Reflective Journaling Enables Learners to Assess Their Needs

As a teacher, when I began my own search for self-advocacy protocols, strategies, and processes, my efforts led me to countless books, articles, and experts whose focus was largely on the field of special education and on what parents and teachers could do to help classified learners speak to their needs and protect their rights. I know that this is important work, and in fact, as I’ve gained experience as both a parent and a teacher, I’ve come to realize that teaching all young people how to advocate for themselves is critical.

It’s evident in scenarios like these:

  • Jacob has discovered that using specific strategies to test certain hypotheses works for him, yet his teacher is not aware of this and continues requiring a process that does not. The student loses credit because he is forced to use a process that isn’t a good fit, and the teacher assumes the student does not know how to test hunches or solve problems because he has limited information about the student’s true needs or capabilities.


  • Allana is interested in and capable of taking an AP course, but she is not informed of what the criteria are to get in, she is not provided any criteria-specific feedback on her work from her teacher throughout the entire school year, each assessment that is given is summative in nature and does not inform intervention, and her performance on the entrance exam for the course is less than stellar because in addition to receiving little support from her teacher all year, she is ill on the day that the test is given.


  • Max learns how to provide high quality feedback on writing through her participation in an extra-curricular club, but when he submits his own work to a teacher in order to receive such feedback, it is returned to him with blistering criticism and hard directives relevant to what he “must” do in order to “improve” his work. His teacher also tells him that the piece will only be worthy of publication if he is willing to stay after school almost daily in order to sharpen his skills and dramatically revise his work.


  • Sheba is uncomfortable with how a friend is treating her and frustrated by this person’s inability to listen to her requests to stop certain behaviors, which include pinching her, mocking her, and telling other people her secrets. This inspires Sheba to begin retaliating when she gets angry. When Sheba’s friend begins reporting on her to the teacher without accepting responsibility for her own part of the problem, the conflict intensifies.


  • Isaac loves to read, but he struggles to do so. He knows that when he is given some choice and is invited to read texts that are written at an appropriate level for him, he is successful. He also knows that when texts are written at a higher level, he can still be successful if his efforts to read are guided. Last night, his teacher assigned all students the first chapter of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for homework. He tried to read it, but gave up after an hour in total frustration. Today, he failed the pop quiz that was given in class.


I’ve learned that when young people advocate for themselves, teachers are typically very appreciative of their efforts and very responsive to their needs. As I’ve mentioned, this has begun informing my work as a professional development provider in significant ways. In the past, much of what I was doing focused on coaching teachers to implement research-based practices that were aligned to the needs of students in order to enrich learning and improve performance. Over the last year, I’ve begun pursuing the same goal by attending to a different and more direct entry point: the very people we aim to serve. I’m finding that when I help kids assess their needs and pursue a deeper understanding of how to get those needs met, they begin helping themselves faster. Often, they are trying to figure out how to improve their learning, work, and behavior before their teachers are. Many of them just aren’t sharing what they’ve realized about themselves along the way. I’ve been interested in learning why this happens, so I’ve asked a lot of questions of a lot of kids over the last year. I’ve learned that many students don’t often want to be presumptuous or rude. Most feel it’s impolite to tell their teachers what they need because in doing so, they might be suggest that their teachers aren’t doing a good enough job, and this isn’t acceptable behavior.

This is one of the reasons why I’m excited to see shifting perspectives around what it means to be a quality teacher. The more we embrace the idea that teachers are action-researchers whose knowledge leads them to test hunches and reflect on what they can do to continually improve, the more likely kids will be to collaborate with them in that process. Teachers aren’t malevolent super-heroes. They are human beings who want to help kids, and in order to do that well, they need to be able take risks, try new approaches, and make some mistakes along the way. Great teaching isn’t merely about defining needs from test data and designing lessons that allow them to activate background knowledge and march through to closure in tight lines. Great teachers use varied measures of assessment to inform the decisions they make. They design curricula that isn’t merely aligned but that is also relevant and engaging for learners. They use formative assessment to discover how they can help kids think and work in better ways, and they shift their approaches in response to that information. They also measure the effectiveness of what they are doing. If kids can be honest about how their teachers can help them more, I think everyone’s chances for success might be greater.

Last week, I spent some time exploring how reflection can help learners (writers, specifically) assess their needs. Over the years, I’ve encouraged young people to use their journals and blogs to learn more about themselves, to name their strengths, and to define the specific challenges they face. The picture above was taken last summer, during a Studio session. This is one young writer’s place to think on all of this. Helping each of them sort through this thinking, define specific goals and needs, and effectively advocate for themselves are the next crucial steps.

This week, I’ll be sharing how I’ve been approaching this work with different kids and what I’m learning as a result. In the mean time, if any of you have resources to suggest relevant to self-determination and self-advocacy, I am hoping you will share them with me here or in another space. This has become something I’m very passionate about, and I’m struggling to find resources that speak to self-advocacy for all learners.


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