=stress).  While it is sometimes frustrating to always feel like I have the same answers, I do feel like there is incremental improvement, and some of these things (like my kids sleeping through the night) just take a long time to improve.  

Goals Review

Next, I look at my goals, and ask the following questions:

1) Which goals did I accomplish? Why?

2) Which goals did I not accomplish? Why?

3) Thoughts moving forward . . . 

Again, these questions seem to have consistent answers, which is itself enlightening.  Goals completed tend to be planned into my schedule and have specific deadlines, often involving other people like editors or students (which is why they get into my schedule first).  Goals not accomplished are those that can wait longer, and thus get bumped when I run out of time.  While again, always having the same answers might seem like a lack of progress, I’ve definitely gotten better at realistically estimating what can happen in a semester, and my ratio of goals accomplished to unaccomplished has gone up (by having fewer goals overall).  

Areas of Life Review

Finally, I do what I call an areas of life review.  When I reflect on my life, I think of it in four broad categories with subcategories.  I rank each subcategory, and then ask what can I improve? and what should I do next?

Career: This includes my academic career (divided into research, teaching, and service/admin) as well as my dance career (this is more between a passion project and heavy volunteer load than a career, but still very important to me!).  I usually score myself fairly high here, although balancing between the three components of my academic job is always a challenge.

Relationships: These include relationships across all areas of my life.  Family and friends are the obvious ones, but I also include relationships related to my academic and dance careers.  This category is usually my biggest challenge.  

Environment: This is the physical and digital spaces I am surrounded by, so things like physical and digital organization of my home and work spaces, finances, and systems for managing time and space.  This category tends to score high in some categories and low in others, depending on what I’ve prioritized this semester.

Self: This includes things related to the health of my mind, body, and spirit, like exercise, nutrition, sleep, learning, creativity, etc.  This category tends to score medium across all the categories, except low on sleep.  

Planning for the Next Semester

Once I’ve done this reflecting, I then brainstorm potential goals and areas of improvement for the next semester, and then map them onto a calendar to see how realistic I’m being.  Then I cut a few, and make my semester plan.  Below, you can see my semester plan for the Summer.  I’ll see how it goes!


Reflecting with Students

Photo by  Samuel Ferrara  on  Unsplash

Photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash

As is probably clear to readers of this blog, I think reflection is a crucial skill for learning and teaching.  I’ve discussed making time and space for reflection as a language teacher, and ethnographic projects as a way to encourage reflection during study abroad. In this post, I’ll discuss reflecting with students, another valuable practice.

As we redo our Arabic curriculum (described in various places on this blog), we have had a reflection day at the end of each unit.  Students’ homework is to complete an evaluation sheet that asks about what went well and what didn’t in the unit, and their recommendations for improvement.  In class, students discuss their reflections in small groups, and then we discuss as a class while the teacher takes notes in a google doc displayed on the screen.  The exact questions depend on who is teaching the class, but I tend to stick to my standard set of reflection questions that I use to reflect on almost everything:

1) What went well?

2) How can we amplify this?

3) What can be improved?

4) How can we improve it?

So, for each question, students discussed it in small groups, and then we discussed it as a class while I made notes on the board.  I love this process because it gives me insights I would never have had without the students, and it gives me the opportunity to think with them through the details of actually executing some of their suggestions.  

For example, for our last unit on social media, both my co-teacher and I were under the impression that this unit was not that great, as students were attending less and turning in less homework.  Yet as it turns out, the students loved this unit as they felt it was relevant to their lives, and some of them even mentioned that they had started to use social media to engage in Arabic outside of the class, and they wished the unit was longer! So, this was an excellent opportunity for me to realize that what I saw as a problem with the unit was actually more of a problem with the end of the semester.  Similarly, while some of our assignments (like following hashtags of the Sudanese revolution) seemed really difficult, they were also popular with students because of course they are the most real.

In terms of thinking through the details, when students proposed things like doing this unit earlier, or having class social media accounts, I got the opportunity to ask them questions about things I thought might be challenging.  For example, do you think you could have done this last semester? How could it be modified? Would you be okay with using your own social media account or making a fake one? What platform(s) do you think would work best? If you all choose your own hashtags to follow, will you be okay with us not providing vocabulary lists? And so on.  

Of course students have different opinions too (we should use Facebook! we should use Instagram! We should use Twitter—elhamdulillah no one suggested Snapchat so I don’t have to learn that!).  However, the discussion also allowed us to discuss these issues (Facebook is great for groups, but hard to have a fake account, etc.) and think through ways that everyone’s needs could be met.  

Language issues also come up, and of course as someone interested in language ideologies and how they inform our expectations for language learning, I find these discussions fascinating.  In this case, I was thrilled when students asked for more lessons on Arabizi and internet language as it was clear to them through experience that these were important to understand online communication.  We did have a lesson on what to do when you are trying to follow an event through a hashtag and don’t understand all of the language (something I have ample personal experience in!) and they felt this could be expanded even more.  

So in addition to reflecting as a teacher, and with co-teachers, I find it extremely valuable to reflect with students, as they clearly have insights that I would not see otherwise.  Do you reflect with your students? If so, how? 

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?