Reflective writing and finding your focus

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As teaching professionals we have an ideal to-do list. For some of us these lists are big. Really big. All too often they are prefaced by the phrase, “One day …”. How can we reconnect with our priorities in order to make our to-do list a reality? Well, one way is to engage in meaningful professional reflection. Setting aside some time and shutting out all distractions in order to compose our thoughts and establish a personal and professional focus.

I should begin by pointing out that an idea of “forced reflection” is by no means something new. This has been a long time staple as part of the action research process. I went through a day long workshop with UK action researcher Jack Whitehead some 12 years ago and found it to be an extremely powerful learning strategy. It begins with the premise that if you don’t write something down, it didn’t happen. That’s a pretty blunt statement, but think about it. All that really exists from the last 10 months of school is your memory of it. Sure a few students might retain some memory of what happened, but that will soon be supplanted by new knowledge and experiences. Yes, you may have some files of assessments and lessons, perhaps a class wiki or some podcasts. What do you have that will allow you to replicate those amazing teaching experiences a year from now, five years from now? If you haven’t written it down it didn’t happen. In a future post I’ll show you how to make this a fairly painlessly part of your instructional day.

Let’s start by looking forward to next year. In an effort to make sure that our best lessons actually happen, we need to plan for them. We need to plan for them on paper, not just in our heads. Once September draws closer time will be in precious short supply. Start now and carve out some time to invest in reflective writing. Use a blog, a word processor, write on your iPad, even use a paper journal. It doesn’t matter. Find a focus and just start writing. You’ll need a distraction free environment. No radio, no Twitter, no email. I suggest using Notepad or Text edit to get rid of any formatting distractions. This is not about what font to choose. My favorite program for this is Ommwriter for the Mac. It’s the Zen of distraction free writing. This takes discipline, but the payoff is worth it.

Richard Sagor, author of many action research books offers this to help us find our focus by using reflective writing. Begin by thinking about the end of next year. The year that just ended has been, without a doubt, the most satisfying of your entire career. It has been so good that you are actually feeling depressed that you won’t get a chance to work with your students for another 2 months. You leave on that last day thinking that it was unequivocally the best school year ever, exceeding even your wildest expectations! A non-teacher friend then asks, what specifically did you and your students do and what was accomplished that made it such a wonderful year? What do you hear yourself saying in return? Write your answer in as much detail as possible. Write in the conversational voice you would likely use with a friend (when professional language and jargon are avoided, most of us tend to become more creative and our ideas flow more easily).

From this your ideas will flow and a focus for next year will present itself to you in your writing. In the next post we’ll look at how to take your written narrative from something general and sharpen that focus to gain the precision needed to move from the big picture to identifying specific outcomes for your inquiry based learning.


3 Comments on “Reflective writing and finding your focus”

  1. Royan Lee says:

    I’m really looking forward to that future post you speak of. Thanks for this great reminder:-)

  2. Kelly Power says:

    I am inspired by the reflective nature of this task. As extremely busy educators, I believe that we need to take the time, more often, to appreciate the metacognitive aspect of our role. Thank you for encouraging me to journal about my experiences. I look forward to the next step!

  3. Colin, thanks for this great post! Dean @shareski tweeted out something a week or so ago in a similar vein that has been rattling around in the ol’ brain bucket ever since.

    I’ve had the honor of meeting/chatting with Jack Whitehead twice now — a few years back in my case, too. For some time now I’ve been contemplating the distinction between the personal reflective practice and the more collaborative, open reflective space that has come about as web media has become more pervasive. There’s no doubt that there’s a place for both — but the dilemma that arises from separating reflection into two spaces is an interesting one.

    I look forward to reading more in the coming days about your work!

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