by Karin Maxey (Northeastern University)
As a person who often questions the ethics of teaching and learning in higher education, I frequently reexamine my responsibilities as an educator and, more specifically, as someone who teaches German andfirst-year writing. With young adults as my students, one of my responsibilities is to guide them toward deeper self-reflection. For that reason, I often include assignments in my courses that ask students to reflect on their own learning experiences and their own development as people who are able to find answers and teach themselves new skills. Such a practice also aligns with the overall educational goals of my institution, Northeastern University, and with the World Readiness Standards put forward by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).
Learning a new language can be transformative and eye-opening, especially for students who have never done it before, as well as for those who have had completely different learning experiences from the one in which they’re now learning German. To document this time in students’ lives and the changes they undergo, I ask them to complete two reflection assignments during each of the first two semesters in the first-year German program. Both assignments encourage students to approach critically what they are learning about language and how their worldview may or may not be changing through learning how another language divides up the world. The reflections also ask students to examine their own learning practices and whether they are accomplishing their personal or professional semester goals. Many students may enroll in first-year German for a language requirement, but I encourage them to make the course and their learning personal—as in, worthwhile for their learning and development—as long as they have to be here anyway.
Including reflection as part of the language learning process is not a new idea, and many scholars have written about the benefits of reflection in the language classroom. Dick Allwright and Judith Hanks, for example, have written extensively on this topic in the context of exploratory practice in the undergraduate language classroom (Allwright & Hanks, 2009; Hanks, 2015). During my own teacher training with Cori Crane at the University of Texas at Austin, I also gained first-hand experience in incorporating reflection into German classes; she has published about using exploratory practice in the methods course (Crane, 2015) and has spoken about using it in undergraduate language classes at a number of conferences. Needless to say, I have been influenced by the work of all of these scholars. I am merely here to offer support for their work and to say that incorporating reflection into my classes has become an indispensable part of my teaching.
In developing this assignment, I hope to capture an array of student experiences from the onset of language learning through the end of the first semester. For the task itself, I ask students to respond to several questions as part of a cohesive narrative:
The results of this assignment far exceeded my expectations. Perhaps the most exciting aspects of students’ work were the glimpses I received into their mental processes, or the things that puzzled them about learning German. One student, for example, wrote about how she refers to herself as “Sie” in her mind while she’s practicing German. The same student also wrote about how some grammatical genders, like the female article for Kartoffel [potato], feel natural to her while it feels mysterious that coffee is masculine. Another student revealed that she took my advice to put post-it notes around her living space and create her own personal linguistic landscape, and perhaps more importantly, she revealed that it worked for her. Other students wrote about the silly ways they remember words, (hand-shoe = mitten, arm-band-clock = watch), about the ways that German feels in their bodies, and about how they feel when they speak it.
These reflections were primarily written in English, but I encouraged students to code-switch between German and English if they wanted. A few of them took me up on that and included words or phrases in German that they knew how to say (or thought they could say). In my own teaching practice, I see other languages, primarily English, one of our shared classroom languages, as tools in students’ language learning, which is why they usually choose write their reflections in a language that is overall more accessible to them.
Asking students to think about their own learning and learning processes can also be an inclusive practice that personalizes students’ learning experiences. Every student brings to the classroom many identities, and this assignment holds few (hopefully no) previous assumptions about who they are, where they’ve been, what they know, or what they’ve done. It is simply an invitation to reflect with their teacher on their progression through the course, free of judgment. The assignment is also nearly grade-free; students only earn a completion grade for putting adequate attention into providing relevant, substantial examples and for making sure the essay is written in an accessible, readable style.
As an educator, I am driven by an ethical responsibility to help my students gain a meta-perspective on their own learning. Using an assignment like this – and one that is easily adaptable for other languages, levels, and disciplines – helps make learning more personal for all students, even in required courses, and helps them develop a broader perspective on what language is and what it means to learn it.
Allwright, Dick, & Hanks, Judith. (2009). The Developing Language Learner: An Introduction to Exploratory Practice. London: Palgrave.
Crane, Cori. (2015). Exploratory practice in the FL teaching methods course: A case study of three graduate student instructors’ experiences. L2 Journal, 7(2), 1–23.
Hanks, J. (2015). Language teachers making sense of Exploratory Practice. Language Teaching Research, 19(5), 612–633.