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Reflection’s Reality: Learning is a Story



Learning as Journey

Each a journey. Each a story. Each a young spirit with whom I get the privilege to experience life and learning. For 180 days each year, my students and I join journeys, and for the briefest of  whiles our experiences are shared, our stories are intertwined, and we are connected. We are bound by learning. That is our journey, a journey of shared responsibility in our common quest to grow as we make our way down the road. And in that bond we’ve each a role. My role is to provide opportunity and support. Their roles are to take ownership and responsibility. And so, with those packs snugged securely to our backs, we face feet forward and venture into the land of learning, the realm of possibility.

Okay, my flight of fancy has passed, but that is my ideal approach to learning. I don’t want learning to be a tentative transaction, a simple exchange. I want learning to be a committed connection, an exhilarating experience. And while I have wanted that, chased that ideal for most of my career, last year I finally caught some of what I sought. The journey. The difference? I took grades off the table. When I did that, it was no longer my writing their stories in the gradebook. When I took grades off the table, they had to pick up the pen; they became the authors. When I took grades off the table, I opened the path to learning. I discovered the journey.

And on that first 180-day journey, I learned about learning. I learned about reflection. Oh, I had always valued reflection’s role in the learning process, but last year on my trek, I stumbled onto something that I came to call learning stories. Learning stories are reflections. But they are not merely reflections: they are the moments, the chapters, the pages of one’s learning journey. I only dabbled in and experimented with this last year, but my trials were revelatory. When I gave kids the ownership of their learning, they were truly capturing their experiences in the classroom. This wasn’t about writing a reflection out of compliance. It was about writing a story out of commitment. A story. Her story. Her learning. Her journey.

This year it moves beyond the experimental dabble. This year, this 180 day cycle, it will become a full-fledged part of the journey. Learning stories will be a daily component for the kids and me. I am going to call them “Journey Journals.” In a recent, #TG2CHAT, I mentioned “learning stories” in reference to student reflections, and some folks expressed interest in hearing more. Knowing I could not do it in a 140 characters, and knowing I had to get it put together before the year started anyway, I promised a post. Here it is. Here is how I will use Journey Journals in my classroom this year.

Finding Their Stories

Most kids do not regard their lives as stories, and even fewer regard their educational experiences as stories. Sadly, I believe it’s due in part to their feeling that the adults in their lives are the ones writing their stories. So, I have tried to change that. For years, one of the first things that I have my kids write is their reading and writing stories. By the time they reach me in tenth grade, they have strongly-set attitudes on both. So, I ask them to explore those attitudes by tracing back through their experiences and capturing them in a story. If a kid “hates reading,” I want to know why. More importantly, I want him to know why. If a kid “LOVES writing,” I want to know why. I want her to know why.

This year, this will set the stage differently than it has in the past. This year it’s about recognizing where one is and having the power to do something  with it. Before it was a well-intentioned activity, but it was just that. Now it is the first page. It settles the kids in the content and context of our journey. It is the first step, a step that is not exclusive to the ELA classroom. Every kid has a science story, a math story, a health-and-fitness story, etc. So, for those of you reading this who teach in other contents, this can be done in any class.

One cool thing to note is that at Cheney High School we are having all kids in all ELA classes write their reading and writing stories, and they will keep in them in their 9 – 12 writing portfolios. They will revisit the previous year’s story before writing the next. The goal here is for all of them to have four stories from which they can see their growth over the four years with us. A lot of work remains with this, but I am excited by the possibilities. Back to the Journey Journals.

Capturing Their Stories

How’s it going to work? Based on the premise that each day, each unit, each lesson, each activity, really each interaction–academic or not–is a learning experience, here are the basic nuts and bolts of my approach.

  • I will provide composition notebooks for each kid. These will be our journals. I will also have one, and I will do everything that I ask the kids to do. Well, actually, I will have two: one for honors and one for regular. I believe that my doing this along with the kids is vital. If I am selling it, I have to buy it.
  • Our journal entries will be our exit task. Monday thru Thursday, for the last 5 minutes, we will capture a part of our day’s journey. On Friday, our scheduled reflection and reading days, the kids will have more time to capture something from the week’s journey.
  • All entries must include an entry number, date, and title.
  • If students are absent, then they will still be required to capture something from their day. The journey extends beyond school.
  • There will be no points attached. The kids will have the opportunity to bring their journals to our learning conferences to share what they select as evidence of growth. I will share from mine as well. I am looking for commitment here. I am not interested in compliance. They will also have additional opportunities to “publish” (see below).

The capture. To help my kids catch their stories, I am going to give them learning lenses through which to view their experiences.  Here is the basic premise. Our experiences can be looked at in different ways, examined in different contexts. I will ask the kids to look at their experiences through five different learning lenses.

  • Learning Targets: These targets represent our planned route for the day. This is a relatively straightforward lens for the kids. What’d we do today? How’d I do today?
  • Growth: My hope is that this is a consistent consideration for kids. Am I moving? Am I growing?
  • Proficiency: This, too, will likely be ever-present in the kids’ minds as this will represent the major milestones (standards) throughout the journey. How’s my confidence. How’s my performance?
  • World: Here is where I would love for kids to connect their experiences with the broader world–life, the human experience. How does this relate to the world? What connections can I make?
  • Self: Best for last. If my kids can discover the magic of the impact of on experience on self, then there is little more that I could hope for. This is reflection. What did I learn about myself? Who am I?

Pen to paper. Once the kids have considered context, it’s time to start writing. To help them get started, I will provide the story stems in the graphic below. Some kids, my “natural reflectors,” won’t need these; they will jump right in. Other kids will need help getting started, so for them I generated questions to serve as starters, as stems for their stories. I believe these are particularly important for the daily entries, especially early on, for the kids will need help capturing moments. So, to help prevent the, “I-dunno-responses,” the kids will have these to rely on. I will be capturing my own moments from the day, so I need the kids to become self-sufficient. These stems will serve as my support for that.

Sharing Their Stories

I will never collect the kids’ journals. But I will expect that they have their journals with them every single day, and I will also expect them to share from their stories every single day. Without grades to hold over their heads, this becomes my means for holding kids accountable. I will come at it from a you-are-a-member-of-this-community angle. I will further leverage this as a way to create a community of contributors. I will seek to instill the notion that as members of a community they have a responsibility to make contributions; in a learning community each member learns not only for himself but also his community. We learn with, from, and for each other. So we will share. We will contribute. Here are some ways that we will do that.

  • Audience: partner, group, class, teacher, parent
  • Share a word, a sentence, a passage. This will be our most frequent “publishing” opportunity. We will simply share aloud one of these options with either a partner, a group, or the class.
  • Post-it. There will be times when the kids publish a word or sentence on a Post-it and place it on the front whiteboard. I like this because other classes will get to “hear” their peers’ stories.
  • Poster. This will be a big poster on the wall that I will occasionally ask kids to publish a word, sentence, or passage. Similar to the Post-it, but this is more “permanent.”
  • Pass the Paper. This one will take the longest, so we will only do it a few times a semester. Here, each kid will begin with a blank sheet of printer paper. He or she will publish a word, sentence, or passage and then pass the paper. Each kid will publish onto his/her peers’ papers until the paper returns to its original owner. By the time the activity is done, each kid will own a classroom published document.
  • Learning Logs. Every two weeks kids have to complete Learning Logs (my form of progress reports in the gradeless classroom). As part of the required information, I will ask them to quote themselves from their Journey Journals.
  • Learning Conferences. This one was not included in the brick wall below, but when the kids have learning conferences with me, I will ask them to select and share a passage from their journals to give me a sense of where they are in their journeys. I will also share from mine.

Journeys Join

Thus, we are bound. We are one in our journey. We are one in our learning. We become part of each other’s story. That is the ideal I’ve sought for years, and this year I feel like my ideal finally has a chance to become my reality. I will no doubt have to make some changes along the way, but for now, it’s my best “Do.” I will reflect. And I will do better.

Please feel free to use and adapt to suit your classroom needs if you are interested. That is key, folks; it has to fit you, or it won’t work. Good luck on your journeys this coming year.

Do. Reflect. Do better.



5 Replies to “Reflection’s Reality: Learning is a Story”

  • Neat idea. I like the idea of making reflection such a practical and integral part of your regular schedule of events in the classroom. Though I am not sure I would use them every day, I can definitely see adopting something like this as an end of the week type of reflection.

    I am curious about your learning logs – what do those look like? I am moving towards a SBG classroom for the first time this year, and am looking for a good way to track formative work for both students and I. Any information you have about this approach would be quite helpful.

    Love reading your inspiring blog!

    – TONY

    • Thanks, Tony. Good to hear from you. Hope all is well. So important to make it fit you. Hopefully, you are able to put it to work in some way. Learning logs are still under development. I will present them in a post when they are finished. I am still working through some of the details. Should be out in the next couple of weeks.

  • Where to start…I like so many things about this. Finding their “stories” will be so impactful. Seeing that they can write them and not rely on others to write them- brilliant! Love that they will quote their stories for their learning conferences. Most of all I am so happy about the building of community through the sharing/publishing of these stories. There are so many things I am taking away from this post. Thank you for sharing and making a impact in my classroom.

    • Thank you, Jennifer. Glad you found some value in my post. Pleased that we have become connected through Twitter. It really has opened my eyes and brightened my spirit to find so many awesome educators who are committed to making education better. Enjoy the rest of your summer.

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