BY LAURA RIGOLOSI
When we ask our students to write reflectively on a topic, we are asking them to think about the topic, and put that thinking on paper. This seemingly small ask can have big effects, including an increased awareness of one’s own thinking and learning.
Why might you ask students to engage in this process? As Dr. Saundra McGuire, LSU chemistry professor and learning expert explains, “learning is about being able to explain something and apply it in other ways.” Reflective writing, then, is a way for students to bring their knowledge to the forefront, creating space for them to explain their ideas and apply them in ways beyond the immediate context. For example, when we are reading a challenging class text in English, such as a Shakespearean play, we want our students to do more than read and interpret that particular Shakespearean text; instead, we want them to have an awareness of how they are reading that play in order to later apply those same reading dispositions to another challenging text.
The more we can help our students understand their own metacognition when reading and learning, the more ownership they have over that learning. This is empowering for our students. Teaching students to be aware of their thinking is the first step in reflective writing — and with this awareness comes the ability to apply thinking patterns to other arenas.
Introducing a double entry journal
When we ask our students to engage in reflective writing, we are trying to peek inside their minds to check if they are understanding key concepts, but also we are trying to help them name their own thinking moves. This is why writing to learn is such an important practice in our teaching — we are using writing as a reflection tool to make students’ thinking visible.
In my two decades of teaching, I’ve seen more graphic organizers than I’d care to admit, and in the end, I always return to the double entry journal when I need students to respond to a text in a reflective way. The double entry journal is the most simple graphic organizer imaginable to help students focus on a particular text, and encourage their thinking around that text.
The goal of the double entry journal, circling back to McGuire, is to be able to explain the text and apply it. Keep in mind, when we say “text” it could be a broad use of the term, including math problems, an historical event, a quote from a text, an image, etc.
In an article I co-wrote with Jacqui Stolzer, a fellow K-12 coach, we discussed how “double entry journals include two components: a column on the left, partially filled out with quotes from the text, and a column on the right, which is open for viewers to share their thoughts. Returning to the ideas presented in UDL [Universal Design for Learning], a double entry journal that includes specific lines from the text is useful for students who have central executive challenges, but in reality, everyone can benefit from the text references.”
While the double entry journal is a template for reflective writing, teachers can differentiate this tool by pulling out specific quotes for students, or by giving students free reign to respond to quotes that strike them.
Modeling the double entry journal
Below is an example of a double entry journal that I wrote as a way to show my thinking about a text. In my entry here, I share a quote in the left column that I find provocative, and in the right column, I unpack what it means to me. A student reading this double entry journal might be surprised by all of the reading thoughts I have after reading Bateson’s brief line, but this is the point! We want students to see that my brain is active when I am reading, and in this example I am trying to name some of the thinking moves I am making as a reader.
After sharing a double entry model like this with students, I would ask questions such as: What do you notice I am doing as a writer in my double entry response? What moves am I making? My example is a bit of a stream of consciousness, and this shows students how I can engage with a text in complex and somewhat messy ways. And that is okay! Writing, learning, and reflecting tend to be messy and nonlinear paths. While students may not write as much as I do in the example above, offering them an advanced model can demonstrate the possibilities and multiple ways in which they can respond to a text using this format.
Writing your own model for your students and asking them to notice and name the different ways you responded to the text can be instructive in two ways: students are able to see what we mean by “reflective writing,” and they will glean more understanding of the text through your reflective writing.
When students are asked to write a response to a quote, an equation, an historical event, or a math problem, they have to find something to say. They have to breathe life into that text — both to help themselves understand it more, and to realize how it changes and influences their perspective. This is how reflective writing is a useful tool; it is a type of writing that nudges students to notice what they are thinking, and to document it for others to see. By naming what they think, students are also teaching themselves what they know, and owning their own questions.