Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

English Quarterly

How are we doing?

Peter Smith

I am standing facing the chalkboard, chalk in hand. I don't know what I am going to write. There is silence behind me; I don't write much on the chalkboard any more. Signpost phrases. Questions. That's not what I need here. With this grade eleven class, I am not at the centre of what is happening. The silence grows. I realize I'm not going to write anything; I'm standing here as a reflex to uncertainty.

Finally, from behind me, someone says, "How are we doing?" I write it down. Soon there are other questions. I write them down. I haven't suggested a focus for this period but one is emerging. We have been experimenting with a combined reading circle and response journal approach to the novel. The larger group want to reconsider their progress.

As I am writing, I realize the class has taken control of today's agenda. I follow. What I find significant here is not so much that I have changed the way I do things in the classroom but that I have changed the way I think about them. I was accustomed to reflecting on my practiceslater; after the activity was complete. What seems to have happened is that it is now all right to reflect as the project unfolds.

What has made this possible? Two things, I think. One was my reading of Judith Newman's Interwoven Conversations. The other was my decision to abandon the role of expert for the role of learner. I don't have to keep this project "on track" because we, the students and I, are in this together. If our direction changes because we stop to question our assumptions, that will be fine; probably better-I have read Schön's The Reflective Practitioner.

Before we began this particular novel study, the students read a couple of articles on response journals and one article on literature circles, then they decided what aspect of the two approaches they wanted to incorporate into this project. Having taken some responsibility for the philosophy, it was natural for them to continue making decisions about methodology and content. I had a new role; as the most experienced learner I got to ask the most questions.

So here I am with their questions. I have "initiated a learning context" (as Newman would put it). I realize that, in order not to be alone, I have been encouraging this group to take a critical, reflective look at their on-going learning behaviours all year long. Now, together, we deal with the questions:

How are we doing?
Can we do everything we planned?
Do we all have to go in the direction we agreed upon?
Are our ideas taking us in a fruitful direction?
Are we pushing our understandings?

There are a few other questions but they have to do with specific procedural decisions. For the most part, it seems, the group wants to look back in order to look forward.

We finally decide it will be all right to take separate paths. Many students agree to a compromise so they will not have to travel alone. I worry for a minute about confidence and independence-until I hear the talk.

As I listen, my thoughts return to Interwoven Conversations. Everything that Judith Newman recounted about teachers' learning is equally true of my students. Learning is learning.

I think I am finished writing and I re-read one last time. I recognize that this, like other conversations I've been having with myself this year, duplicates the tone, the stance, the flavour of the dialogue in Interwoven Conversations. Sure, the reflections can come later, but the conversation I maintain with myself is most productive when I integrate it, in real time, with the events in my classroom.

Newman, J. M. (1991) Interwoven Conversations: Learning and Teaching Through Critical Reflection. Toronto: OISE Press.

Schön, Donald (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Peter Smith is with the Halifax Regional School Board, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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