Being a reflective practitioner is an important part of being an educator–we are trained to think, talk, and write about how our teaching is changing, growing, and working. Sometimes, in order to get a real beat on what’s happening in our classrooms, we need to ask our students to reflect along with us. This is something that helps us know “how we’re doing” from the truest source. It also help imbue the importance of reflection with our students, letting them track their own realizations from the process of academic study.

In short, reflection is an extremely valuable practice for both students and teachers. But here’s the catch–it has to be genuine. And if you’ve ever asked your students to write a self-reflection, you know that genuine is not always what we get.

Some students are great at looking inward and contextualizing learning experiences in the context of what was struggled for and gained. But most students, at least that I’ve seen, write down a bunch of malarkey when they are asked to reflect. For some, this is because the genre of personal, introspective writing simply isn’t in their wheelhouse. For others, they are afraid to be honest. They waste time parroting what they believe the teacher wants to hear: Ex. “I really learned a lot from this very interesting unit and became a better writer.” Reading things like that (while the student might predict it to be pleasant) gets very frustrating very quickly. It doesn’t give me anything to build on in my next teaching experience. Call it a symptom of a culture obsessed with empty praise, call it laziness, call it an innocent desire to please… Whatever you call it, this kind of response actually sabotages the entire point of reflection.

So how do we bypass that cardboard cutout student response and get to the reflective truth? Last year, I found myself thinking about this idea and the concept of art therapy crossed my mind. I remembered how sometimes, especially for children, the truth of one’s inner state could be more truthfully accessed through drawing and painting. So, I decided to assign a reflection at the end of a research writing unit that was doodle-only. The directions were a simple few lines at the top of the page: “Make a drawing that shows your experience, feelings, and learning throughout the process of the research writing unit from beginning to end. You may create your picture in whatever way you choose–you will be graded on the completeness of your drawing, not your artistic skill!” As it turned out, the results were wonderfully varied, honest, and detailed. I could see instantly where students had felt comfortable, where they had struggled, what they had learned, where confusion persisted, and how they felt about their end product. Mystifyingly simple. As soon as doodle replaced formal prose, the honesty came out. Fireworks, angry eyebrows, scribbles, lightbulbs, prison cells, clocks, trophies, grids, sunshine, hearts. Success.

This year, I’ve returned to the strategy a couple times, including at the end of the first semester with my AP Literature and Composition class. I’ve attached some of their reflective responses here, so you can see the kind of variety that is possible with this kind of reflection assignment. Click here to see some real doodle reflections from my students: Doodle Reflections .

This is an idea that I plan to continue using, probably almost every time I ask my students to reflect. The very act of drawing is contemplative–our mind is free to process while our hands are occupied making shapes. It opens up a bigger space to feel and share.