At first glance it would seem black horses are walking on desert land, while actually these are zebras walking in shallow water.

Writing Reflection

What’s New? This semester I shifted my students’ weekly reflections from a private channel to the public channel – making that reflection part of their work for each week and after only two weeks I am loving this move. Thanks Marcus Luther for the inspiration. Each week I am asking my students to share their writer’s story and a personal writing goal. Combining this with writing the words “I am a writer” every class meeting is a powerful experience for my developing writers. We are making our struggles, celebrations, and goals public and I couldn’t be happier.

Original: The featured image I used on this post is a photo by Beverly Joubert that I have saved to my desktop for a long time. It speaks to me in so many ways that I knew it would make a marvelous writing prompt. In fact, this image has served as a secondary inspiration for this post, but I’m not done with it yet. The primary inspiration for this post is a question posed to me by an Indiana high school teacher:

how do you grade reflection?

That is a simple question with a simple answer, but I don’t think the simple answer is enough. After all, simple answers (and other attempts to simplify measurement of things that are not simple at all) are what got us into the position we are as writing teachers and so this is a post about writing reflection that will provide the simple answer that teacher sought and the teaching journey that led to my simple answer.

When Joubert shared this image of zebra migration in Botswana in 2018 she wrote:

Where shadows become the solid form and striped backs are lost in the light.

Beverly Joubert, 2018

For my entire academic career as both student and teacher we have assessed writing in counterproductive and frequently destructive ways. We have lost the writing in the light and we focus only on the shadows until they become the solid form. We look at black horses walking across the desert and are oblivious to the zebras walking in shallow water.

That is why I no longer grade student writing. Grading final products is like grading horses instead of the zebras’ gait. And how (or why) would one even go about assessing a zebra’s gait? I did not become a writing teacher to wield a red pen and circle comma splices (which, in fact, would be the height of hypocrisy). I became a writing teacher because I believe writing is magic and I want everyone to become a practitioner. Writing reflection is essential to that work.

I have written many blog posts about reflection because it has always been an important part of my praxis. When I first began teaching first year college writers I used portfolios. Students turned in a folder that contained early drafts as well as a polished final draft and a reflection. When I shifted to paperless teaching I experimented with many versions of electronic journals that similarly helped students and I track their writing journey. Today I merge reflection and hyperdocs (via logbooks) into my version of ungrading that I hope puts the focus of the grade where it should be: on the journey of the writer and their way/weigh stations on that path. I want my students to be the judge of their progress to meet the writing goals that they set and not struggle to meet a rubric that I (or heaven forfend a stranger) formed from shadow. When we focus the weight of the education system on assessing disposable writing we focus on shadow horses.

I am not interested in shadow horses. I want to create writers. I want to support reflective, literate critical thinkers. Developing writers (from elementary school to retirement) need to engage in the practice of writing, but a healthy chunk of that writing should be reflection about their writing goals and journey. I want my students to engage in authentic writing but more than that I want them to live and think as writers, to believe they are writers, to be writers.

Living authentically as writers means that my students are constantly writing and reflecting, reflecting and writing about their lives, their writing, their goals. I invite my students to write in response to poetry to mentor texts and to the writing of our community in every class session, but weekly I also challenge my students to write about the goals they have for themselves as writers and to reflect on that journey. While most of their writing goals and reflections are private or shared only with me, they share their writing-in-progress with the community both in class and on our hyperdoc logbooks. The writing shared to our class logbooks are a record of each individual’s journey but also a collective map that documents our collective experience with the task at hand. We are learning in real time how each of us is living and working as a writer. At the end of the unit everyone can see where the journey ended, but only the writer and I engage in a discussion of the writer’s reflection from initial inspiration to setting goals to working through the challenges of their particular rhetorical context.

However, because both student writer and myself are cogs in the machinery of higher education, a grade for this amazing journey must be recorded even though we all know that grade cannot measure the learning that occurred during this journey or the seeds for growth that may not bear fruit for years. In the end we share the burden of determining the student’s grade through self-assessment of the journey and my assessment of the reflection and its practical demonstration in the form of the final deliverable. Most of that time I reward the journey with full credit for work and reflection completed even if the work is flawed. My system is imperfect as it privileges students not experiencing trauma and life challenges (although I attempt to mitigate with a two-week grace period some students are still derailed along the way) and I’m sure many would suggest the system is ripe for abuse, but that does not concern me. Any assessment system is flawed and potentially dangerous, but mine minimizes damage to student and instructor as well as supports living and thinking as writers. Many of my students grow as writers, rhetoricians, and humans because I focus on writing reflection.

And like any good National Writing Project teacher, I spend a lot of time reflecting on my practice as well as my writing. How do you support reflection in your students and your own practice as both a writer a writing teacher?

Note: This semester I implemented two changes to our weekly reflection practice as part of my efforts to deal with my The Last Mile Problem and continue to improve my Ungrading Journey. Inspired by Marcus Luther‘s guided reflection process, my students are crafting six-word writer’s stories and setting writing goals from our first week together. As always I am modeling the reflections written in response to those stories and goals, but now we are sharing these reflections with our community not only in class but also on our logbook as part of the work of the week. I hope that closely linking the work and the reflection will make the connection clearer and stronger. Listening to the goals they shared in class and reading the reflections posted to the logbook have filled my heart with joy. We had a good week and a great start to the semester. I am always blown away by the process of creating a joyful community of writers.

Author: Deanna Mascle
#TeachingWriting and leading #NWP site @ Morehead State (KY): Passionate about #AuthenticWriting, #DeeperLearning, #PBL, #Ungrading, and #HyperDocs.

2 thoughts on “Writing Reflection

  1. Thank you for this! I’m a firm believer that writing in any content area is the most important part of learning. As I embark on teaching in the history/social studies fields I am leaning heavily into student free-writes to reflect on the content, the sources, and how all of what students are learning connects with their own identities and individual and communal socio-contexts. I too am well aware that as teachers we “have to” assign some kind of grade for such efforts, but am fully committed to “effort” as the driving concept – you give me a piece of writing that shows you are thinking in some way about the topic at hand, you get full credit. I want students to write and write and write – take five minutes, give me (and yourself!) your thoughts about this text we just read/watched/discussed – how do you feel about it? Did it challenge/confirm/extend anything you knew about the topic before? Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, etc., just write and let the pencil/pen to paper take you wherever your thoughts lead! I also see great value in writing reflections as metacognition – after another lesson is in the books that extends the previous topic, I want students to look back at what they wrote about the earlier and ask themselves how the new material and sources impacts that prior writing – do they find they still agree with their earlier reflection or has something changed how they feel about the topic?

    1. Yes! If we give students the opportunity to make those connections between ideas across time and space they will engage with their work more deeply. Such important work.

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