Building Reflection Into Teaching

The Red Cedar River in winter, trees reflected in the water.

By Denise Acevedo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures

Transforming Teaching Through Reflective Writing: Reflections of Michigan State University Writing Faculty (TTTRWE) is a year-long project that combines the reflective works from To Teach With Soft Eyes (League for Innovation, 2000) and aspects of a participant-planned professional development (PD) training, Transforming Teaching Through Learning (TTTL).  I designed and first facilitated TTTL at another organization while an administrator and faculty member. In September 2017, seven faculty and two graduate students from Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (WRAC) began the first of nine monthly meetings to explore, via collaboration, reflection, and writing, what it means to be a teacher and learner in WRAC and within a larger educational system.

TTTRWE is not simply about PD for WRAC faculty. The College of Arts and Letters (CAL) and WRAC offer numerous and varied PD opportunities. I wanted workshops, however, that allowed for more individual learning, reflection, and connection to other educators, a closeness with my colleagues through more personal yet professional teaching and learning experiences. I wanted to share those profound experiences with WRAC colleagues so we could identify and bond with our authentic personal and professional selves through the framework of collaboration, reflection, and writing. I wanted a deeper relationship with others who love all things teaching and learning.

With these hopes for individual and shared transformative teaching and learning moments, our group focused September’s meeting on “Mindfulness & Truth-telling” and TTWSE readings from “OUR STORY” (2000, pp. 1-13). It’s an interesting dynamic, to read other educators’ reflections on their teaching and learning and be able to empathize with their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, to be mindful of our professional connection, even though we have never met. I empathized, for example, with one educator’s worry about his teaching, and his teaching “within a system” (Sluyter, 2000, p. 3). MSU is a system, to be sure, as are CAL and WRAC. I am a teacher and learner within those systems and systems can be all-consuming in their vastness, in their added demands exterior to actual teaching; yet, I still find pure joy in the actual art of teaching. I have known for some time, though, that I needed to learn more about being mindful of myself as a teacher and learner. Through this initial collaborative PD workshop, individual reflections and writing, and shared discussions, my truth is that it is primarily the simplicity of shared relationships with students that continues to teach me how to be aware, to become a better me and, subsequently, a better teacher (qtd. in TTWSE, 2000, p. 5) and learner.  

October’s TTTRWE theme, “We Are Who We Teach,” and TTWSE (2000) readings (pp. 93-119) were a perfect fit for our monthly collaboration, reflection, and writing experiences at the Community-Engaged Scholarship Writing Retreat at the Pierce Creek Institute. Along with a number of other College of Arts and Letters (CAL) faculty, two of my TTTRWE colleagues and I attended the two-day workshop, which focused on creating space for faculty members to reflect on and write about their community-engaged scholarship. The learning experiences at this workshop provided us with the space and the peace we needed to dig deeper, which is something I am constantly telling my students to do during reflective and writing moments. Who knew digging deeper could be so hard? Who knew that the teacher in me is also the learner who can empathize with the majority of my students’ learning narratives: anxious about my abilities, interested in learning but challenged for varied reasons, sometimes alone, and lonely, and often rushed to get one more responsibility completed. Despite these barriers, I learned that the scholar in me needs individual, private writing opportunities so that I am able to focus on my needs and wants without guilt, as teacher-learner; this focus on self is also something I recommend to my students. After two days at this Retreat and more than ten pages of reflective writing, I am most definitely who I teach and more mindful of my students’ truths as learners.

Some educators might believe that reflecting on one’s teaching and learning is only, or mostly, effective through in-depth research and application of quantitative theories, strategies, and practices. Maybe this is true for some teachers, but I have learned through my years of teaching that as a writing teacher and learner, it is through the processes of creativity,  reflection, and writing – those qualitative processes – that I am my best teacher and learner selves.

Combined with our TTWSE (2000) readings, “THE COURAGE TO CHANGE” (pp. 15-48), the November theme of “Creativity and Truth-telling,” allowed me to draw on my love of other forms of writing. Past President of Richmond College in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Stephen K. Mittelstet, wrote in his reflective essay on courage and change, “And it’s only the first week of February! I worry about my precious garden, even as I delight in its eagerness” (TTWSE, 2000, p. 17). In my reflections of Mittelstet’s words, I wrote, “How I feel about my students!” I am the gardener to my students; I cultivate through creative lessons, activities, and assignments their eagerness to learn and, unbeknownst to them, they encourage me to try new instructional theories, strategies, and practices. They, in turn, cultivate my joy in teaching and learning.

An aspect of TTTRWE is to liaison with MSU and external colleagues to support participants’ ongoing teaching and learning. Dr. Matt Helm, Director of Graduate Student Life and Wellness, presented at our December meeting, which centered on Time Management: Scholarly and Personal and included TTWSE readings, “UNDER THE SURFACE: OUR STORIES” (2000, pp. 121-149). Matt’s presentation was framed by John Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness, unknowingly reconnecting participants with prior TTTRWE shared teaching and learning collaborations, reflections, and writings. Matt’s presentation resonated with our individual need to be mindful of our purpose for every want, every action as teachers and learners. I learned from Matt’s inclusion of a Henry David Thoreau quote, ‘What are we busy about?’,” that it is my responsibility as a teacher and learner to take the time to be, regardless of myriad barriers, in this authentic frame of mind because, sometimes, overwhelming responsibilities we experience as teachers transform our equally important role as life-long learners.    

These PD experiences have already transformed my teacher and learner selves. I listen to myself, and others, more profoundly when ideas and opinions are shared. I reflect with mindfulness so I not only hear someone’s truth, I hear their narrative, that lifelong road of experiences that have the power to make me better, professionally and personally. I work within a multi-layered system; now I use the authenticity of my roles within to transform and cultivate myself as a teacher and learner. These transformations have not always been easy; that’s okay, though, as I prefer that my growth is labored so I will develop into a more authentic, appreciative, and aware educator and student.