Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Reflective Practitioner

Living the Reflective Life:

A High School Teacher Addresses How and When

Marne B. Isakson

I teach reluctant and less proficient adolescent readers and writers in five classes of ninth through twelfth graders. The demands are constant, but the rewards are many. One of the most satisfying approaches to the challenges is through the "reflective turn"s (Schön, 1991) I take. In this paper I deal with the realities of trying to be a reflective practitioner, including making time for observation notes, reflection, and using the insights to impact my practice. Finally, I share a classroom story that has intrigued me for some time and invite you to help me reflect upon its significance for literacy education and to analyze the processes of reflection we use to think about this story. First, a little about how I came to a reflective stance.

In 1985 I entered the high school classroom intrigued with how to facilitate the literacy development of often discouraged, defiant, or lackadaisical teens. I searched for ways to make a difference as their teacher. I inundated a university mentor, Margie Siegel, with questions: How do I do this, how do I do that, what should I do in this situation? She stopped me midstream and gave some advice that has been a turning point in my professional life: "Marne, I cannot answer your questions. I am not you. Your students are not my students. I do not know them. Your situation is not my situation. You have to answer your own questions." Then she added, "To help you do that, start keeping a journal of your observations, then reflect on these, and try to make sense of what is happening in your classroom. Focus on the anomaly, on what puzzles you, confuses you, or interests you, and then write about it." On that day I started a teaching journal to record observations and reflections on the classroom events. By doing so, structures were created for students to inform me how to teach them. I have come to realize that reflecting on the events of the day is the best preparation I make for teaching.

The materials of reflection have changed over the years. I have kept notebooks by class period, by the day, and by the student. I have sat at the computer to compose my reflections, but more often I have written in a spiral-bound 8 1/2" x 11" notebook. I have written on seating charts, post-its, 3 x 5 cards, a chart with names, and even my hand to place-hold the moments I want to think about. Usually I have sat down at the end of the day and looked at names in the roll book to remind me of meaningful events and then have written about them. Sometimes I grabbed a tape recorder and talked. (The latter I quickly came to avoid because I have no secretarial help.) Currently, I like what I'm doing to record moments for reflection. I have a clipboard with a sheet of paper for each student. I carry it around with me during the class period and jot notes about what I see happening. Then since some of the events of the class are better characterized as interactions among students, I also keep a sheet where I capture this synergy and how instruction played out in particular situations. The important thing I have come to realize is that even one experience goes a long way in learning from practice. I cannot capture every event including every important event (aren't they all?), so I don't even try to do so. I focus on what Margie Siegel advised: what intrigues, what puzzles, where's the anomaly? I go with something that interests me that day, something that's under my skin and won't go away. Often this is a pressing issue that needs my immediate attention. Sometimes it is a surprise such as when Brianne, who has been non-engaged in so much of what we do, wrote a passionate response about Lost in Devil's Desert. I capture a classroom story and then see where it leads my thinking. Other common choices for reflection are those moments of "reflection-in-action" (Schön, 1983) where I feel compelled to think about why I did what I did in the heat of fast-paced classroom life. As Schön (1983) says: The situation talks back, the practitioner listens, and as he appreciates what he hears, he reframes the situation once again.... The unique and uncertain situation comes to be understood through the attempts to change it, and changed through the attempts to understand it. (pp. 131-132) Furthermore, incidents are chosen for focused thinking when what I did contradicts what I believe or what I think I believe. These moments of truth where my lived-theory crashes into my espoused-theory can be a refiner's fire. (See Whitehead, 1993.)

What does that reflective process look like for me? An analysis of the journals showed that many of the entries had three parts. I discuss each and give an example from my journals.

1) LITERACY EVENTS are the overall events of the class that day. SAMPLE: "Led discussion on finding a good book to read, read aloud for ten minutes from `The Ledge' and students predicted, had students do paired reading and reflecting."

2) OBSERVATIONS OF SPECIFIC STUDENT OR GROUPS OF STUDENTS I try to capture dialogue, body language, description of behaviors and the social context. SAMPLE: "Carolyn came early to class to tell me she had already finished her first book. "`I read 90 minutes last night!' She told me about questions she had as she read: `Why did it have that title Three Mile House?' She told about how she figured out the answer, `The author told where four miles was on his jogging route and later that the house was about a mile closer than that.' "She had made an inference. She also told about sticking with the book until it was finished."

3) REFLECTIONS ON THE OBSERVATIONS my overriding question is "What is happening here?" I try to make sense of the experience in order to understand how better to support the students to feel confident and to be competent as readers and writers and, hopefully, to understand teaching and learning in a broader sense, beyond this one event. SAMPLE: "Harold seems to want to succeed and do well. He always turns things in on time. He makes a point of double-checking when he's not sure how to proceed. But then he churns out his work at rapid-fire speed and doesn't look back. The resulting work is shoddy, shallow, and seems only to be `get it done.' When I discuss his work with him, he is satisfied and certainly doesn't want to think about it again: `I finished it, on time, too. It's good enough.' "Why does he do this? Are the activities MINE and not HIS? Does he aspire to excellence in any aspect of his life? How does his impulsivity in doing the task connect to his insistence that he understand the task beforehand? How does the fact that he has two older brothers on the honor roll, one a scholar recognized statewide, impact this behavior?"

Four factors seem to surrounding reflection for me: the classroom experience, the resulting narrative of it, inquiry, and collaboration (See Isakson, 1995). The reflective act itself has many faces and many directions. A careful analysis of five years of my journals kept from 1985 to 1990 (Isakson, 1995; Isakson & Williams, 1996) led me to refine ten questions to guide my reflective thinking. Eight of them are now posted in my office to help me think about the events of my current teaching life. You might find them helpful also. After I have chosen an observation to think about, any of these questions can lead to insights about teaching and learning, especially insights needed for instructional decision-making for tomorrow's classes:

What is happening here?

What most puzzles or interests me about this story?

  • What questions surface as I study this story?
  • How did the situation come to be like this?
  • How might the students involved see things differently?
  • Why did I do what I did?
  • What does this remind me of that others have said?
  • What might I have done differently?
  • What might I do now?
  • What have I learned from this story to impact my practice?

When the days fly by and I have not made time to reflect, a debriefing such as the following can be a substitute and still lead to important insights:

From ______ to ________, I remember doing the following in class:
During this time I've learned:
Considering my desires for this class, we have made progress on these things:
My feelings about reading, writing, the class, the students, etc. are:

This paper ends with a classroom story that puzzles me. Please help me reflect on the meaning of this story and see its implications for practice even though Terri is no longer in my class.

The Terri Story (a journal entry from November 1993)

Today we were revising papers and learning strategies for revision. Terri had written about a dream, a nightmarish dream but had not brought it to class. She asked to go to her locker to get it. She pointed out that she has had friends respond to it. Her sister thought it was fine. So "I don't need to revise it. I like it just how it is." She really is pleased with the piece.

I asked if I could respond to it. She rejected each question or comment with "it is good how it is" when, in fact, she had used many general words and the vague images could have been sharpened up. I finally told her that perhaps she could write another piece that she wouldn't mind revising.

"I always like what I write the first time. My pieces don't need to be fixed up." They sound like she wanted them to sound; they said what she wanted them to say. Her writing could be improved, but she isn't a learner right now. How can I support her as a writer? My fear is that she may have construed my comments as put-downs to her ideas and as a message that I do not like her writing. She is very private, yet she took the risk of letting me read this prized piece of hers. I desecrated it by calling parts of it into question. How do I undo and move on to productive writing sessions for Terri? Perhaps I could do some of the following: Talk to her privately and tell her what I saw myself doing. Ask her how I can support her as a writer. Then do as she says. Include her in the discussion of other people's writing. Maybe she would do better revising others writing. Keep setting up situations where, on her own and in her own good time, she can discover more interesting and vibrant ways to put language together. I could put up examples of vague, colorless sentences and have the class revise them. She sees herself as a writer. She has beautifully preserved her poetry in plastic protectors inside a decorated binder. I must not do anything to diminish that view of herself. I need to be her cheerleader. Ask her to respond to a couple of my poems.

I think the core of the problem is that Terri considers her piece finished, and I do not. Newman (1991) says if a piece is finished from the student's perspective, consider it done. But Terri considers all her pieces "done" at first draft. I do not know how to help her.

Please, conference participants, help me think about this story. Thank you.


Isakson, M. (1995). Learning from practice: Supporting the literacy learning of reluctant and less proficient adolescent readers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

Isakson, M., & Williams, D. (1996). Allowing space for not knowing: A dialogue about teachers' journals. In Z. Donoahue, M.A. Van Tassell, & L. Patterson (Eds.), Research in the classroom: Talk, texts, and inquiry (pp. 10-35). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Newman, J. (1991). Interwoven conversations. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Schön, D. A. (Ed.). (1991). The reflective turn: Case studies in and on educational practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Whitehead, A. J. (1993). The growth of educational knowledge: Creating your own living educational theories. Dorset, England: Hyde.

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