Tuesday July 18th was a great Tuesday.
I owed my good (actually hyper) feeling to an exhilarating hailstorm in Tokyo, my sweet students who gave me the first shikishi thank-you card in my life and made me feel special, AND the best attended RP Tokyo meeting in history – 10 teachers sacrificed their Tuesday night in order to meet other teachers and talk about teaching. When I phrase what happened like that, I can’t help but feel deep appreciation – and fascination, too! I know there are other ways to spend a nice summer evening in Tokyo. I’m grateful people made the choice they made.
We’ll have to put hailstorms, however exciting, aside as this post is about the RP meeting of that day. It was different in a few ways. First of all, we hadn’t had so many teachers in a meeting before. Secondly, we hadn’t had four new members join at any one time before. And finally, we hadn’t structured our reflection in a way like that before. So I have to admit to having been slightly nervous… but maybe it went well (thanks to Bill Snyder and everyone else for being positive and supportive).
And now I’ll tell you what it was we did that got me so excited.
Here’s what happened:
Background: A few weeks ago I attended a 5-minute webinar by Sarietjie Musgrave aka @sarietjiem, in which she described a reflection tool she uses with her students in South Africa when they finish certain projects. The idea behind it is that every finger of a hand is used symbolically to pose a question for guided reflection. The original questions that Sarietjie provided were as follows:
- What worked well for you in this project? (the Thumb question)
- How can you apply the skills/ information you got in real life? (the Index Finger question)
- What caused frustration? (the angry Middle Finger question)
- What made you feel passionate while working on this project? (the Ring Finger question)
- What made you feel vulnerable? (the Little Finger question)
The idea immediately looked so appealing to me that the following week I tried it out with my students, playing with the questions a little to match them to the course the students had just finished. At the same time, I thought it could be interesting (and fitting) for our last Reflective Practice meeting of the term, which had been planned to focus on our achievements and progress made in the four months since the beginning of this academic year.
Procedure: I brought the empty hand template to the meeting and we worked in small groups coming up with our own questions for each finger that we would later answer while reflecting on the term. After that, there were 10 minutes of silent individual writing time (a moment I truly value both in our meetings and classroom scenarios). Finally, we spent the rest of the time discussing our reflections in small groups, asking each other questions to find out more and understand each other better. In the last 15-20 minutes of the meeting in a whole group discussion we shared our thoughts on this way of reflecting and wrapped up the meeting with thanks and farewells and such. Among the thoughts that other teachers expressed while reflecting on reflection were the following ideas that spoke to me:
(1) It was through talking about the experiences lived by us during the term that we could make a better sense of things and events, and also see the interconnectedness of these experiences. I guess holistic could be a suitable word to describe this method of reflection that we used.
(2) We often offer ready-made reflection questions to our students (e.g. how was today’s class? what did you enjoy? what did you learn? how do you do your homework? etc). But the experience of us writing our own questions could very well be transferred to the ways we do it in class – let students come up with the reflection questions they’d like to answer. See where it takes us.
Maybe here’s where the possibly useful part of the blog post finishes and the self-indulgent one begins. I’d like to capture the spring term of 2017 reflection for myself, so here go my answers as they happened during the meeting.
The Thumb, or “Highlights of this semester”
1) Without any doubt, co-organizing ExcitELT conference in Tokyo was the biggest highlight! That sounds like it could be enough but I made a choice to also present at PanSIG conference in Akita two weeks prior to that and at Teacher Journeys conference in Kobe a week after ExcitELT. Five presentations on four different topics within three weeks – so far I haven’t had any experience to top that.
2) At the PanSIG conference in Akita something special happened. I found out there is a SIG that I had just been looking for, THT SIG – Teachers Helping Teachers. In short, teachers volunteer their time and money to go to developing countries and give workshops, presentations, or other forms of support for teacher communities there. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me as after traveling to Cambodia earlier this year I have thought about volunteering as a teacher a lot. Finding the THT SIG seems to be just what I needed. Onwards.
3) After “complaining” about rapport with students in my previous blog posts (that link, and also here and here), finally I feel like this term I’ve managed to establish a deeper connection with my students. The simple answer seems to have been in giving it time, giving me time to adjust to the system. With more control over my lesson plan and my performance within the unified curriculum, also came flexibility. And a comforting feeling that I can afford being me in my class once again.
The Index Finger, or “What did I learn that I can share with others? What did I learn that can help me to move forward?”
1) I would love to keep working on “spreading the love” for reflective practice, the way I know it to be, in the ways I can do it – blogging, organizing and advertizing our group meetings, writing articles, presenting more at conferences, possibly at future workshops that I could volunteer to do as part of THT SIG programs in countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, etc…
2) I would love to share the experience of what organizing a conference can be and how to go about doing it in my university in particular. That’s a possible blog post.
3) I would like to read – and practice – more about how to become a better communicator. Among other things, I’m terrible at managing conflicts, in fact, I’m terrible at experiencing conflicts myself. I think I’m grown up enough now to work on that.
The Middle Finger, or “Frustrations, disappointments, anger, and negativity of this semester”
Swept up in the hassle of May-June conference-related and other busyness, I got so grumpy and stressed that I often did not communicate with the people around me… well. Felt no energy to invest into that communication, into understanding others and being patient, into looking for a common language. It wasn’t good for my system and only added to the already existing stress.
The Ring Finger, or “Connections”
This semester I was as social as I hadn’t been in a long while, definitely not since I moved to Japan. That resulted in renewing old connections and building stronger bonds, forming new connections with colleagues in my workplace as well as with new members of the RP group. I sent a hundred emails and networked meaningfully at conferences. With the information about THT SIG, a whole new vision has opened up, with a view into possible connections outside of what my current teaching and working zone is. Connections that could be a bridge into my next step – teaching in other countries in Asia. Feels like the door has opened a crack.
The Little Finger, or “When did I feel vulnerable?”
Quite a few times during the term I felt vulnerable and uncertain in class with student A. An exceptionally fluent – and overfluent! – student who has lived and studied abroad for many years, student A. was swearing in class, unknowingly dominating discussions, and yet all that with the best of intentions as I later found out. How did I deal with it? Talking and being honest helps. Helped. 🙂
Added in the palm of the hand – “Achievements that I am proud of”
I believe I am somewhat proud of, even if exhausted by the end of it, being a part of ExcitELT this year. It was an experience I hadn’t had before and one that taught me a lot – about conferences, about people, about myself.
Another source of pride would be our RP group success! New members, the interest, the buzz *that I’m feeling**… More than ever before I hope that other group members will step up to become facilitators and share what they believe is worth reflecting on, as well as how else it can be done.
In a discussion a few days ago I complained with an earnest feeling of frustration in my tone that I think I have a problem. My problem is my stubbornness. The fact is, I appear all too ready to be reflective, only if that’s going to be MY way of reflecting, something I understand, something that speaks to MY style. I know it limits my development – and worst of all, I feel like such a hypocrite. Thus, I’d like to end here with yet another quote that takes its roots in the Buddhist teachings.
When we hold too firmly to our beliefs, we risk being blind to reality and seeing only what conforms to our beliefs.
Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down
Thank you for reading.