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Reflective Teachers, by Susan Mandel Glazer

Taking the time to write and think about ideas, methods and materials can help you shine in your classroom

Pencil drawing of a teacher with glasses on her forehead

Reflective teachers question themselves, discuss their ideas and strategies with colleagues and write on a daily basis.

"Reflect upon your teaching," said Regie Routman in a session at the International Reading Association's 1988 annual meeting. That was the year her book Transitions (Heinemann) took educators by storm. In it, she'd had the courage to write about the time she told her remedial second graders, "You can't read this book. It's too hard for you." Her students' persistence, however, convinced her to let them try. The children's desire to read the book was so great that within several weeks, these "slow" children read it aloud without error or hesitation.

She said, "I still cringe when I remember myself saying those fateful words: ‘too hard for you.' But, after all, the book had a third-grade readability level, and these children were reading at about a 1.7 reading level, according to their standardized test scores. There was no way they could read that book – or so I reasoned."

Regie went on to discuss how her personal philosophy about teaching evolved over time; she discovered that "…many factors – observing children, demonstration teaching, trying things out, talking with colleagues, keeping up with the research" are necessary for change and are also different for each one of us. She told us to "continue to question how and why we are doing what we are doing."

Asking the right questions
Self-questioning leads teachers at the Center for Reading and Writing to ask, "What strategy will best guide Brandon to learn to write words from memory?" "What good reader strategy will help Kaylee to connect the text to her own experiences?" Then these teachers make connections to their own knowledge and teaching style as well as each child's needs.

These questions lead us to ask Sam's teacher from last year exactly how Sam learned to spell from memory. Then we think about that teacher's response and hypothesize that using the Fernald technique, so Sam traces and says words, might be a good strategy to use with Sam.

We think, we doubt ourselves, we ask our colleagues for opinions, constantly looking for alternate ways to reach our students.

Writing it out
Reflective teachers seek wisdom by writing, talking about and trying ideas and materials, then writing and talking about them again.

After rereading The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst (Aladdin, 1987, ISBN: 0-689-71203-0), Candy decided to use it in her class. She wrote, "This story is about a young boy grieving over the loss of his cat. In a special funeral ceremony, the boy shares nine good things he remembers about his cat, and he later discovers a very special tenth good thing. My mother gave me this book when my dog died, and it helped me deal with the loss. The story affirms the fact that animals are a huge, important part of our families. This book will be especially good for my students who have lost pets."

Candy summarized the story, then connected the plot to her own experience. Her conclusion, that the book is important for children who have experienced loss, is derived from self-questions and the fact that the book worked for her. It's evident that Candy knows children make meaning of text only with prior knowledge of events.

A developing consciousness
Arlena justifies her in-class selection of Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends (HarperCollins, 1974, ISBN: 0-060-25667-2) when she writes, "The humorous rhymes give children practice in searching for patterns." Then she reflects, "I enjoyed Silverstein's work as a child (even though we used his poems for handwriting practice when I was in third grade!) and see my sixth graders checking it out of the library. Struggling readers are particularly fond of it due to the poems' brevity, humor and illustrations, which sometimes provide comprehension clues."

Arlena indicates that she might use the poems to increase spelling proficiency and raise awareness of the awkwardness of some sound/symbol relationships. Unlike Candy's reflection, however, which clearly indicates that she's interested in building comprehension, Arlena's response is a bit scattered. She needs to continue to ask, "Why and how will this book benefit the children's knowledge of sound/symbol relationships? Will focusing on phonics and spelling kill the students' enjoyment of Silverstein's poetry?"

Rewarding risks
Both of these teachers are refining their skills by writing on a daily basis. Each is at a different stage of consciousness. Regie Routman encouraged this practice when she wrote, "The anxiety that is inherent in taking on more responsibility for one's teaching [requires] reading, risking and reflecting together while supporting each other."

I hope you'll take that risk. I encourage you to keep a journal or tape-record your thoughts about your students and how they learn. Question yourself and dig deep for the answers. You'll find that you, your colleagues and your students will be better for it.

Susan Mandel Glazer is the Director of the Center for Reading and Writing at Rider University in Lawrence, NJ.