By Joel Karn, R&S Chair for Women’s Choirs
Summer is a great time to relax, refresh, and reflect. Most of us don’t need reminders about relaxing or refreshing after a busy school year, but the need for reflection is important as well, for our growth and for the growth of our students.
Webster defines reflection as, “an image given back by a reflecting surface.” This type of reflection is especially important to take advantage of after we get up in the morning and before we go out for the day.
When we look at our reflected image in the mirror, we learn something about ourselves that may cause us to take action. To make changes. Imagine the impact we might have on others if we never took the time to see a reflected image of ourselves before we left home. Yikes! We simply care too much about ourselves and our impact on others to ignore that reflection.
Likewise, we should care enough about our impact on our students to spend adequate time in reflection to help determine whether our teaching practices are helping students learn and improving our own skills.
But what exactly does it mean to reflect? If I want to spend time in reflection, what do I do? The kind of reflection I’m referring to is within the context of our teaching experience.
I like John Dewey’s quote, “We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Not just having an experience, but also reflecting on that experience.
Reflection is an important part of the learning process that helps us to see ourselves, what we are doing, and how we can improve. It helps us become aware of the impact of our actions. It’s a process that takes time, thought, and ultimately leads to a new course of action.
A simple illustration of reflection in the classroom can be watching a video of your performance on the morning after an evening concert. This allows the students to see and hear themselves, identify mistakes, and correct them in rehearsal.
Sometimes experiences don’t require much reflection because the problems and solutions are obvious. But for the most part, it may not be that obvious, and we will need to be willing to spend the time necessary to formulate questions and go through the trouble of searching.
Reflection should also involve outside sources. You can use students, colleagues, books, or even a video of yourself teaching to gain perspective and help reveal areas of needed change. By the way, I’ve watched videos of myself teaching and was surprised at how many times I did or said something of which I was unaware.
These are the steps I take for reflecting on my teaching:
Look back on experiences.
Basically, I ask myself “what happened?”
What was I doing? What was the impact of my actions? What were the students doing? What was the learning in today’s rehearsal? (The list can go on and on till you’ve identified areas of needed change.)
Make a plan of action.
What will I do differently that will produce desired results?
To put it simply: What happened? Why did it happen? And, What next?
I took some time in each class at the end of the school year to reflect with my students. I asked them to think about what happened over the year, why it happened and what they would do differently. It was a great discussion.
Within that time I brought up an experience with one of my choirs where I felt like we had reached a lid, or ceiling in our work on a particular song. I wanted to take them further but they seemed as if they had learned all they could, or all they wanted to learn. They had simply run out of gas. After much questioning, one student suggested that she “wished they had a better understanding of the meaning of the song.” Suddenly I realized why we couldn’t go any further. Why when I stepped on the gas, the car wouldn’t go. It needed fuel. And that fuel was their curiosity. I needed to challenge their curiosity to “go to the source” of the text. To bring meaning to the words they were singing and establish a connection between those words and their lives.
Now this may not cure all boredom with any particular song, but our reflection on this experience provided insight and a course of action that will hopefully produce better results next time.
Reflection should be a part of our everyday practice, and as we grow and gain experience, the process from thinking, to action, may take less time.
And though it is an everyday process, the summer break gives us the opportunity to reflect in a broader sense over the past school year and hopefully allow us to be a little better equipped for the next.