Student Bloggers Reflect on Learning


My approach to instruction borrows from the thinking of Donald Finkel who believed that teaching should focus on “providing experience, provoking reflection.” 

He goes on to write,… to reflectively experience is to make connections within the details of the work of the problem, to see it through the lens of abstraction or theory, to generate one’s own questions about it, to take more active and conscious control over understanding.
~ From Teaching With Your Mouth Shut

Since I first posted my Taxonomy of Reflection in Jan 2010, I’ve been on the lookout for good examples of student (and teacher) reflection to share with my readers.

I was pleased to see that Mike Gwaltney (and good friend and great teacher at Oregon Episcopal School) had developed a well-designed model for incorporating student reflection into a new class blog. The Age of Exploration Blog. I urge you to visit his class blog and respond to the student posts – they are looking for your feedback.

Honesty, deeper reflection, and care in the writing because they know they’ll have “real world” readers and commenters, not just their teacher

I asked Mike for his “elevator pitch” on why he thinks fostering student reflection is so important. He replied, 

Teachers don’t give kids time enough to reflect in a serious way. The success of this assignment comes from giving them: a) instructions on how to reflect, good questions to consider; b) time to do so – real time, not just one day, but frequently; c) an authentic audience to write for – it encourages honesty, deeper reflection, and care in the writing because they know they’ll have “real world” readers and commenters, not just their teacher.

Here’s a portion of Mike’s assignment for his high school sophomores. Full assignment here

The topics of your blog posts in general should be “reflection on your learning”. Reflection is an opportunity for you to step back and think about / evaluate. When you reflect, you’re doing very high-order thinking, the kind we do when we self-assess. As for the topic of your reflection, you choose that. Here are some general ideas I have for topics:

  • “What I’ve been studying / learning lately.” – tell us about some topics you’ve researched this year and what you’ve learned. This could be about the big topics of projects, or about little pieces of a topic you discovered and that you found really interesting.
  • “What I’m working on right now and what I hope it will be.” – tell us about your current project and how it’s shaping up. What are some things your finding and what form will your project take?
  • “What I’m learning about myself as a learner.” – tell us about how it’s going for you being in a research-based class. Are you finding this is a good way for you to learn? What’s easy? What’s hard? What are some successful strategies you’ve followed? How do you think you can improve?
  • Etc. – what other ideas do you have for a blog post? Feel free to take it where you wish.

I’ve been impressed with the depth of reflection generated by his students’ posts. I asked Mike if I could join in the dialogue by posing a few questions for his students to answer. (sort of reflecting on reflection). I asked them to read their reflections and those of their peers and answer two questions:

  1. “Do you see any patterns in the reflections”. I think that analyzing is the gateway to higher order reflection – See my post The Reflective Student for more prompts.

  2.  ”Looking back to your reflections (and those of their peers) can you identify any ‘ah-ha’ insights?”


Here’s some of the student responses:

What I found really interesting about this assignment was that most people wrote about themselves as learners, not the information they have gained from our class.


What I found really interesting about this assignment was that most people wrote about themselves as learners, not the information they have gained from our class…. My peers and I are accustomed to very focused courses that, while emphasizing creativity, don’t always allow students to pursue what really interests them or to learn more about themselves. This blog looked like it was an opportunity for many people to have semi-revelations about their school experiences and their optimal learning environments.

The ah-ha insights were kind of obvious: students in this class learn the best when they can choose what, and how, to learn. I just realized that this blog was another mechanism of learning that helped most everyone learn about themselves. Haley’s full post A Love, Lost and Found


Most of our reflections aren’t just talking about what we learned fact-wise or wrote in class. It seems we’re actually taking a look at what we’ve been doing ourselves, examining how we learn things, what’s been working for us, and what hasn’t been working. The class is about learning information, while this blog is about us learning about our learning of information.

Ah-ha insights: Karen saying, “As a researcher, I’ve found my hardest task not to be collecting information or presenting it, but rather motivating myself to delve deeper and deeper into the topic instead of simply accepting what I have as being good enough.” Arjun saying, “the point of research is to learn something new or interesting, and then share those findings with others” Robby saying, “Instead of being graded on what is right and wrong, a student can be graded on how well they did personally” Spencer’s full post Research Conundrum: Bias


First of all, every one of the posts shows that the author has been enjoying Age of Ex immensely. My post was mostly about learning and researching as a concept rather than actual facts or ideas that were learned in assignments, and most of the other posts focused on essentially the same thing. My classmates and I have written about how the loose structure of the class gives us enough support to feel comfortable, but also encourages us to push beyond what we’re used to and to think for ourselves.

Certainly one of the most common insights was that research based classes are, in fact, pretty difficult because they require one to be self-managed and self-driven. On the other hand, another of the most common realizations was that we were enjoying our research and learning. It seems that we also found that the necessity of being self-driven pushed us to understand who we are as learners and how we learn best. Clare’s full post Researching History to Understand My World


One commonality that I noticed throughout many of the blog posts was the appreciation of the freedom that Age of Ex has given us. For me, and some classmates, this was a crucial component in choosing this class. What appealed to us was the ability to learn about what we, as individual students, were interested in. Another thing that I noticed was people rediscovering the researching process. Learning how to budget time and tackle large projects.

Many of the ah-ha moments I noticed were the realization of an individual research process. Over the course of this first project, people realized which researching techniques worked from them, and which didn’t. I think that these lessons are going to be something that a majority of the class continues to carry with them throughout the year. Lauren’s full post A Research Project in Retrospect

Image credit: flickr/Alex Clark

Abraham “Abe” Rothberg: Author, Professor, Friend

Abe Rothberg and Peter Pappas

Two weeks ago, I lost a very important person in my life. For more than 25 years Abe Rothberg served as friend, mentor, surrogate father and personal curmudgeon. Over long lunches in diners or late afternoons in his study we’d discuss politics, history, literature, journalism and gossip about everyone we knew.

By the time I met Abe in the early 1980’s he had many achievements – a distinguished career as a journalist, university professor and author of thirteen novels, two books of history, a collection of short stories, two children’s books, and a volume of literary criticism. Abe was the most learned (and opinionated) person I ever knew. While I never saw Abe in the classroom, he was beloved or feared (or both) by legions of English literature students from his days teaching at Hofstra, Columbia and St. John Fisher.

For more on Abe’s accomplishments see the New York Times obituary
Abraham Rothberg, Who Wrote of Golem and Stalin, Dies at 89 

Following his retirement from teaching, I knew Abe hoped to devote more time to his writing. There were some successes – like an occasional journal piece,  but many of our lunches were punctuated by his growing disappointment that yet another book manuscript had been rejected. So beginning around 2000, I began to try to convince Abe that we could use new print-on-demand technology to by-pass the big publishing houses and do it ourselves. “I will never stoop to vanity press,” he’d bellow.

I pressed on and a few years later (did I say he was stubborn?)  I convinced him to let me publish The Holy Warriors a novel that had been rejected by a few publishers despite the fact that it had, in a way, anticipated 9/11. “OK Abe, let’s get this started – give me the Word doc of the book and I’ll get going on design.” Abe replied, “What’s a word doc?” (Did I mention that Abe refused to even LOOK into a computer screen?) So before beginning work on book design, step one was finding someone who was willing to scan / proof  his typewritten and heavily edited manuscript into OCR.

Eventually the book was finished and sent off to Lulu for publication. I’ll never forget bringing the finished paperback to Abe. He took the book in his thick hands and kept turning it over  – like a baker patting down dough. His face beamed as he asked,  “So when do we get started on the second book?”

Over the next six years we published another twelve books. (That’s right – all 12 started as typewritten manuscripts.) The scope was a remarkable testimony to the breadth of Abe’s interest and expertise – collections of  short fiction On A Darkling Plain, essays and literary criticism What Time Is It Now? novels set in Japan The Torii Gate and the Soviet eastern block The Former People. Subject ranged from a children’s story – Pinocchio’s Sister ~ A Feminist Fable  to an exploration of the justice system through the lens of a serial killer The Trials of Arthur John Shawcross.

In 2010, a group of his friends held a tribute to Abe  – the man and his writing – as part of a Jewish Book Festival. Here’s an excerpt of the reflection that Abe shared with us. (I learned he always liked the last word)

… Serious fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Fiction can introduce you into the lies and truths of other people’s minds and hearts, to your own country and time, or strange, foreign places and other eras, into the most public forums and the most private scenes of human intimacy; it can make you see, hear, feel, love, hate, forgive, judge, understand, and yet not be bound by the consequences of all those activities, though you are there as a participant-observer in the most personal and informed ways. … And so, tonight, you will hear some of the lies I have written I take to be important truths, serious fictions about our lives and times. I thought my books might contribute to the cultural and political conversations and dilemmas of our epoch. If that has not taken place as I wished– and I am sorry to say it has not–it was not for the want of my trying.

To read more about Abe, download or order his books click here.

Isabella’s Story: Working to Sustain Her Sugpiaq Fishing Heritage. Now She’s Fighting for Her Life

A sad update: Bella passed away on January 10, 2012. Her courage will always be an inspiration. Thank you to everyone who sustained and supported her over the last year. As a tribute to her, the rest of this post remains in it’s original form.


Regular readers of my blog will recognize how unique this post is. It’s far from what I normally write about. But I feel compelled to tell a story in the hopes that I can help spread the word for a friend in need. Isabella, my next door neighbor, is fighting for her life against cancer. You can help with a donation, tweet or status update. Here’s Bella’s story.

Isabella Blatchford, a native Alaskan Sugpiaq Indian, was well on her way to creating a sustainable seafood business. (She had already sold to Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse!) She saw it not only as a viable business, but a means to support her Sugpiaq heritage and honor her tribal elders – the last handful of Sugpiaq  speakers. In February 2009, she discovered she had Stage 4 cancer. Using a blend of standard and alternative medical treatments, she was able to beat the odds for the last few years. 

However in February 2011 her cancer tumor markers went back up rapidly, and her doctors are have told her that it is time for a quick change in her method of treatment. She has the opportunity to travel to Mexico for treatment. She is in need of $7,000 by April 20th, 2011 in order to obtain treatment. 

Isabella Update: Here’s a story and powerful video from the Oregonian An Alaska native who lives in Portland battles cancer while working to save a tribe’s language (April 13, 2011)

Isabella needs your help. Even a small donation will be appreciated. And you can help her get the word out – contribute a Twitter link or a Facebook status update.

Thank you for anything you can do.

Photo: Torsten Kjellstrand/The Oregonian

ITSC 11 Conference Prezi Cast



I'm pleased to be invited as a guest blogger to the Instructional Technology Strategies Conference 2/20-22 in Portland, Oregon. Here's the first installment.



Big hat tip to Mike Gwaltney who helped gather content. Be sure to stop by his blog  "Democratizing Knowledge" for more ITSC 11 coverage.

Stay tuned for more of my ITSC11 posts
Don't forget to conference tweet use hashtag #ITSC11
More of my Prezis 



Filtering in School? A Response

Filter A recent post by Mike Gwaltney “Keeping Kids off the Internet – What’s With the Draconian Filtering Policies?” posed some important questions “Is filtering necessary? If so, why filter so aggressively? Is there a way to filter effectively that both protects students and allows them to use the Web to its potential? Aren’t we doing students a disservice by blocking the full internet?”

Here’s my response:

I grew up in a heavily curated information landscape. The news was limited to relatively few sources. I can even remember the days of the 15 minute evening national news cast. Schools were just another one of the information gatekeepers that ruled my life. But at the same time it was rather tough for me to get in trouble. (though at age 16, I did manage to read large portions of the newly banned “Fanny Hill” in the aisles of a progressive bookstore). 

Today, students are awash in text without context. They are only a click away from reading that the “Holocaust was a hoax.” Ironically many schools respond by filtering. Wouldn’t it make more sense opening up the internet at school – providing thoughtful analysis and responsible use?

Filtering teaches hacking, not responsible use. 

For more on this subject see my post “What Happens in Schools When Life Has become an Open-book Test?

Image credit: Flickr/GIANTsqurl