The older my children get, the more intentional I am about making the most of the smallest snippets of time we have together. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the 10 minutes we spend together in the car on the drive home from my children’s school. Some days, these 10 minutes are an absolute delight, with my three-year-old son spouting enthusiastically about playground escapades that may or may not have actually happened, and my five-year-old daughter explaining in obsessive detail everything she learned about the planets. Other days, I have to be satisfied that the angry elbows and legs flying back and forth between the car seats haven’t drawn blood.
To the small extent that I can control that time, I’ve thought about how those 10 minutes can really be a great time for reflection. When I reflect, I know that I tend to err on the side of volume, peppering myself with questions, obsessing about tiny details, and fixating on should’ve/would’ve/could’ves. Aware of this personal weakness, in my 10-minute rides with my kids, I’m aiming for quality over quantity, playing with one or two bigger questions such as “Did anything surprise you about the planets?” or “What was most fun about the playground?” to show that thoughtfulness about our lives doesn’t have to be exhausting.
These times of reflection resonate across my professional life as well. As I think about how to keep reflective conversations small, I also think about the reflective practices I model for teachers.
Reining in the Self-Criticism
Michelle, a sixth-grade teacher with whom I work, had been focusing this year on her small-group instruction, and in May, was at the stage of refining not only how she selected small groups, but also the structure of that small-group time. Together, we had analyzed a sample set of student work to identify teaching points in students’ work with point of view. Now we were at the point that it was time to craft our language for a small group of students who were struggling.
“I would really love to see how you run the group in fifth period, and then maybe I could try it sixth period,” Michelle suggested. “I’m still having a hard time with getting students to apply the teaching point in the small-group work.”
With the demonstration lesson in mind, I thought about how what we were really doing was teaching a minilesson to a small group. I jotted down a connection to the strengths and growth areas we’d noticed in the students’ work, the teaching point we’d settled on, ideas for active engagement, and a link to independent practice. My goal in planning a demonstration lesson is to provide just enough detail to be a potentially strong model for the teacher, without being so scripted that it becomes a lesson that lacks responsiveness to students or would be an amount of work that the teacher could not sustain in day-to-day planning.
I came to the group armed with my notes, students’ work, an example point-of-view analysis, a mini–anchor chart laying out the teaching point, and sticky notes for students to try out the strategy. As I worked with students, Michelle watching and taking notes, I started to mentally tally everything I would do differently the next time I tried the lesson. I totally stumbled over the teaching point. I need to rearrange the strategies on the anchor chart to flow more naturally. This mentor text is not working the way I’d intended. I’m not sure this was the right approach for guided practice.
Before I knew it, the 10-minute lesson was over. Students transitioned to the next part of class, and Michelle and I furiously scribbled down notes for ourselves. Between classes, Michelle and I quickly debriefed her notes, with Michelle planning to tweak a few things when she tried the lesson with her sixth-period class. We agreed to debrief again more extensively the following morning.
That afternoon, I went through Michelle’s and my notes. When I looked at the flood of self-critiques I’d had when I was demonstrating, I took a step back.
In the planning process for the demonstration, I’d been intentional about the sustainability of the planning practices I modeled. I needed to invest the right amount of time and thought into planning that a teacher wouldn’t see my lesson as shiny, perfect, and unattainable.
What did I need to think about now when it came to the sustainability of my reflective practices? What did I want teachers to take away not just from the lesson itself but from the reflection I modeled?
In that moment, I revisited Heather Rader’s fantastic article “The Superpower of Reflection,” a piece that had been well received by teachers for its messaging about the importance of keeping reflection bite-sized. It occurred to me that when I’m demonstrating lessons, I’m not just modeling the instruction; I’m also modeling healthy reflective practices. I realized that I needed to think about that messaging for myself, and about what I was modeling for teachers with my own volume of critical self-reflection.
When I followed up with Michelle, I thought about our roles and the intent of reflection in a demonstration lesson. In the demonstration context, as the lead instructor, it’s also natural for me to take the lead in reflection. I thought about what I wanted to prioritize when Michelle and I debriefed, and landed on these three areas:
|Question for the Coach||
Language for the Teacher
|How did Michelle’s role—in this case, crafting and taking notes on the work—help me as a learner?
|Validate Michelle’s contributions to my learning.||I’m really working on getting a better handle on consistent, straightforward, short formats for small groups, and talking through and working through this today with you was really powerful learning for me.|
|What’s the biggest priority coming out of this conversation?
|Model for Michelle the power of one small inquiry, trying to select a priority based on the goals Michelle has been working toward. In this case, the structure of her small-group minilessons was a priority.
|I recognized that the active engagement part of the lesson was a stumbling block for students. When I revised the lesson, I changed this part to make every student responsible for jotting down an idea. I’m thinking this would help me quickly reassess and gradually release students back to independent work.|
|Would a tool or resource support Michelle’s work going forward?
|Support Michelle’s independence with small-group work when I’m not with her.
|I’ve sent you a photo of the small-group anchor chart I redid, given your feedback. I would fill the blank spaces with sticky notes as I brainstormed the events with kids during the active engagement part of the lesson.|
The focus of these questions is on my own reflective practice in a setting where I’ve taken the lead. However, in our conversation, I also gave space for Michelle to open up about what she had jotted down and was thinking about, moving forward. Ultimately, the work Michelle and I do is driven by what she notices and wonders about her students and her instruction. My ultimate goal for teachers is for their own reflective practices to nurture that drive, whether I’m with them or not.