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Taking the Art of Reflection Back into the Classroom

Joanne Toft has taught for more than 30 years and spent 6 years managing The Arts for Academic Achievementprogram for the Minneapolis Public Schools. Last year she returned to the classroom to teach 4th grade in one of the district high poverty schools. This year she will be focusing on teaching literacy and science to 4th and 5th graders. When time allows she is blogging and working on a children’s book. (Her blogs include:  Words from JL – Teaching on the North Side and Garden Learning: Learning in a Wild Garden.)  Joanne is enjoying every minute of being back in the classroom.

Stepping out of the classroom to work as an administrator—and then back into the teaching trenches—can be an instructive thing to do. What I learned is that the role of administrator forces you to look at the big picture. The questions that we asked ourselves as we managed professional development were:

• What makes a good learner?
• Who are you as a learner?
• What do students need to learn?
• And what do teachers need to know to help them get there?

Those questions are all about reflection, and about students and teachers being learners. It is the art of reflection that I take back into the classroom.

As teachers we are good at burying ourselves in our classroom, working hard, and forgetting to lift our heads up to see what is happening around us.

This is partly inherent in the job. Once the school year begins and the merry-go-round starts, it’s hard for us to find the “off button” until spring. Then we wonder what happened.

We know we worked hard. We did a great deal of reading and writing. We have test scores, work and writing samples, and written notes.

But where are we now?

Did we learn anything?

Most likely we are too tired to think straight. Reflection is the last thing on our mind.

What was different about being a manager, and built into the job, were mid-term and final reports.It was required, and oh-so-important, to reflect.

As administrators, we worked as a group, like a writers group. Reports were written, passed around, reviewed, and returned days later (usually due to the “hundreds” of meetings we were required to attend).Then those reports were read and edited again, giving us even more time to think about what we weredoing.

We listened to each other. We helped each other notice what was working and where we got stuck. We sought out mentors—either in text, in the community, in the local university, or in other teachers.

We read and read and read—journal articles, books, web sites, and more. We included the latest research as we wrote those reports.

And, we were writing daily—crafting e-mail responses(responding to 100 messageswas a slow day), letters, reports, grants for new projects, lesson plans to share with teachers, and personal notes to keep track of what we did during the day or week.

If you look closely at a manager’s job, you will see the process of reflection used by a good learner. Here is the short version:

• Stop to ask questions.
• Think and research.
• Share with each other.
• Write and reflect.

My heart is with students and helping them be great learners, so I have returned to the classroom for my last few years of teaching. This time, however, I bring with me a belief in the importance of reflection.

I learned an incredible amount from managing an arts integration program in a large urban district. It meant hard work and long hours. It was exciting and sometimes frustrating. Hmm . . . it was not all that different from the classroom when you think about it—except that reflection was built into the work.

We made it happen.

I make it happen now for myself because I feel the difference when I am a learner along with my students.I know the importance of modeling what it means to be a learner.

How do you build reflection and learning into your day or week?

For six little lessons I have taken into my classroom and writing practice, see:

2 thoughts on “Taking the Art of Reflection Back into the Classroom Leave a comment

  1. Thank you for all the details of your earlier ‘admin’ job. It sounds as challenging as being in the classroom. I am coaching quite a few teachers & groups now, & reflection is the key in all our conversations. The basic questions we work from, as I also did in the classroom with students are “what worked, what didn’t?” And then sub-headings depended on the topic, and further, “what are some actions that may help improve?” For students, letter journals at the end of the day included reflections also. Thanks too for the links!


  2. Thank you for writing this, Joanne. I am a literacy coach and reflection is the mainstay of what I do. You are so on the mark when you say that teachers can rarely get a moment to reflect as their day is a whirlwind. When we are removed from the classroom, we make time to reflect. We can. We don’t have 25 students needed our attention. They are the most important.

    I will dive into your six lessons as I intend on incorporating helping teachers go deeper with reflection this year and also look at the stages of reflection rather than just surface level, “Oh, it went good.”

    Thank you for writing about this –

    Shari 🙂


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