Self-reflection and Student/Faculty Communication

‪Self-Reflection and Student/Faculty Communication

Mathew Moses, Lecturer, English Department
Director of the Writing and Literacy Program

When I began teaching at Hostos in Fall Semester 2010, Professor Cynthia Jones gave me an assignment that has been tremendously useful—the self-narrative. After using this assignment successfully in my early teaching, I have since modified and expanded it to account for various levels of English courses. I hope the different iterations could be useful for helping your students critically evaluate and contemplate their own work during the course of their academic careers. While we had composed and read self-narratives during my graduate program, the unique thing about this assignment was the continued process of self-reflection over the course of the semester—hopefully this key element is evident in each version of the project.

The assignment began with a simple journal entry submitted during the first week of classes, in which students told their stories and in turn reflected on their life experiences. Growing out of that first informal assignment, students’ first formal paper was a ~2 page narrative about their journeys, their struggles, and their goals for the semester. Then, we would follow up on this initial formal paper with several informal reflections throughout the semester, especially one mid-term and one final self-evaluation. I found these “evaluations” to be invaluable tools for allowing students to reflect on their progress (or lack thereof), but also excellent venues for faculty-student communication. For example, if a student considers himself or herself to be thriving based on consistent (punctual) attendance, but has yet to complete major out of class assignments, feedback on the self-reflection/evaluation can be useful for reiterating grading and class policies.

The initial self-narrative was especially useful during moments when students were allowing their motivation to wane. A timely email reminding a student of their goals for the semester, or for attending college at all, can sometimes be the difference between losing a student and getting them to reinvest in their education. Similarly, verbally reminding an unruly student of their own stock in the course can be a lot easier when you (the professor) are aware of why the student is taking your class in the first place.

I would always begin the assignment by reminding students that they will not hurt my feelings when they tell me they “hate” writing, or they are “only doing this because [they] have to.” I tell them it will not hurt my feelings because, ultimately, each student has a powerful motivation for furthering their education and my class will be a part of that rite of passage, even in some small way.

Over the past six years, I have added layers to this assignment based on class level. For English 110 and 111, I also include a literacy narrative, another introspective assignment that asks students to reflect specifically on their experiences with reading, writing, and language. We begin by reading famous literacy narratives, including poems (“Theme for English B”) and essays (“Learning to Read and Write”), before expanding our scope to include examples written by college students. I am careful in this section to include less than perfect examples of student work and we go through each text to identify strengths and weaknesses.

At the conclusion of the unit, students then go through the writing and revising process in order to develop their own literacy narrative. I find the process to be useful as reflective writing and thinking, but also a great tool for building class unity. Often when we do peer review of these literacy narratives, students are able to commiserate with classmates and share their struggles or successes with the larger group. Additionally, this assignments helps students to see where they “fit” in terms of their literacy skills and experiences, as well as where they hope to go.

For English 93, my focus is on developing study skills and habits to parallel students’ progress as writers and thinkers. As such, this semester I incorporated a focus on “grit” (see especially Professor Angela Duckworth’s recent articles and new book) to go alongside the self-reflective writing. The first day of class, each student took the “Grit Scale” and graded themselves. Then, we had a (fairly far ranging) discussion on what it means to be a student with grit, and the difference between being gritty and being tough. The main difference being of course that, while both are about resilience, toughness is a durable quality, while grit requires decision making that leads to determination and resolve. I told the class I figured they were tough, but what they needed was determination and discipline.

As one might imagine, even reinforcing this message at each class meeting only went so far. After about the first month of classes, I was seeing a major lack of resolve, but I was not sure why. In order to challenge the class and try to find answers, I had them hand in a unique journal entry that would later prepare the class for the midterm self-evaluation. I put three categories of students on the board, with examples in each category:

Can-Will
Good attendance/gritty/strong work ethic/completes assignments (etc)

Can-Will Not
Poor attendance/poor (or no) completion of assignments/partying/sleeps in class/playing on phone/leaves early (etc)

Cannot
Lacks needed outside support/Would benefit from visiting ARC or Counseling/Suffering personal tragedy/Suffering serious illness (etc)

From there, I had them each choose a category for themselves and defend their inclusion with their chosen group. A few students protested as they wrote, claiming the assignment was “too personal for school.” But responses I received were for the most part honest and all were extremely enlightening.  I took them home over the weekend and wrote each student a short letter in reply—sometimes agreeing with them, sometimes disagreeing, and often simply offering encouragement and reassurance, or suggesting practical help and campus services. The communication and candidness brought the difficult students in class back around, and helped establish the elusive motivational bond I was seeking, as well as providing great groundwork for self-reflection and further self-evaluation.

As we move to the end of term, I am preparing again to read a round of “final” self-evals and respond to them. I am reminded how important this process can be, for students to begin to think critically about their own work, and for faculty to open new lines of communication with their classes. If you have not tried it, feel free to borrow some of these ideas!!

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