What am I doing now? How might I do it better?

My dominant emotion during the holiday season is gratitude with a lot of reflection mixed in. As I wrap gifts, bake treats for neighbors, stand in line at the the post office, assemble holiday cards, vacuum the fallen needles under the tree, my mind wanders from family to school to the new year. What am I doing now? How might I do it better?

I think it’s safe to say that my students’ dominant emotion during the holiday season (pre-winter break) is stress. As they organize their binders, prepare for upcoming exams, participate in end-of-season sporting events, shop for Christmas presents, wait for college acceptance letters, I want them to be able to pause and reflect on all they have accomplished over the past semester and all they have to look forward to in the spring. I want them to be able to describe their strengths in the middle of the year and develop goals for the new year. I want their reflections to be meaningful and lasting, not a box to check off or a list of goals to forget about. I want the questions we tend to ask ourselves in January and May to become integral to their everyday learning. What am I doing now? How might I do it better?

Image by PublicDomain Pictures used under Creative Commons lic

In an effort to bring these reflective questions to the forefront, I’ve compiled a list of five different reflection tools I have found useful in the past or have recently discovered. Some are geared towards students and others towards teachers, but every tool can be adapted for all. That’s the beauty of reflection. The questions and tools that help us look back so we can look foward are useful for everyone.

Non-traditional Portfolio Midterm Exam

My students breathe a deep sigh of relief when I handout this midterm exam guide. The exam is not much of an exam at all but rather an opportunity to synthesize, reflect, and plan for the second semester. When they read about the project, many of them perk up and emerge from their deep end-of-semester comas of exhaustion. They thank for me not asking them to cram more information into their already-overloaded brains. They are grateful to be able to make something meaningful, something that can be shared with family and friends, rather than pushed to the back corners of the brain after exams are over. Rebekah developed the exam for finals last year, and it worked so well that I decided to make it the midterm exam this year so we could get more mileage out of it and continue building the portfolio into the spring.

Now and Better Chart

Last week I went to an IB workshop in New Orleans. The chart below was offered to us at the end of the three-day workshop as a way to think about how we are currently implementing IB values in our classroom and what we can do in the future to make our IB teaching stronger.

What am I doing now?

How might I do it better?

IB teacher or not, this simple chart might help you refocus and set goals for 2015. If using with students, you can keep the chart open-ended or ask them to focus on their writing or reading lives. Students can add to this chart in different color pens throughout the year.

Top Ten Lists

The Top Ten List is actually a list of goals in disguise! This idea comes from David Letterman’s Top Ten List, a regular segment of the Late Show. You can get dozens of mentor texts from his website here.

I love this tool because it can be done at any point in the year. And it’s quick and fun! Rebekah and I like to make our top ten lists after we go to a conference or workshop (see my top ten list from the Central Virginia Writing Project Conference with Penny Kittle last November — you’ll notice I couldn’t limit it to just 10). These lists are a quick activity that force you to distill everything you’ve learned into a few bullet points. Here are a few ideas for student lists:

  1. Top Ten Things I Want to Remember as I Write
  2. Top Ten Topics I’d Like to Explore in Writing in 2015
  3. Top Ten Mini-Lessons I Want to Refer Back To
  4. Top Ten Mentor Texts To Provide Guidance and Inspiration
  5. Top Ten Words Use In My Writing

Just like Rebekah and I like to write our Top Ten lists at the end of every conference, you might ask students to write their lists at the end of every workshop, quarter, or semester.

Video Interviews

Last year Rebekah wrote a post about how we were using video interviews as an end-of-the-year reflection tool and summative assessment. Video interviews allow students to show their personality in a way they can’t on paper. You can create a list of must-answer questions and a list of optional questions from which students will pick and choose. Here is a model video interview with my personable student Julia.

A second video recorded at the end of the year could invite students to build on their midterm-responses, providing an illuminating duo of videos.

Class Growth Charts

Rebekah alerted me to this incredibly useful and versatile chart for measuring growth:

Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 1.41.03 PM
Image by @ChristinaNosek and @mrsalew via Twitter

I’m dying to take this chart back to my colleagues and see where our collective strengths and weakness lie. As I was studying the chart, I realized it could easily be adapted for student use as well. With a few adjustments, this chart could provide a way for students to think about their growth as writers. Here’s the student-friendly version I’m imagining to help students chart writing habits:

I rarely do this I do this occasionally I do this consistently I do this in every piece of writing across genres
Use mini-lessons in my writing
Ask for teacher conference when I don’t know next steps
Read my work out loud during different stages of writing
Use peer conferencing for feedback
Write on a daily or nightly basis
Use mentor texts for guidance and inspiration
Keep my writer’s notebook up-to-date
Meet writing deadlines

Here’s another version for helping students look at their writing skills. The skills going down the first column are the skills you want students to demonstrate in all writing throughout the year. Students can use peer, teacher and self feedback to determine where their red sticker should go.

No evidence of this in my writing Some evidence of this in my writing Consistent evidence of this in my writing Copious evidence in writing across genres and pieces of writing
Incorporate vivid description of people and places
Support my claims with sufficient evidence
Give my work strong titles that forecast the message of the piece
Use strong paragraphing to organize my ideas
Vary sentence lengths and patterns in my writing
Consistently punctuate compound and complex sentences correctly
Bring voice into my writing so it sounds like me
Weave my “so what” through my writing

It might be interesting to revisit this chart at the end of each quarter. Students could use different color dots to represent where they fall in quarters 1, 2, 3, and 4.

As you spend some time this winter break planning for your second semester, you might think about using tools for sustainable reflection — the kind that lasts beyond the one activity and can serve as a useful planning and learning tool from day to day.

How do you incorporate reflection into your writing instruction? Please send us your ideas @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1 or leave a comment below!


  1. I am going to get my chart together over break! (Mine will be modified a bit for my social studies classroom.) Absolutely love the idea. So often our assessment of our own teaching is reduced to impressions and rooted in our idiosyncratic ideas about what constitutes good teaching. Teachers are often short on time to reflect. When we do get some time, I’m often scrambling to assemble evidence and artifacts. The chart is a very visible reminder of what we are doing in relation our identified goals. Looking forward to following up about the exam model. Take care and enjoy your break.

    1. I am going to look at some of these methods for Theory of Knowledge too – great tools! Sometimes progress gets lost between pagers and the reflective chart keeps what is important in the foreground – thanks!

      1. I think this would be a really interesting activity for TOK. Reflection must factor into the Ways of Knowing somehow!

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