Blogs as a tool for reflective teaching

Jennifer Thomas

‘We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience’. – Dewey, J. (1933, p78)

I work with Sharon School, which is well known in the neighbourhood of Mulund in Mumbai and is affiliated to the Maharashtra state board. The general perception about budget private schools is that they promote rote learning through drill based activities to ensure good performance in the public exams. Contrary to popular belief, over the last decade, our teachers have been trying to make a shift in teaching-learning methods and this has in large part been possible because of the instructional leadership strategies adopted by the principal. This includes mentoring teachers on daily lesson planning and collaborative planning. The continuous and comprehensive evaluation pattern also gave teachers some flexibility to experiment with the curriculum and make it more interactive, engaging and fun in the classroom. A series of teacher professional development programs by external agencies that the management organized in recent years have also been instrumental in pushing teachers to innovate and experiment boldly in the classroom.

As a teacher myself, I felt it was important to document these efforts and share these innovative attempts with a larger community of teachers, parents and anyone interested in school education. It was important to showcase innovative teaching techniques that teachers were testing in classrooms despite typical constraints of urban schools like low teacher-pupil ratio, and limited space and time. As a teacher-mentor, I also saw this as an opportunity to engage with teachers a little more critically on issues of pedagogy. I wanted to explore if writing about their experience would make teachers more reflective. With this intention we started a series of teacher blogs on our school website (www.sharonschool.in) in June 2018. We chose the blog format as it allowed us to tell a story dynamically using text and images and it could be made available to a larger audience quite easily through the school website.

At the end of the last academic year, I conducted in-depth interviews with four teachers who I mentored to write blog posts over two school terms, with the aim of understanding what value blogging added to their professional lives. The interviews were audio recorded and transcribed and teachers’ thoughts are reproduced in this article. This was a reflective exercise, not just for the teachers, but also for me as our dialogue helped me understand how blogs can be made a more intrinsic part of a reflective culture that we are striving for in the school.

Why did teachers write blogs?
Though initially teachers wrote blogs because they were asked to, gradually there were other factors motivating them. The four teachers said they wrote blogs because they had tried something new in the classroom. Trying out something different from the usual created an urge to share and showcase not only to the parents but also to their peers. They wanted to share these ideas with others. While one teacher saw it as an effective way of informing the management about her efforts in the classroom, two teachers stated they were impressed by their efforts to conduct a collaborative task in a large class and wanted to share it with others. A teacher who had written three blog posts saw this as an opportunity to improve her writing skills because of the editing support that I extended. This teacher explained how initially she wrote blogs because she was asked to but she felt lately, she was volunteering to write blogs for a slightly more selfish reason. She always read multiple blogs to get ideas on how to present her thoughts which inadvertently was leading her to broaden her knowledge on many school-based topics like math and science education. The fourth teacher said she liked writing blogs because it made her stand apart from the crowd of teachers and she felt she was doing something different.

Appreciation was a key factor in motivating teachers to write. The web links were systematically circulated on the official school WhatsApp group. Here, their colleagues commented and applauded their efforts and in some cases peers sought them out in person for more information or feedback. The four teachers who were interviewed said they felt proud about their achievement and shared it with their family and friends as well.

What did teachers think they were writing about?
One thing that was common in teacher responses was their perception of their blog being about a classroom strategy or an activity that they had tried in the classroom that had met with a fair degree of success. When I asked them to explain what their blog was about and what kind of writing it was, teachers gave a range of responses as documented here. It was interesting to note that teachers used words like descriptive, explanatory and narrative to talk about their blogs. No one described it as a reflective piece of writing even though as a mentor I could see that in reconstructing their classroom for the blog, teachers were slowly beginning to think deeply about various aspects of teaching-learning moments.

“It was an activity based blog. It focussed on students’ involvement – how can we elicit responses from students…instead of teaching them, I explored how they can understand a concept themselves.” (Maher M.)

“… mainly explaining my classroom strategies. I enjoyed the story map blog the most. From Vinita (teacher) I learnt about story writing and I realized it’s really vast – then I went on the net and explored and I understood how important the story map strategy can be for writing stories.” (Reena B.)

“It was about the feelings children had in class when I gave them the task – how they were motivated – how well they did the task though it was a formative assessment.” (Bajana D.)

Self-realization of different kinds stemming from writing seemed to be a common thread among teachers. Talking about her third blog post which was a reflection on a seven month teacher fellowship she had completed, a teacher said,
“My favourite one was the last blog because I had to revisit the moments, I had to summarize the entire thing in a compact way – I consider it my best blog so far. I recollected my experiences, I put them down on paper and I realized I’ve come a long way – I’ve done so much!” (Vinita P.)

Similarly another teacher who wrote a descriptive account of teaching poetry differently said,
“When I was writing all the steps I realized, oh my god! I completed so many steps in one period – I achieved so much.” (Maher M.)

What did teachers struggle with?
All teachers felt they struggled with vocabulary. Teachers felt writing something that was blog-worthy meant using big, flowery language that needed to sound impressive. Therefore, they felt shy and hesitant to share their writing initially even with me. The second thing they struggled with was sequencing the events in a coherent and logical way.

When teachers submitted a first draft to me, I responded with some suggestions to change the sequence of ideas and many questions to trigger deeper reflection about the activity or the teaching moment. As a teacher mentioned in the interview, these questions made them think more carefully about their class and reconstruct the 30 minutes in more detail. Teachers appreciated the help I extended in editing and finalizing their drafts. The flipside of this was the time-consuming nature of this writing process which deterred teachers from writing more than 1-2 blogs in the academic year.

Did teachers see writing blogs as reflective practice?
Writing the blogs was leading teachers to a few realizations but when asked if they saw it as a part of their journey to becoming more reflective teachers, no one was quite sure. In fact none of the teachers seemed to have thought about it as a reflective task till I posed this question to them in the interview. It was also interesting to note a shift in teachers’ thinking during the course of the interview itself, perhaps due to the nature of the questions I put forth. Here are some responses from when I initially asked teachers if they thought writing the blog would make them more reflective,
“I can’t be sure if this process of writing can be part of my reflective journey as a teacher – may be it can – because now people are focusing more on activity based teaching – my blog reflected the way I’m doing things in the class … otherwise no one will understand what we’re doing in class…how much efforts we’re putting in.” (Maher M.)

“I have not thought much about this…. [pause]. Yes, it has changed my teaching procedure – in the sense that I’m now more conscious about taking things in a very systematic order. These blogs have helped me think about the sequence – like writing the blog has made me realize that sequence is important – this should come after this… there should be an order. In a way it has given me an idea that I should go in a flow – it will become easier to write the blog and easier to conduct the activity as well.” (Vinita P.)

One teacher reflected on how writing the blog had encouraged her to do more activities rather than just rote learning in the classroom. She realized activities helped keep the students more engaged, elicit examples from students and also helped them retain information better. She noted how students loved the think-pair-share routine and it allowed diverse learners to participate without inhibitions. Her most important realization was that space is definitely not a constraint for group work. However, when I asked if writing had helped her arrive at these conclusions, she was clear it was not the act of writing itself but her classroom experience. Interestingly, towards the end of the interview when I once again asked if writing had forced her to think about certain things she otherwise didn’t pay attention to, she said,
“Yes. Like…otherwise we generally teach and don’t go for feedback from students – we recap or at the most we ask a couple of bright students to respond. While writing the blog post I could think about the weaker students – how they are coming up with the points and how they are learning – it forced me to think about ALL students – otherwise our focus is just the bright child who raises his/her hand.”

In other words, even though they weren’t seeing their posts as reflective tools to grow their practice, clearly the feedback and mentoring process seemed to have led teachers on to the path of reflection and self-realization.

Conclusion
Teachers initially felt inhibited to write and publish on a public platform like the school website as they were not confident about their language skills. Most of them struggled with the writing and no one perceived it as a reflective task. Initially, teachers focussed only on the craft of writing – they were very conscious about their use of vocabulary. The support structures that I offered to aid them in writing gradually enabled them to not only improve their writing but also engage critically with the act of teaching. Perhaps if this help had not been extended, the teachers would not have been able to reconstruct, revisit and reflect on their teaching as carefully and critically as they did. The process of writing several drafts also made writing blog posts a highly cognitive task which ultimately pushed them in the direction of critical practice. An unintended outcome of writing blogs was the encouragement it gave teachers to plan more lessons in innovative and creative ways. This mainly came from the sense of achievement teachers felt in publishing a blog and the appreciation and feedback they received from peers. However, for teachers to sustain reflective practice, they will have to become more frequent and regular bloggers.

Like Dewey said, we don’t learn just from experience but from reflecting on our experience. We therefore plan to continue writing reflective blogs in the new academic year. Reflection, like other skills, perhaps needs hand holding and develops gradually over time. I end with what one teacher said summing up her blogging experience,
“When we write blogs, it forces us to go home and reflect… which doesn’t happen always. I reflect on … were students comfortable with the topic? Are there any misconceptions among students? When we write blogs we are forced to go back and think from minute zero to the thirtieth minute of the period.” (Bajana D.)

Reference
Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think. Boston, D. C. Heath & Co.

Acknowledgement: I thank all the teachers and students at Sharon School who have contributed to the school blog in the last academic year and especially the four teachers who made time for interviews and allowed me to quote them in this article. I also thank Megha Radhakrishnan and Nishevita Jayendran for reading and reviewing initial drafts.

The author spends her time between Sharon English High School where she teaches and mentors teachers and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai where she is an Assistant Professor (Part-Time). She can be reached at [email protected].

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