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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Manage Tensions By Reflecting: What's Working and What's Not?

A simple, liberating thought came to our aid, namely that things about children and for children are only learned from children. We knew how this was true and at the same time not true. But we needed that assertion and guiding principle; it gave us strength and turned out to be an essential part of our collective wisdom.
                                                                   -- Loris Malaguzzi (1998)

          Although it is generally acknowledged that reflection is important for improving teaching, there is little shared consensus on the best ways to prepare teachers to be reflective, or to support practicing teachers in their efforts to be reflective. As a result, teachers are often told to keep a journal and to write about their teaching experiences with insufficient guidance on how to do so in ways that will really benefit them and their students. In this post I will show how the strategy of regularly writing and sharing stories about memorable episodes, what are sometimes referred to as well-remembered events (Carter, 1993), can provide a structure and focus for reflecting on practice that is theoretically sound and helpful in finding practical solutions to ongoing dilemmas and tensions in teaching. Because these follow a research trajectory of description, analysis, and interpretation, I like to call these reflective pieces research stories

Research Stories

          What exactly constitutes a research story from classroom life? Let’s step outside the world of teaching for a moment to consider an example from a memoir. In an essay by Alice Waters, famous
Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard
for her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, and for the Edible Schoolyard Project in schools,  she recalled an encounter while traveling in Turkey when she and a friend ran out of gas:
A shy, big-eyed boy appeared, and he mimed that there was no gas to pump. And we counter-mimed that we supposed we would have to wait….Then, fingers pointing to mouth, where would we get something to eat?

…Solemnly the boy leads us indoors and into the back room where there are benches against the wall covered with beautiful old rugs, a brazier in the corner made out of an old gas can, birdcages hanging from the low ceiling, and a baby brother. Clearly the parents are away and the big brother has been left behind to babysit and turn away customers, and to offer us the imperative hospitality of rural Turkey.
The boy builds us a fire out of pinecones, puts on a kettle, and makes us tea. Then he produces a small piece of cheese and painstakingly cuts it into even smaller pieces, which he offers us gravely.
…He has given us everything he has, and he has done this with absolutely no expectation of anything in return. A small miracle of trust, and a lesson in hospitality that changed my life forever (cited in McNamee, 2007, p. 36).
In this short example, we can see the power of such a narrative. First, there is a rich and detailed description of the event. It is perhaps all the more remarkable because the protagonists did not speak the same language and had to communicate with gestures. Second, there is some analysis helping the reader to see the meaning of what occurred, namely that this young boy had learned the cultural importance of offering hospitality to strangers and sharing what little he had to offer. Finally, we see the author’s interpretation of the event -- a deeply moving gesture of selflessness that taught her an unforgettable life lesson on the true meaning of hospitality. 
            In the context of classroom teaching, a well-remembered event that is described, analyzed, and interpreted for both personal meaning and sometimes for teaching more broadly, is a very useful tool for reflection. It is “an incident or episode a teacher observes or experiences in a school situation and considers, for his or her own reasons, especially salient or memorable” (Gonzalez & Carter, 1996, p. 40). When I have assigned these short essays to my student teachers, we electronically posted them and then discussed them in our weekly seminars. I asked student teachers to identify a single classroom event that struck them as odd, significant, or particularly memorable and worthy of inquiry for some reason.
Learning to write in this way entails making a concerted effort to begin first with what anthropologists call “thick description.” Perhaps because of the ways teachers talk informally with each other and use abbreviated labels for personality types and common classroom mishaps, they fall out of the habit of including descriptive details when writing about events in their classrooms. But it’s important to avoid the common pitfall of jumping to conclusions, rushing to judgment without sufficient evidence, and making unfounded assumptions, particularly when writing about behavior and events related to issues of classroom management. The whole point of reflection is to slow the
Another Turkish interior
frenetic pace of classroom life down, and to notice what went unnoticed before, like watching a video in slow motion. Think back on how vividly Alice Waters described the room where the Turkish boy invited her to eat; the details of the fire made of pine cones, the hanging bird cages and beautiful rugs, the baby brother, and the meager piece of cheese carefully cut into pieces all make us feel we are in the room.
            So a research story should begin by helping the reader be in the moment using sensory details and richly descriptive, but not too value-laden, language. If possible, include the talk and conversation as a transcript, and write down what was said while it is still fresh in your mind. You can always come back and elaborate on it later. Although you want to avoid making assumptions, the situated context in which the event occurred, and the fact that you are writing from your own personal perspective, mean that you can’t be completely objective and write in a clinical, detached way. So strive to achieve a balance of capturing your memory of what happened, what you were noticing and thinking about at the time, and include those details that seem most important to you.
            The next step is to put together the descriptive details and the narrative account of the episode and then try to make sense of what was going on. Maybe there was a mismatch between what you were trying to convey and what the child was telling you. What might have been the reason for this? Maybe you are writing about a conflict between two students. What preceded the event that might help you understand why their conflict escalated? Do you notice a pattern that reminds you of something you have seen before? How did your expectation of what should happen match (or not) what occurred? What was puzzling or surprising for you, and why do you think that is important? These are some of the kinds of questions you can ask yourself once you have begun to write the detailed description of the episode and want to start to analyze it.
            Before writing the last part of the research story, where you will interpret its significance for you personally, and perhaps for teaching more broadly, take a step back and read what you have so far. Think about how a camera lens can zoom out from focusing on one small detail, and try to do the same thing intellectually with your account of this event. How does this detail fit into the larger picture of your experiences in teaching so far? As you have been writing the analysis, and trying to make sense of what was going on, what are you learning about your students, yourself, your classroom and the contexts that surround you? How is this learning significant and meaningful in terms of learning to become a better teacher? How has it effected your beliefs, and how might it change what you will do in similar situations in the future?

A Sample Research Story

          Teachers who do research on their practice and publish their writing about what they learn about and discover through the process of doing practitioner research often use narratives of their experiences with students that are very similar to research stories. One of my favorite teacher researchers, Cynthia Ballenger, writes about what she calls “puzzling moments.” In her latest book she writes, “in order to teach all children more effectively, teachers must develop their curiosity and puzzlement toward children’s words and ideas, especially those words and ideas that strike us initially as less powerful and less thoughtful” (2009, p. 8). 
Ballenger believes the child is always making sense.
          In an example from her teaching in a Massachusetts preschool where the students were Haitian, she tells a story pertaining to her struggles with classroom management that will serve as an excellent example of a research story and its three components of description, analysis, and interpretation: 
Recently I was angrily reprimanding the children about their failure to wait for me while crossing the parking lot:
Cindy: Did I tell you to go?
Children: No.
Cindy: Can you cross this parking lot by yourselves?
Children: No.
Cindy: That’s right. There are cars here. They’re dangerous. I don’t want you to go alone. Why do I want you to wait for me, do you know?
“Yes,” says Claudette, “because you like us.”
            Although I was following the usual Haitian form – rhetorical questions with “no” answers – I had been expecting a final response based on the North American system of cause and effect, something like, “Because the cars are dangerous.” Claudette, however, although she understands perfectly well the dangers of cars to small children, does not expect to use that information in this kind of an interaction. What, then is she telling me? One thing that she is saying, which is perhaps what the solemn children also meant, is that, from her point of view, there is intimacy in this kind of talk. This is certainly the feeling I get from these experiences. I feel especially connected to the children in those instances in which I seem to have gotten it right (1992, p. 206).
First, Ballenger describes the moment in which this little conversation took place, and then she analyzes her own thinking in that moment. Finally, she interprets Claudette’s comment, hypothetically extending it to the larger context of the other children in her class, as one signaling an intimate connection rooted in care between teacher and student.
Imagine, for a moment, that you were Ballenger’s student teacher and witnessed this interaction. It would probably go by in a flash, like many other similar moments when teachers are reminding students of rules or expectations for behavior. Without the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of this moment, Ballenger would probably not have had as informed a way of thinking about the recurring problems she was having with her students’ misbehavior. And if you were her student teacher, you probably would not have found it important to talk together about the significance of Claudette’s comment. Often when working side by side with veteran teachers, it’s hard to see what they see, and therefore it’s also hard to talk together about it. It can be equally hard for the student or veteran teacher to accurately describe and analyze layers of complexity in everyday situations that are either troubling or puzzling. 
          Becoming attuned to potential explorations of research stories, and the sort of careful noticing that such a stance requires, takes some practice. It’s a bit like walking in a redwood forest and remembering once in a while to stop and look up all the way to the top of a particularly beautiful and ancient tree and think about what it means to be in the presence of trees that have stood for centuries.
Reflections in the Armstrong Woods
If you live in California, in places where the redwoods are plentiful, you might lose that sense of awe that travelers have when they see them for the first time. Veteran teachers can fall into habits and behaviors that obscure what it is that student teachers notice as life in classrooms races by. That is why research stories are also useful narratives to share with others. They can be shared with parents and colleagues as a way to break down the isolation of teaching, and to collaboratively work on solutions to recurring problems and unresolved dilemmas. We’ll return to the idea of sharing them with others in future posts.

Reflecting on Dilemmas

          Once you get in the habit of writing research stories, you may begin to notice some patterns in your reflections. As discussed in the first chapter, in research that I have conducted with classroom teachers (Miletta, 2003), we found that teachers have to manage ongoing dilemmas in their practice that are different from day-to-day problems, although there may be a relationship between them. A problem, such as two students, who despite requests to desist, continue to have side conversations and disrupt the work of other students around them, might be temporarily resolved by reseating them separately. A dilemma, on the other hand, can be conceptualized as an ongoing tension the teacher feels between potential or performed actions, which only partially manage the dilemma without necessarily resolving it. Each action that a teacher takes or might take along the continuum of the
tension presents benefits and drawbacks that have consequences for the goals and aims the teacher has in mind. Returning to the example of students having disruptive side conversations, an underlying dilemma the teacher might experience is a tension between wanting to use teacher authority to take corrective action, and seeing value in letting the students work out a viable solution. If the teacher chooses to use her authority, she runs the risk of little or no buy-in from the students, who may continue their pattern of behavior. On the other hand, if she offers them an opportunity to dream up a solution, which may have the benefit of greater buy-in, there is the risk that they will suggest something that the teacher feels is ineffective. Learning how to manage this kind of common dilemma involves risk-taking, trial and error, and reflection on the results and consequences of particular decisions and actions of both teacher and students.
            Magdalene Lampert has written about managing dilemmas and the tensions she experienced in the context of her experiences as an elementary math teacher returning to the classroom after becoming a university professor:
In order to do her job, the dilemma-managing teacher calls upon this conflicted “self” as a tool of her trade, building a working identity that is constructively ambiguous.  While she works at solving society’s problems and scholars’ problems, she also works at coping with her own internal conflicts.  She debates with herself about what to do, and instead of screening out responsibilities that contradict one another, she acknowledges them, embraces the conflict, and finds a way to manage (1985, p. 190).
This way of thinking about managing dilemmas suggests that as classroom events unfold, the teacher’s actions are embodied, sometimes improvised and intuitive, and the consequences of those actions cannot be fully reflected on or predicted in advance. For this reason, developing a habit of reflection through writing research stories can lead to moving beyond coping to more finely attuned strategies for addressing dilemmas.
            It’s important to learn to recognize ongoing, underlying dilemmas in your teaching practice, particularly with respect to issues that seem related to classroom management, so that your practice of regular reflection begins to take shape with purpose and focus. For example, one dilemma might be the tension felt between maintaining a classroom that gives students a sense of safety and security, freedom from teasing or bullying, while also developing a classroom culture that encourages intellectual risk-taking and a willingness to try and fail. David Cohen has pointed out,
Instruction of this sort requires that teachers find ways to engage students more fully in learning, but it also requires that they find ways to reduce or otherwise manage the possible personal risks of such greater engagement. It is no mean trick to intensify engagement at the same time as easing its risks. Some teachers and students have worked out strategies to cope with this curious requirement. They have not been much explored, or even described, but there is no evidence that they are easy (1988, p. 60).
Can you think of a time when you have experienced this dilemma in your teaching? Perhaps it was when inviting particular students to show their newly explored mathematical thinking to the whole class, or during a discussion of a literary text that touched on issues of fear and personal harm that could be potentially sensitive topics to discuss as a class. By learning to look for patterns in your reflections, you will become more adept at both recognizing and managing ongoing dilemmas.

Reflecting on Content and Subject Matter

          In addition to the strategies of writing research stories, and looking for patterns that lead to insights on managing ongoing dilemmas, teachers do a lot of reflecting on the content of what they are teaching. Not only do they develop burning curiosity about topics under study in the classroom,
they begin to have specialized knowledge about how to represent and explain certain ideas to students in ways that will make sense to them and be meaningful. They must also become experts on students’ errors and misconceptions, learning to recognize them and knowing how best to address them. Sometimes it is through their own personal, hands-on learning experiences that they have an epiphany about how to design similar experiences for their students. 
          Some may wonder why reflecting on content and how students make sense of it is related to classroom management. As we saw in the last two posts, effective planning entails knowing why you are designing learning experiences and how they fit with what came before and what will come.
Reflecting on issues of content is important for teachers to do on a regular basis even if they are using established textbooks and curriculum guides to plan their lessons. It’s probably true that the experts writing these materials have already thought through the complex issues of learning theories, children’s development, effective teaching methods, and so on. As long as you understand the concepts or skills being taught, you may well wonder why you can’t just follow the instructional guidelines in the published curriculum. The following cautionary tale will serve as a striking answer.

                                       Try asking a child to solve the equation:
                                                          8 + 4 = __ + 5
                              and discuss the strategy used to find the solution. 
                                      You may be surprised by the answer!
Three math researchers investigating children’s understanding of equality asked them what number would make 8 + 4 = __ + 5 a true sentence. Most children interviewed in grades 1 through 6 answered 12, indicating a misconception of the meaning of the equal sign. Perhaps due to experiences with endless computation problems on worksheets, these children believe the symbol = means carry out the computation and write down the answer (Carpenter, Franke, & Levi, 2003). Surprisingly, fewer than 10 percent of the elementary students gave a correct answer of 7. Such a basic misconception leads to big trouble when those children begin to learn about algebra, and are taught to do the same thing to numbers on either side of an = symbol without really understanding the logic of doing so. This illustrates why teachers have to know the content of what they are teaching with considerable depth and complexity, all the while being attuned to children’s developing conceptual knowledge. Even very young children will have questions that require teachers to tap into their personal resources of authentic disciplinary knowledge, pedagogical experience and understanding, and how those two areas intersect in the particular case of specific children.
            One of the things that can make teaching so challenging is that certain practices are so common and entrenched it can become difficult to question them or to try to do things differently. In the example of misconceptions about the equal sign, most teachers in the elementary grades are so accustomed to writing math equations with an operation on the left side of the equal sign that they don’t notice or maybe even realize the unintended consequences in students’ potential misunderstanding of the meaning of that mathematical symbol. So it’s best to start by taking a questioning, almost skeptical stance when using published curriculum. Remember that all of your planning and instructional choices involve your personal knowledge of the context in which you are teaching, and constructing the rationales accordingly. It is a fallacy that curriculum guides will provide all you need in terms of generic content that can be taught in a universally applicable context.

You can turn your moon observations into a flip book following these instructions from the American Museum of Natural History.

          Imagine for example asking students to conduct moon observations, and to record their observations and be prepared to share them each day in school. For one thing, as their teacher, you must also engage in looking at and wondering about the moon’s appearance. A curriculum guide may contain information about waxing and waning, the moon’s orbital pattern and so on, but you must first and foremost be prepared to engage in conversations about what everyone is noticing. Classroom management, in such a situation, has as much to do with how you are thinking about the content of moon science as how you plan to use ideas proposed by students to develop their theoretical understanding. Trust that students will have ideas about their observations that they will be eager to share, and know that teaching in a way that engages them in exchanging those ideas is exciting; you will have their attention from the start. This palpable engagement will serve you well in terms of keeping behavior problems under control so that you can focus on what students are sharing and understanding.
            Let’s return for a moment to another example of what this looks like in a real classroom. Cynthia Ballenger, who provided us with an example of a research story earlier, writes in her newest book about the shifts that were necessary in her practice in order to support the kinds of thoughtful conversations where students began to take ever greater responsibility for the exchange of ideas in discussions. She began to allow for the sorts of things she might normally correct or ignore, such as side conversations, jokes, stories from experiences children had, and metaphors or analogies. In a particularly vivid example, she recounts how this type of participation led to the whole class experimenting with cups of water to observe evaporation. One student, Francois, posed the very real question of how did the water manage to go up, since he observed there was no hole in the cup that would have meant it leaked down and out of the cup. First, Ballenger took his question seriously and accepted that “this was not something we truly understood” (2009, p.  24). Next, the students brainstormed things that can go up. They shared information from a book that stated that heat rises, but this led to other questions such as why mountains are colder than lower ground. They also wondered why, if the water evaporated in the closed environment of the classroom, wasn’t there condensation on the windows or ceiling? They observed that water mist sprayed into the air vanished,
and this led to numerous other experiments with a terrarium, frozen water melting, and observing their breath on a cold day outside. They also shared their knowledge with kindergarteners, and made large diagrams of the water cycle.
Ballenger describes some important outcomes for her own learning from all of these experiences. For one thing, she learned a lot about condensation, and writes, “I think that at that time I was only beginning to recognize from the children’s questions how much I didn’t know about it” (p. 25). Secondly, she writes that she learned “about the value of emotional and affective connections to subject matter from these children” (p. 25). She also notes that “through their back-and-forth argumentation, they succeeded in developing a much more explicit sense of what growth means in biology” (p. 27). What I think is most relevant for our discussion so far on the importance of reflection, is what Ballenger writes at the conclusion of the chapter:
The kids – and it is regularly those kids who are not doing well who have the most to teach us in this regard – looked wrong to me, puzzling and different and not academic, and yet in the end, they helped me to wonder with them about ideas that were long familiar and had lost their mystery, to see the value of the new and novel connections they were making, to become curious about assumptions I had forgotten I had (p. 28).
Similar important revelations are possible for all teachers, and if we have somehow lost our way from seeing teaching in this light, it is certainly not too late to return.
Reflection on one’s own practice is important, but so is having a means to process practices beginning teachers are keenly observing in their field placements. Informal experiences can potentially have an even greater impact on student teachers than their formal teacher education (Feiman-Nemser, 1983). One of my student teachers, Rita, a pre-K teacher who had taken a leave from her full time job for student teaching in a first grade classroom per the state’s requirements for certification, wrote of her cooperating teacher’s routine for announcing assessment results to the class. Those who moved up to the next reading level or were able to solve a math assessment received applause and congratulations, and then, perhaps with the well-meaning desire to lessen the disappointment of the others, the teacher would read aloud Robert Kraus’s Leo the Late Bloomer (1971). The research story described how one child “remained silent in a midst of a noisy classroom. His body was relaxed emanating a false air of coolness but his eyes had lost their entire spark. Sadness had stroked this young heart that was usually energetic.” The same child had cried the previous week over a math assessment he could not solve. She concluded, “You realize that the general obsession with school readiness has become a cancer that is destroying our children’s spirits and our educational system. Children are labeled by a score. Children’s ability to become lifelong learners is starting to be crushed by ineffective tools of assessments.”
A century ago, the renowned philosopher John Dewey wrote in How We Think about a metaphorical way of capturing how we have been describing reflection on memorable teaching moments, ongoing dilemmas, and questions pertaining to subject matter:
Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives. As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection. Difficulty or obstruction in the way of reaching a belief brings us, however, to a pause. In the suspense of uncertainty, we metaphorically climb a tree; we try to find some standpoint from which we may survey additional facts and, getting a more commanding view of the situation, may decide how the facts stand related to one another (Dewey, 1909/1978, p.189).

A different perspective can help.
This is a helpful metaphor for the thinking involved in teaching. Unlike the common understanding of dilemmas, which either suggest having to choose between two equally unsatisfactory alternatives, or simply working toward resolving any persistent problem or fix, Dewey captured the embodied nature of the decision making process, the desire to see the landscape more completely to make more fully informed choices. Dewey was essentially describing reflective thinking, and to teach well, one must find ways to reflect.


Ballenger, C. (1992). "Because you like us": The language of control. Harvard Educational Review 62 (2), 199-208.
Ballenger, C. (2009). Puzzling moments, teachable moments: Practicing teacher research in urban classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.
Carpenter, T., Franke, M., Levi, L.  (2003) Thinking mathematically: Integrating arithmetic and algebra in elementary school. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Dewey, J. (1909/1978). John Dewey: The middle works. 1899 - 1924 (Vol. 6). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Feiman-Nemser, S. (1983). Learning to teach. In Handbook on teaching and policy, L. Shulman e G. Sykes (eds). New York: Longman.
Gonzalez, L.,  Carter, K. (1996). Correspondence in cooperating teachers' and student teachers' interpretations of classroom events. Teaching and Teacher Education 12(1), 39-47.
Lampert, M. (1985). How do teachers manage to teach? Perspectives on problems in practice. Harvard Educational Review 55(2), 178-194.
Malaguzzi, L., & Gandini, L. (1998). History, ideas and basic philosophy: An interview with Lella Gandini. In C. P. Edwards, L. Gandini & G. E. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach - advanced reflections (2nd ed., pp. 49-97). Greenwich, CT: Ablex.
McNamee, T. (2007). Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The romantic, impractical often eccentric, ultimately brilliant making of a food revolution. New York: Penguin.
Miletta, A. (2003). Managing dilemmas: Uncovering moral and intellectual dimensions of classroom life. Unpublished dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.