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Review of Reflective Writing for Language Teachers
This is a book written for all those who are currently connected or hope to be connected in the future with language teaching, and in particular, second language learning and teaching. This includes teachers of English or of other languages, those taking graduate courses in English as a second or foreign language, as well as those in administrative positions responsible for professional development opportunities for teachers.
In ‘Reflective Writing for Teachers’, the author suggests that the regular noting of a teacher’s thoughts on all class experiences will help the teacher observe patterns that probably already exist but that do not come up for objective screening, not even in the teacher’s own mind. Once these images start taking concrete shape, the teacher can decide how to deal with them. The author shows ways in which reflective writing can be a means of professional development for a foreign language teacher. The process of reflective writing, starting from the critical moment of realizing its need through years of experience as a language teacher, is worked out in various respects throughout the book.
In the first chapter, Thomas Farrell points out that the role of the teacher is central in the whole process of reflective writing and professional development. The first moment of awareness is that of ‘Waking Up’ (p. 10), when the teacher realizes the need for self-reflection. Although top-down approaches have their value, for professional development to be sustainable, a voluntary bottom-up approach is probably more effective. Farrell then goes on to outline five stages in sustaining professional development. In the first stage, teachers examine their beliefs, values and assumptions, as well as their goals. They then move on to the second stage, which includes “reflecting with their students” (p. 24). The third stage includes reflecting with their colleagues, while the fourth stage makes the reflection more complete by encompassing school/institute administration. Finally, the fifth stage advises forging a link with the most relevant professional organizations in the teachers’ areas like TESOL and MLA in the USA or other such organizations in a different country or region. He concludes the chapter by reiterating the importance of the individual teacher’s role in beginning and achieving professional development for it to be ‘meaningful and lasting’ (p. 26).
The second chapter, “Reflective Practice”, discusses different types of reflective practice activities that teachers may follow and develop in their careers. These are action research, teaching journals, concept mapping, teacher development groups, classroom observations, teacher metaphors, maxims and beliefs, and critical friendships. The author points out that after following one or more of these forms of reflective practice, every teacher can work out his/her own philosophy of teaching. The next step is comparing that with what s/he actually does in the classroom. As in the first chapter, here too, the author stresses the importance of being ready for this process of self reflection and development. He also notes that even though this book is about writing as a form of self reflection, it may not be the preferred or ideal form for all teachers.
After having discussed various forms of reflective practices, Farrell goes on to look at “Writing as Reflective Practice” in the third chapter. The first question that comes up is “Why Write?” (p. 56). An answer that Farrell quotes throughout the book is “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” (pp. 6, 58). Writing helps us step back and look at what we are thinking and doing, which can initiate a process of changes that we bring about in ourselves. Thus, reflective practice can be a powerful tool for teachers. Farrell then examines whether writing is a product or a process. Looking at writing as a reflective process necessarily emphasizes the process of writing and formation rather than just the end product. In terms of how to get over the initial obstacles and actually start writing, Farrell suggests “Brainstorming” (p. 71) and “Freewriting” (p. 71). In the process of writing, revising and writing multiple drafts, while keeping in mind both audience and objective, are crucial steps. The author concludes the chapter by saying “The main reason I write is to see my own thoughts, so I can slow them down a bit, step back from them, and then reflect on where I am and where I want to go next” (p. 79).
The fourth chapter looks at the “Reflective Teaching Journal”. Farrell talks about keeping journals, as well as forms of journal writing, and goes on to describe a case study of three teachers and a facilitator keeping a teaching journal, which helped them see their thoughts (p. 87). Regarding the case study, he gives excerpts from the writings of the three teachers, along with some possible explanations of their writings. In one of the case studies, the teacher was concerned with evaluating her teaching and with events that gave rise to problems in her teaching. She then tried to find solutions to the difficulties that she encountered. One of her difficulties was finding an acceptable modality of correction of language errors. She also mentioned her feelings regarding her own solutions and her concerns with respect to her teaching procedures. In the second case study, the teacher was mostly concerned with decision making in the classroom and possible spaces for teacher training. Farrell ends the chapter by advocating that teachers write in journals and also tries to answer some specific questions that will help focus our attention on our own teaching.
In the fifth chapter, “Narrative Reflective Writing”, the author continues to explicate how reflective writing can be of use to teachers. He suggests that as every teacher has a story to tell, writing a narrative about such incidents can allow him/her to unfold all that happened and what he/she interpreted from the incident. He gives readers a framework of four steps in narrative reflective writing -- orientation, complication, evaluation and result -- and proposes writing about critical incidents in one’s career and describing case studies as a part of narrative reflective writing that will help teachers to get perspective on their teaching. Farrell also suggests that it would help teachers to describe case studies as he himself has shown in the previous chapter. By doing so, teachers would be able to get perspective on their own teaching.
Moving towards the final chapters, Farrell discusses “Reflecting in the First Year(s) and Beyond”, where he describes the different stages a teacher’s career may go through (i.e. the teacher’s career life cycle, p. 134). This is based on Huberman’s model (Huberman 1993) and contains the following phases: the career entry stage; stabilization; experimentation; diversification; reassessment; the serene affective stage; and maybe conservatism and disengagement. It is important to start reflecting early in one’s career so that the habit is built into one’s repertoire from the beginning. It is also important to realize that, even after years of teaching, no teacher knows it all, and thus, can never afford to stop reflecting on his/her work.
In the last chapter, “Reflecting For Action”, Farrell emphasizes the importance of the role of teachers and not only that of researchers. We need to know what teachers from schools and other institutions face every day in the course of their work and the fact that even today almost all published work comes from the university and leaves a lacuna in the research and teaching experiences that we can easily access. Often, language teachers think of themselves as nobodies who have nothing significant to contribute to language education. However, we all need to know and understand what is actually happening in language classrooms every day. Many school teachers do not even know how they could contribute to research and that research could be part of their work. To give an example of some such work that has been carried out, Farrell first describes Language Teacher Research in Europe (Borg, 2006) and then a Language Teacher Research Comparison Over Six Continents. Regarding the research carried out by Borg, Farrell says “the four main areas of research focused on training teachers for action, using technology in language teaching, students attitudes to learning, collaborative learning, learning and teaching styles and language teacher competence” (p. 146). About the research conducted across six continents, the majority focused on writing development and greater learner independence and autonomy. Summing up the results of both of the research projects, Farrell notes that work in Europe concentrated mostly on “improvement and development of learning methods and styles” (p. 148) as well as the professional development of teachers, whereas in Australia and New Zealand, teachers focused on culture and language learning. He ends on the note that, hopefully, more and more teachers will get involved in research.
The book ends with words about the necessity for reflective teaching, so that teachers may reach out more effectively to their students.
This volume takes a teacher through various steps, from his/her critical moment of waking, to the need for self-reflection through years of teaching, to the continual need for self reflection, all of which lead to sustainable professional development. The book is well written and proceeds in a step-by-step fashion that is particularly useful for newly graduated school teachers about to step into their own classroom for the first time. From the first to the sixth chapter of the book, the author concentrates on describing what he means by reflective writing, when a teacher should start reflecting, and how to go about reflective writing. After that, in the latter part of the book, it seems that the desire of the author is to get school language teachers not just to start reflecting, but also to get actively involved in researching and publishing their work. The aim is that of helping teachers help themselves to teach their students better (p. 154). I would like to make a suggestion to carry this discussion a bit further. Language teachers at any level (school or university), and of either a second or a foreign language, can reflect on their work by keeping journals and also by documenting and analyzing what their students are saying and writing, i.e., by collecting learner corpora. This would give them objective data on which to base their thoughts on how effective their teaching has been. It is also important to note that, while in this book all examples of case studies, reflective journals and other data are taken from teachers of English as a second/foreign language, these activities may be extended to all foreign language teaching.
I find the earlier chapters on “Reflective Practice” and “Writing as Reflective Practice” very interesting, as they show how to harness our own daily experiences as teachers. By keeping a journal, our own feelings and work become a text to go back to, for ourselves and for others to consult at different points in time. Older experiences and thoughts are often forgotten, so until we have the means to revisit them, we do not realize the value of cyclical thought and the possibility of building on earlier thoughts after having looked back at them from the perspective of time and distance.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Tanya Roy is an Associate Prof. in Italian at the Department of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Delhi. She has been teaching Italian in India since 1994. She has coordinated and taught a Teacher Training Course run in her department for French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. She is interested in making linguistic research and classroom teaching meet in what in Italian is called Didattica Acquisizionale. She thinks that linguistic research starts from data collected in the classroom and then goes back to the classroom for verification. This makes the role of the classroom teacher a central one.