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Learner empowerment through creativity and reflection

Jennifer Risolo, grade 4 teacher and grade level coordinator at the International School of Amsterdam, Netherlands

Jennifer Risolo, grade 4 teacher and grade level coordinator at the International School of Amsterdam, Netherlands

This article describes the use of accordion journals and the Understanding Map developed at Project Zero to help students reflect on their learning in a fourth grade classroom. It offers a way for students to take ownership of, and reflect on, their learning.

Time and opportunity to unpack and reflect

A year and a half ago, I learned about accordion journals while attending a Project Zero Summer Institute at Harvard University. Our study group leaders used them as a way for us to gather, synthesize and reflect on our learning throughout the institute.

The institute was a week, packed with plenaries and mini-courses as well as formal and informal discussions. We also had a daily study group where we were able to focus on the big questions we had as students of teaching for understanding.

Each day in that study group, there was time allocated to finding ways to capture our burning ideas, thoughts and wonderings in our accordion journals. We were given various arts and crafts supplies in order to grow our ideas on the pages of our journals and to explore what we were thinking about. This was an eye-opening experience. Instead of assigning the learners with another learning engagement, we were given a vehicle to unpack the mounds of learning we had already done; each of us determining what that was, and how we would capture and explore it further, in our journals.

As I worked on my own journal, I realized that this time and space to reflect without parameters was greatly needed by my own students. For each unit, we would try to pack in as many learning experiences as possible for students to explore the unit concepts and ideas, but in the rush of learning, they never really had a chance to unpack them. Ideas, thoughts, wonderings – they were all just getting jammed in and stacked on top of each other. With accordion journals, students could have the opportunity to reflect on, consolidate and extend their learning over the course of a unit.

Putting it into practice

At the start of a new unit of inquiry, I introduce the central idea, lines of inquiry and key concepts as always. Students are made aware of these learning goals from the very start. They also know that there will be dedicated time each week for them to reflect on their learning in their accordion journals and this time is non-negotiable. It does not get swept aside for a guest-speaker or extra mathematics lesson. It does not get bumped for a staff-development day. Each week they can expect to have the time to reflect and unpack the learning they have done, the thinking they are doing and the wonderings that they are still considering.

I continually gather and provide a variety of arts and crafts materials to help stimulate and inspire student creativity. Proximity to each other during journaling time also enables the students to be inspired by each other and they are encouraged to engage in discussions with each other as they create and reflect. While students know that these journals are not summative assessments, they understand the expectation that they will be responsible for being able to explain their reflections and the choices that they have made on each page of their journals.

Just like with anything else, using accordion journals effectively is a process. At first, many students get lost in making beautiful, sometimes unrelated art, or they recreate or retell activities they have done or books they have read. It takes lots of modeling, coaching and support for them to make the shift towards using these journals to reflect on what they have been doing in class and how it connects to their learning goals.

Going deeper and building understanding

The Understanding Map (Ritchhart, Church, Morrison, 2011) is a great tool to help shape and guide students’ thinking while working on their accordion journals. While this is a time for students to take ownership of what and how they reflect, it is also an opportunity to teach into the types of thinking they are doing and to help them develop a framework for focusing their thoughts and deepening their understanding. I use the Understanding Map from the very first day of school with my students, naming types of thinking they are doing and asking them to reflect on the types of thinking they are noticing in our class discussions. It is no surprise to them when I sit down next to them with the Understanding Map and use that as a way to delve into the thinking that they are doing while they work on their accordion journals. Fourth graders are still very concrete learners and the Understanding Map gives them an accessible language to use in naming their thinking as they strive to make connections between what they are doing in class and their learning goals.

Change over time

Students become more adept users of accordion journals as tools for reflection and exploration over time. They learn as they go and they learn from each other. Last year every one of my students chose their accordion journals as the main vehicle for sharing their learning with their parents at their student-led conferences. I was amazed at how adeptly they recalled and explained their learning, particularly from units which had ended months prior. By the end of the school year, I noticed that their journals were far more purposeful and focused than the first ones. I also noticed that students became much more aware of their own thought processes and how they could leverage their ideas and the thinking moves that they could make, using the Understanding Map as a reference.

Jennifer Risolo is passionate about teaching for understanding and helping students develop the dispositions to be caring, empathetic and respectful members of the international community. She is very interested in the continuing development of curriculum and pedagogy and enjoys engaging in professional collaboration and exploration via twitter @jrisolo.

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