Next Friday, March 15, Schechter Manhattan teachers and Middle School students will spend an in-service day preparing for upcoming Portfolio Conferences (April 1 and 8). The portfolio process is an important way that students at Schechter Manhattan practice self-reflection. Below I share a column I wrote previously that shares how we go about self-reflection at Schechter Manhattan and why it is such a central skill for success.
Daf Kesher, February 2017
The fifth grade students were working intently when I walked into the classroom on Monday morning. They had laptops open and were looking through the many work samples that they had collected over the first half of the school year. I looked over one student’s shoulder and saw the “Big Picture Reflection” document he was working on, as he looked for trends in his work and insights to his learning process. The fifth grade students were deep into the portfolio process which helps them in building their critical self-reflection skills.
Schechter Manhattan students in grades 4 through 8 complete the portfolio process each year. They select samples of their work, reflect on those selections, and draw conclusions about themselves as learners. They are then able to set goals for themselves as they move forward in their learning. This process helps students to take ownership of their learning and achievement, to clarify criteria of excellence, and to practice and develop the skill of reflection. The portfolio process culminates with Portfolio Conferences, at which the students present their portfolios to their parents and teachers. At this meeting the students take center stage as they review their progress while planning and setting goals for future learning. At the same time, students receive support and guidance from their “team”- the adults in their lives who care about their success.
In visiting the fifth grade I was reminded of the many years of working directly with students around the portfolio process. For many students the portfolio process can be challenging. I remember one resistant eighth grader arguing vehemently with me that he did not need to take time to think about his work, he just wanted to do it. And a sixth grader who had transferred into Schechter Manhattan from another school, crying in my office at the very thought of turning a critical lens on herself. She had never been asked to do something self-reflective before and she was scared.
Since self-reflection is hard we help students by breaking down the process into concrete steps: prompts to help think about specific work samples (I selected this piece in my portfolio because… it is an example of my best work, OR it is an example of something I am working on improving, OR it is an example of something I worked hard to complete, OR it shows improvement when compared to a previous work sample) and to think about their overall profiles as learners (What similarities or trends do you notice in the way you feel about your work? What are my areas of strength as a learner? What are areas I want to strengthen as a learner?). Teachers work closely with students to offer them guidance and support as they consider their work and these questions about themselves.
We have found that the combination of the concrete steps and teacher support leads students to grow in their self-reflective capacities and to achieve success at the portfolio conferences. I also remember many times I had the pleasure of being the faculty member participating in a student led portfolio conference. One seventh grade student, who had been practicing her self-reflective skills throughout her years at Schechter Manhattan, comes to mind. She presented her work, new understandings about herself, and her goals with clarity and confidence. Even as she noted things she wanted to do better, she expressed a sense of motivation and responsibility that filled her parents (and me) with tremendous pride.
The ability to self-reflect is one of the most important skills that we teach Schechter Manhattan students and it leads to significant positive outcomes for our graduates. As they move to the next level of schooling, the ability to identify their strengths and challenges is the key to approaching new and inevitable academic challenges. They are ready to draw on their strengths and garner the necessary resources and supports to solve problems and achieve their goals. As one Schechter Manhattan alum put it, “My Schechter Manhattan education truly gave me the skills essential to my growth outside of it. It gave me a view of who I am as a student and what helps me to best reach my full potential.”
Also powerful is the positive impact on students’ identity development. The practice of self reflection in their academic lives builds key skills and comfort for the harder work of cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of their personal lives. As they ask themselves, “What sort of student do I want to be?” they end up also asking, “What sort of person do I want to be?” This transfer of self-reflection skills from the academic to the personal is made explicit in the Schechter Manhattan Graduation Exhibition project completed by eighth grade students each spring. As they approach graduation, students prepare an extensive reflection and analysis of their lives as students and people. They reflect on experiences, beliefs, and values that they have had and developed over their years at Schechter Manhattan and then they think about who they were, who they are, and who they hope to be. They synthesize and express their ideas about themselves in a paper, creative project, and presentation to their peers and parents. Each year during the 8th grade graduation exhibitions, I am always struck by the students’ honest expressions of who they are and who they aspire to be. Our graduates show that they have ownership of their identities and at the same time they understand that self improvement is an ongoing and never ending process.
The portfolio process is an example of how self-reflection is an important cultural marker of our school. We employ it in our teaching, by thinking carefully and critically about our practice so as to continue improving. Each teacher completes annual self-evaluation and goal setting cycles with the support of Gary and the Educational Leadership Team. I work with the Head Support and Evaluation Committee of the Board of Trustees to set my own annual objectives and to reflect on my progress and professional development. We also use reflection for school improvement, by reviewing everything we do and taking seriously the feedback of our faculty, students, and parents. Annual surveys from all these constituencies form the core of reflection the Schechter Manhattan administration completes each year in our summer retreat, as we learn from the previous school year and make plans for the next. All of this reflection allows us to identify goals and action steps so that we as a school community can continue on our path of growth.
Schechter Manhattan students live day in and day out in a reflective school culture and they see role models of reflective practice in their teachers and administrators. So, when they are asked and helped to complete their own self-reflection they rise to the challenge.