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Moodle Tertiary teaching

Reflections on reflective writing

Photo taken from ELTpics by Ian James, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Often when I’m writing a blog post I realize there’s something I could go off on a tangent about and then I vaguely decide I’ll come back to that in another post, which I don’t very often do – I guess this is due to my irregular blogging habits. This is one of those other posts: when I blogged about our introductory campus sessions earlier this semester, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to say a few words about the learning journal component of the course, or more specifically, about reflecting on learning in an online environment and possible attendant issues.

A learning journal can be very helpful in a semester-long asynchronous course. Apart from giving students an opportunity to think through and reflect critically on the material they’ve covered, it gives the instructor an insight into how everyone is coping in a different way than student assignments do. I might find out, for instance, how students feel about the time they have available to complete tasks, what they find useful about the feedback they receive, or what they think about task types that perhaps aren’t very typical in their offline courses, such as peer review (which I wrote about in more detail in this post). If the course were held on campus, I would probably be able to find much of this out in class.

The course has included this component since I first moved it online and has undergone a couple of tweaks in the meantime. Initially, the students had complete freedom re what they chose to reflect on after each unit, in that there were only some broad suggestions on the type of information they might want to add. The problem with that, it soon transpired, was that although some students clearly did not lack inspiration, there were others who found reflecting challenging, felt they didn’t have much to say or failed to see the point of the activity. Whatever the reason, students in this category wrote exceedingly brief comments whose sole purpose, I suspect, was to tick the “post a reflection in your journal” box.

At first, I tried to address this by posting questions on these students’ entries, hoping they would respond in greater detail, which met with varying degrees of success. After a couple of semesters, I added questions that could serve as writing prompts after each unit. Looking back, I have no idea why it took me so long to do this – I guess it was probably because I thought these were questions students should actually be asking themselves and they needn’t be the same for everyone. I still think so, but learning journals aren’t common practice in the Croatian education system and given that I was aware of this from the start, I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me sooner that students might find model questions useful. The semester I introduced questions student journals became noticeably more focused overall.

Some time after this, I began covering reflective writing in the introductory face-to-face sessions as well, the idea being that this would help students see the learning journal as more than just an afterthought. I begin by explaining what this component entails and show the students a sample journal from an earlier semester, to illustrate what the final product looks like. I choose one at random, although I think I’ll have to start checking with ex-students if I have their consent, on account of GDPR. Afterwards, we take a look at one of those exceedingly brief comments from one of the early iterations of the course, discuss what seems to be lacking at first glance and how each point could be expanded on. This is followed up by a few general good practice suggestions on reflective writing.

What I try to do in the session before this one is set aside 15 minutes for students to answer 2-3 questions of the type they will be addressing in their learning journal entries. This can be at any point during the session. I simply ask them to answer the questions however they think they should best be answered in the next 10 minutes or so. At this point I don’t want students to think about reflective writing as a genre, so there is no guidance nor are there any constraints apart from the time they have available.

I collect these and in the next session, after we’ve talked about how a very general comment can be made more specific, I show them a few examples of how this has been achieved in the pieces of writing they handed in in our last session. These are anonymized but I hope people recognize what they’ve written and that it has a motivating effect. Some terms are marked in red because they are still a little vague and we discuss how these parts of the text could be rendered more specific.

This in combination with the questions to reflect on after each unit generally produces good results. There are still students each semester who struggle with what to write about but after they’ve received personalized feedback on their first reflection, suggesting how they could expand on areas that may be overly general and thus possibly not so useful, their reflections generally become more detailed and specific.

One thing I’m not as happy about is the fact that since the questions have been introduced, the majority of students rely on these and rarely choose other aspects to reflect on, even though the instructions always stress that the questions are only there to provide inspiration and don’t (all) *haveto be answered.  This tends to make the reflections a tad predictable in structure, and to an extent in content. 

Another thing I sometimes feel I could use some help with are the questions themselves. I tweak them most semesters, adding new ones and removing those which don’t seem to have been helpful or produced much engagement. If you know of any resources that provide suggestions on how to structure reflection questions or which aspects of learning to target, they would be much appreciated!

Categories
Thoughts and reflections

Taking time out?

I’ve been quiet on here for a longish while. Today this came up on Timehop and I thought I’d give writing a try.*

It hasn’t been writer’s block, though. It’s been a new job. Around 3 months ago I started working full time in an office job, entirely unconnected to ELT. There we go; I’ve said it. I’ve tweeted the occasional (fairly) oblique reference to the new job since then, and updated my Linkedin profile, but haven’t spoken about it in detail, except to my family and some friends.

It isn’t a secret, obviously, but it *has* been a change. Primarily because of the lack of ties to English teaching – something I’ve been doing my whole working life. Or since 1997. The job is in the education sector, so it’s not as if I’ve moved on to a completely unfamiliar field, but it’s not what I’ve sort of built my professional identity around.

It’s a great job: there’s a lot to learn, it’s rewarding in many ways… what’s not to like? On so many levels it made complete sense to go for it, particularly as things have been less than ideal recently at the institution I’ve been working for over the past nine years.

Since I began teaching I’ve met countless teachers who eventually quit ELT for jobs that promised greater stability and security. When I say ‘quit ELT’ I mean quit working for private language schools – teachers working in the state sector seem to make this change less often. For a very long time I thought I was going to be one of those teachers – I wrote about this for the #YoungerTeacherSelf challenge. But then, especially over the last couple of years while I lived in Belgium, I became used to the idea of always being in ELT in some way. I suspect this feeling was encouraged by the fact that in a new country my teacher identity allowed me to hang on to something familiar. Also probably by the comforting, if possibly misguided, belief that I’ve “achieved” something in this field – feel free to interpret achievement as you like – and that it would require too much effort to start something new at this point.

I guess this is why I keep telling myself that I’m just trying this job on for size – it’s a temporary contract anyway. If it doesn’t work out, I can always come back to ELT.

If you had the choice of leaving teaching after a long time in the profession, what would you do? And if you decided to stay, what do you think would be the deciding factor?

* In the interest of addressing petty concerns accuracy “today” was August 18.

Categories
Thoughts and reflections

30 questions (about 2015)

I remember when chain emails with questions like these were making the rounds in, like, 2001. They were an excellent way of procrastinating then, too. My favorite question was (no idea why) – if you looked under your bed right now, what would you find? A whole lotta dust, in case you were wondering. 😛

I came across this set of questions in posts by Rachel Daw and Sandy Millin (see the original post in which Anna Loseva explains how she came up with the questions here), and thought I’d give them a go, sticking to work-related stuff for the most part.

It’ll make more sense if you pretend this was posted in 2015, obviously.

  1. The best moment of the year.

When I’m pushed to make a decision, I keep thinking, surely there’s something you’ve forgotten. So this most likely wasn’t THE best moment, but it was a proud and happy one nevertheless: a student of mine was the only one from Zagreb University to be awarded a grant to spend a semester at York University in Canada. I like to think the reference I wrote helped at least a bit.

  1. What inspired me the most this year?

The way my assistant mods contributed to our online course. I did a post on that here.

  1. The major news of this year.

The AMORES project is officially over!! (If you can find two consecutive exclamation marks anywhere else on this blog, I’ll eat my pom-pom beanie. Apparently the hat of the year, if you’ll excuse the digression.) So, yes, two years of pretty hard work have come to an end and if you would like to help our stats by taking two minutes to download a copy of the methodology here, that would be lovely, thank you very much. It’s a bit of a drag that you have to register, but we will not abuse your data and spam you – promise. For people who like pics, we have loads over on Flickr.

  1. Anthem of the year.

I’m at the stage where something could be playing over and over for a whole year and I can’t be bothered to check what it’s called or who sings it. I think the next stage is when I start saying, “They just don’t know how to make music anymore”, and those under 20 start giving me pitying looks.

  1. The most important people in my life.

Have very little to do with ELT.

  1. What was most difficult for me to do this year?

One thing was probably deciding whether to go to the TESOL France Colloquium in Paris, held a week after November 13. I was supposed to give a talk, so I felt bad about cancelling. In the end I went and was glad I did.

  1. What color was this year?

All the colors in the Fotor for Android effects range.

  1. Which event of the year would I choose to remember forever?

The BELTA Day weekend. Apart from the professional value, I really enjoyed the dinners on Friday and Saturday with the speakers and the board. And helping prepare the venue was stressful but fun. I think there is a pic of me somewhere sweeping the floor. With a broom. Those who know me well will appreciate the momentousness of the occasion.

  1. Which word did I use most often?

Probably AMORES. Or maybe please. As in, “Please remember to check the deadline for unit X”. One of the perks of online teaching.

  1. My most ridiculous purchase of the year.

That would be ridiculous as in disproportionately expensive? Okay, I paid way too much for the train tickets to Paris (see #6), considering I could’ve booked months in advance and paid a fraction of the price.

  1. I shouldn’t have experimented with …

Taking on a second project that required a serious time commitment while the first one wasn’t over.

  1. This year was wonderful because

The year was good. If it were a student it would get a C. Parts would get an A or a B.

  1. Which inner problem did I solve successfully?

Pass.

  1. Who did I hug at night?

And pass.

  1. Whose wedding did I have fun at?

Luckily, no weddings this year. I find them incredibly tedious, and while I’m happy if the person who’s getting married is happy, I would rather just see the pics. Oh, yeah, a friend from high school got married this year – lovely pics on Facebook!

  1. What was my average salary this year?

Amazingly, pretty much the same as it was for the last three years of running my own school. Which just means it’s a good thing I’m not doing that anymore.

  1. Did I have a conversation that turned everything upside down in my head?

Nope. I can feel I’m going to be flippant, so just nope.

  1. What new project did I start in 2015?

See #11. It was an interesting project, too – materials writing. I had to pull out.

  1. If I could become a superhero for just one day, what would I do?

Revolutionize the Croatian audiobook market. Make people realize you don’t have to be visually impaired to enjoy audiobooks. I’d love to be able to listen to the occasional recording by a Croatian author.

  1. What am I dreaming about now?

I have this idea of living back home at some point, and home being a good place to live. I’m not very demanding about this: a good place to live is a place where both of us have decent jobs, and don’t have to worry about being laid off or the business failing.

  1. What do I consider to be my most important achievement?

Probably doing a good enough job on AMORES to know that I could work in a non-teaching role full-time.

  1. This year until this moment in one sentence.

Oh, I’m crap at this sort of thing. Knowing your weaknesses is a good thing, right? Pass.

  1. The latest message I’ve sent.

Knowing there’s no way I’d answer all these questions in one go and post them, I saved this one for last. It’s not very specific, is it? Do they mean text message? Viber? Twitter? Okay, the last one was yesterday on Twitter, and I said something like, “Thanks very much for the blog post, please send it to X and myself”.

  1. A quote that is most suitable for my year.

Too #22, sorry. But I will recommend two books. They could be read at any time; their only connection to 2015 is that I read them this year (when I say read, I mean got them on Audible). “On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss, and “Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery”, by Henry Marsh.

  1. Did I achieve everything I’d planned for this year?

I guess I should’ve kept a list of the things I’d planned, only I’m not a fan of planning. There was this MOOC I started once (not this year) where they said we should “enjoy the serendipity of the random encounter”, which I liked the sound of. There were a couple of things that went to plan – one was sending in a speaker proposal for TESOL France. I think I also commented more on other people’s blogs, and I’m glad I did – I got a lot out of that, actually (that’s material for a whole other post).

  1. How many new friends did I make this year?

Ha, is that Facebook friends?! Seriously, I have a problem with this term. You saw me once – or never saw me at all – and now we’re friends? I’ve been told this is a ridiculous way to feel and, yes, friends is probably simpler and visually tidier than “People I know on Facebook” or something.

  1. Who did I help this year?

My students, the AMORES project team, the BELTA board. These I know about.

  1. Where did I travel?

I mostly went back and forth between Belgium and Croatia. There were a couple of days I spent in the UK attending an AMORES workshop (Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham), and, of course, the trip to Paris for the TESOL France Colloquium.

Bonding activity at Emma Bridgewater during the UK workshop.
Bonding activity at Emma Bridgewater during the UK workshop.
  1. Which projects am I putting off till next year?

See #25. There’s nothing in particular. Okay, one thing comes to mind. Despite my audiobook obsession, I’ve continued to buy paperbacks. So I was thinking I should take a break from audiobooks and go back to reading, at least to get through the books that have piled up over last year.

  1. What do I want to achieve next year?

Possibly write something that’ll make it into a publication with a wider readership. We’ll see.