The Professional Quality Series: Reflective Observation

This post was contributed by current Mentor Teacher Meagan Arango. It is part of a series on the Boulder Journey School Professional Qualities.

Reflective Observation: This quality speaks to your capacity for close and careful observation and how to use your observations in ways that raise the quality of work and life for those with whom you are in contact. Through reflective observation of yourself, of children, and of other adults you will develop a keen level of self-awareness, awareness of your work environment, and awareness of the world around you that can be used to make informed decisions regarding your professional work. You will engage in a mindful attitude of work with children and adults. Through reflective observation of children, you will be capable of giving words to the children’s gestures and actions, as well as capable of silence and listening to the children. You will be capable of a micro gaze even when you are in a macro environment, and you will understand what is going on enough to notice, capture moments, value these moments, and use these moments to re-launch ideas.

Why Observation?

qUbY57UHxNO6I4E96RNejFQMU2UqdPuMiz8hxKxinZkOxpLiX5Tp5Nz3a1s7KRfb0i_7MivRdU7cEIAVobg0QUJhOXWcjbq7RG7bDYG-AFOcH0IVEM49aPWkraqHSFbTWTkEHDI_3NJlYVU9V8KnrYYDUMABD-3EjAeNukEACcUj68gLR89DvyykG5Observation is integral to the work we do at Boulder Journey School. It is one of the most powerful tools we can use to keep pace with the children as they rapidly learn and grow. Regular observation allows us to design dynamic, high-quality experiences and environments. It allows us to cater our approach to suit the developmental level, cultural background, and personality of each child. Most of all, it invites the voices of the children into these processes–even those who are not yet speaking–because we work in response to what we observe. Most educators, I would bet, can get behind that. Traditional and non-traditional settings have long required teachers to perform formative assessments, inviting educators to tailor their instruction to each child’s observable signs of learning. We think observation can be taken even further.

67Rp-_dbsoXmSTYX5AO5WQygpH8yhZQ1c3LUmKH-lG-BAbdQ5FRbruVMKp_lViBI1f6vSBMpqVHc6SoozP89NcaYCc_n0KKUjgZ_ww9dM9igQBua7GlkUl7FxeOoDfBu5YsI9MKvfFhbve26uXJN_FCjASP0A6pTR2X2JQHrjoQr54yNltAX3P_2b9In the context of our school, observation is not just an occasional tool of assessment. It is a frame of mind, a cultivated skill that becomes second nature. We use it to know the children, to know ourselves, and to know our surroundings. We strive to be in a constant state of observation because we believe that people are–by nature–in constant pursuit of their own learning. Using observation, we join the children on that path, learning alongside them and negotiating an emergent curriculum together.

What does it look like?

To give a sense of what observation looks like at Boulder Journey School, I posed a few simple questions to my colleagues:

When is the best time to observe?

What are your favorite tools of observation?

What do you do with your observations?

Their responses were anything but simple. Let’s start, for instance, with tools of observation.

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There are certain tools that are popular by consensus: still and video cameras, audio recording, and good old-fashioned note taking were commonly listed. But the difference is in the details. As each educator described their tools of choice, they often elaborated–insisting that different tools were best-suited to different tasks: video gives us insight into gesture, context, relationships. Audio recordings help us focus on the expressive potentials of voice, breath, language, and silence. Note-taking invites us to jot down quotes, noticings, interpretations, sketches, questions, and ideas for the future. Most teachers, for this reason, described using a combination of tools to work toward a diversity of data.

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But how do you know where to look, what to listen to, and when to start recording? The answers, again, varied widely, running the gamut from: “All the time!” to “When I have a specific goal in mind”. Everyone agreed, though, that whether you meticulously prepare or discover a meaningful moment off the cuff, observation is a process that carries the promise of surprise. You just never know what the children are going to do! Our Studio Teacher, Jen Selbitschka, described the balance between intention and happenstance this way:

“Sometimes I go in planning to observe something specific, but experiences with children take so many paths that I cannot predict ahead of time, and I find myself constantly making moment-to-moment decisions about what is important to capture at the time. I often uncover stories I was not aware existed when I look at my photographs after an experience.”

This brings me to my next question: what do you do with your observations after the fact? Here, the responses were pretty consistent: we share them, we use them, and we reflect on them. Our educators described sharing observations with co-teachers, with directors, with parents and–especially–with the children. They discussed using their observations: to inform decisions, to theorize, to spark conversations, to develop curriculum. And everyone described a process of reflection. So what does that mean?

What is Reflective Observation?

IcGmjxur4OPpKi1gJBtseE0tRRxsTmRQiQtKNgRLv3WqLSGH5wkphNiC-XbSvUQ8V-gMHPHysTeZQh5AgXNfgtHlImUV45bscOSfjcQgpwzoSyLlTnmwQB3IRNYVRQ33CRl2DeLqMi_YNeIveMncmlpzlFSA1pUTMkB6nP_viwUmPNAMkODSsZVxkaReflect is one of those great words that carries two oppositional meanings. The first refers to the way a mirror reflects. This definition describes the interplay between waves and particles of energy and the surface of an object: instead of absorbing light, the mirror bounces it back, creating a reflection. It is a moment of active contact: energy collides with an object and is ricocheted back, sometimes seeming to be multiplied. Imagine echoes in a tiled room; bright sunlight on a fresh snowbank; trees mirrored on a still pond. These are all forms of reflection. The second meaning of reflect is an internal, mental process. To reflect is to think deeply, carefully, intentionally. Unlike the first, this type of reflection requires absorption. Where the first is a product of energetic movement, the second implies a stillness that is necessary to process information.

 

So when we describe observation as reflective, you might expect that we mean the word one way or the other. But here, we mean it both ways. That’s because our job as educators is not only to process and interpret what we observe internally, but also to bounce it back to the children and adults we work with. When we reflect inwardly, we deepen our work; when we reflect outwardly, we amplify it. It’s the dual action that offers access to the metacognitive processes that so enrich learning.

So, when the educators at Boulder Journey School described the process of reflecting, it naturally took on many different forms. Journaling, thinking, watching and re-watching video, looking back at photos, transcribing conversations, analyzing, researching, synthesizing, wondering, questioning. Reflection, in short, is the action we educators take to learn alongside the children, using our observations as our guide.

How can you get started?

Reflective observation is a complex and individualized process. It looks different for every person. No matter what form it takes, quality observation requires flexibility, openness, focus, and rigor. So pick a tool. Pick a time. And remember that it doesn’t end with watching, listening and recording. Reflective observation is ongoing. It has a quality of reverberation, creating waves that affect change both inwardly and outwardly. And as we cultivate these skills and habits, it is a process by which we can become ever-better versions of ourselves.

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An Antidote to Isolation: Personal Reflections from a current Mentor Teacher

rfsXyxzGOTyB8LqZtZH296errEa-02A6RCQtxFAF1RfT1fPEwwbF3kuw4mlGQg8ZYvYfpnTwqBWOt0wnHWf3oHj4PgaphYnL2c2k4LtQ1IMdgnT-Ohmx1Sybqq4T8tpxJwd3Nmo4lgxoOU_AGT9LBv_v7SyRWI7-IC6O-Uc2D6EcLoYDNPug1f67h1This post was contributed by current Mentor Teacher, Meagan Arango. It is part of a series on the Boulder Journey School Professional Qualities

There was a time early in my teaching career when I felt deeply isolated. Each day I set up, cleaned up, and closed down my classroom by myself. I spent lonely nights and weekends hunched over my computer, planning lessons. Left alone with my thoughts, I suspect that sometimes I went too far. I began coming into school on Saturdays to prep. I used my free time to watch videos of myself, scrutinizing my teaching for errors. I spent hundreds of dollars purchasing books and toys and supplies. And during those lonely times, I felt a strong and mysterious aversion to seeking help from others. I felt that my success was up to me. My colleagues were friendly and supportive, of course, but our brief conversations were most often just exchanges of complaints. And the fact was that I cherished the few moments of solitude I had in my room–it was the only time during the long work day that I didn’t feel like a performer on stage.

This was my reality before I joined the staff of Boulder Journey School. My classroom was an island. I was the lone intrepid explorer, taming the wildernesses of early learning. I wonder now how many others have felt like I did–so all alone in a field that is, at its core, about relationships.

That is why, when given the opportunity to reflect on our school’s Professional Values, I felt compelled to begin with the quality that challenged me the most when I began the Teacher Education Program: Communication and Collaboration.

Communication & Collaboration – These qualities speak to your capacity for articulate and effective communication that will ultimately support your ability to work effectively with children and adults. You will know how to engage others, as well as who to engage. You will see value in the process of gaining the perspective of others and develop social and cross cultural skills that will enable you to better take on the perspective of the other. You will be able to clearly articulate and defend a vision for the future and how your work supports that vision. You will view teaching as a collaborative process among children and adults and understand that relationships are a cornerstone of education. You will take ownership for being responsive and proactive when difficult conversations are needed. Your approach to communicating and working with others will be inclusive and empathetic, and you will have a sense of intimacy that is translated to the children. You will also be effective in written communication.

For me, the key challenge here was understanding the value of engaging others. And this is where I have to make a confession: the isolation I felt in the past was partially the result of the system I was working in, and partially the result of my own habits.

I’m one of those people who likes to feel in control. Maybe you know someone like me. We like predictability. We like getting things “done right”. And we often prefer working by ourselves–I, after all, I am the most reliable person I know! The fact is, I like doing things my way because I know I can usually succeed! Trying things somebody else’s way carries a lot more risk of failure.

When I began the Teacher Education Program at Boulder Journey School, I suddenly found myself up to my neck in exactly that kind of risk: I knew how to teach my way, and relinquishing that control was deeply uncomfortable. I was used to delivering lessons; now I was expected to offer provocations. I had been trained to identify measurable learning objectives; now I was observing the children and seeking to understand the many possible interpretations of their behaviors. I was comfortable with my rigid and consistent schedule; now I was asked to maintain a constant state of flexibility, open to the opportunities that each child, each teacher, and each chance encounter might offer us. These differences fundamentally undermine the traditional image of the teacher as the “sage on the stage”–re-positioning them, instead, as a participant whose contributions are one part of an educational project. As my notion of the role of the teacher began to evolve, I began, slowly, to give up the idea that I was in charge of things.

This was how I came to understand what collaboration could be. And it scared me. Sometimes I felt adrift. Sometimes I craved structure. And yet–never once did I sense the desperate pressure, the sink-or-swim feeling that I have had working in other settings. On the contrary, I felt supported by the network within our school. YVJlBrkoB2tiGxa4KBfnZbpPFaUef1nXqawObRVtlV9qxvjBqAoXnYn29T9KtRdKtEGKEk4mDCBQn-cIpg-0Pq4409QPjd-W7zn-xYfCRPGw9rRKmbSTqDPgMC0vkzxrD3E3QtSzfT5kpxkBJdPSajHRptKPsuocKsguPTuGY2w1VEeNenn-YjMG2cI understood, intuitively, that my mistakes, my questions, my uncertainties were good, because, for the first time, I was positioned as a learner alongside the children. The research tells us that learning is a socially mediated process–that our brains are wired to connect and we learn best with and from one another. This is the belief that motivates every person in our school to be generous with our time, our thoughts, and our resources.

And so, as I stepped beyond my comfort zone and began looking to others more, I found myself asking for help in new ways. Can I observe your classroom? Any time! Can I borrow this material? Of course! Can I pick your brain? Let’s meet! I marveled as people at every level–children, peers, families, directors, professors, and mentors–generously shared their time and ideas with me.

But even as I benefited from these generous acts of collaboration, deep down, I still believed that I could work better and more efficiently on my own. My coursework as a graduate student finally forced me to set down that final, isolating belief.

During my second semester of the Teacher Education Program, I was working with a group of peers to advocate for the creation of a “Boulder Children’s Day” to be recognized officially by the local government. Wanting to engage our school community in the project, our group proposed creating an interactive hallway display at Boulder Journey School. We needed permission. We got it. We needed approval for our content. We got it. We needed to execute a professional-grade, aesthetically-pleasing, succinct and on-message display. Here, things got tricky.

The controlling side of me was not optimistic. I knew that, alone, I could put together something that would meet expectations. And so, when we met one evening after school, I arrived prepared to lead my group in creating my vision. But as we worked together, discussing ideas, experimenting, and sharing solutions to unforeseen problems, I made a startling discovery: my idea wasn’t that good. In fact, when we tried it out, it didn’t work at all. But because we were working together, what would have been a huge setback to me alone was a minor hiccough in our shared process. As a group, we moved seamlessly past that idea, creating in its place a product that we were all proud of. The work we did together was, without a doubt, much stronger than anything I could have created alone. What’s more, at the end of the process, instead of feeling exhausted, uncertain and lonely, I felt energized. I felt proud. I felt confident in our work. I wondered: did I ever truly feel confident when I was working alone? Or did I always question–how will this really be perceived?

That, ultimately, is the strength of collaboration. Working alone, you can only see with your eyes, hear with your ears and think with your mind. Even as I write this post, I find myself wondering– am I communicating my message clearly? Will my tone hit the mark? Can I really convey my experience to this imagined reader? So here’s the truth: by the time you read this, many, many eyes will have passed over this post. My collaborators will have cut words, asked for clarification and suggested changes. And this post will be better for it. I am beyond believing that isolation leads to success. If my goal–as an educator, as a communicator, as an advocate–is to reach as many people as possible, then I must collaborate. I must ask for help. I must share and give and receive.

In a setting where collaboration is the rule, we stand to gain immense benefits when we share our work. Whether it’s planning, writing a difficult email, tweaking an area of the classroom environment or researching a complex topic, collaboration enriches both the process and the result.

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Armed with what I have learned at Boulder Journey School, I hope to never find myself on an island again.

 

The Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program Professional Qualities

We are currently educating children for a future that is rapidly changing. To prepare ourselves, we have to consider our role as learners – open to change, seeking possibilities, and compelled by the unknown.

 

The Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program has developed a working list of “qualities” that we seek to support our graduate students in developing throughout their 12 month teaching and learning experience. The Professional Qualities are a response to the question:

How do we educate teachers, in order to educate students, for the current and future world?

Continue reading “The Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program Professional Qualities”