On Being a Student: exposure + reflection = learning

As I have written previously in this series, my recent NEH experience differs significantly from that of my students during the “academic year.”  I applied and was accepted for two weeks of focused study.  I chose the subject, and I  devoted eight hours a day to this pursuit, not counting the preparatory reading before the course began.

By contrast, “my” students attend class for fifty minutes, except for the one eighty-minute block per week.  For most of the students, this class is one of seven they encounter in a day.

During my two weeks this summer, the leaders provided a wide array of material.  We were exposed to a rich range of primary and secondary sources, covering classical and modern poetry from as far west as Sierra Leone and Cordova and as far east as Bangladesh and Uzbekistan.  Because we read, heard and discussed so much, I feel the need to review and reflect on our handouts and my notes.  Without this process of reflection, much of what ran across my ears, eyes and mind will flow over the dam–like the water in the attached photograph from the north Georgia mountains.

This same photograph depicts the beauty of reflection.  Students, which includes me and those high schoolers with whom I work, need time to reflect.  What strikes me most about this picture and this process is the stillness.  The clearest reflection occurs when the water looks like glass, when the pond becomes a mirror.  Yes, we can digest valuable material by moving, performing and altering details of the subject matter–and this often works well, but this post focuses on reflection, rather than active re-working.  (One kind of re-working, for example, to which I am particularly partial when studying poetic traditions, is to compose original pieces in the spirit and/or form of those traditions.  In the context of the NEH work, the ghazal tradition comes first to mind.)

Finally, a reflective tool (reflective pool?) I invented several years ago.  Since then, students in my courses have used it to reveal–to themselves and me–the impact of their studies.  Why not use this same tool to reflect on my NEH work this summer?  According to the students’ “short writing rubric,” I will try to write according to these three criteria: clear, specific, developed.

long mtn pond








Regular Reflection Sheet



Name:_________________________________________   Date:



Associations (linking new information to existing knowledge)

What did you already know about this subject? What have you learned from our activities? Explain the connection between your previous knowledge and your new understanding.


Patterns (making patterns from these associations)

In considering your new understanding alongside everything we have studied so far, what patterns do you see?


Emotions (feelings about the new experience/information)

How do you feel about what we have been studying or doing? Please develop (explain) your response beyond a single statement.


Meaning (establishing personal meaning)

What personal relevance do our studies have for you? Or what personal relevance might they have? If none, please explain that response.



An enriched environment comes from matching teaching practice to nature of how the brain learns. It learns in six ways:

  1. By associating—e.g., in sensory cortex; it links new information to existing knowledge; it uses power of personal associations (cf. difference between learning as information and as transformation)
  2. By shaping associations into patterns (sometimes forcing patterns that do not exist?)
  3. Runs on emotions—limbic system works as a relevance detector
  4. Mostly beneath the level of awareness
  5. Learns through the body
  6. Makes meaning


(personal notes from “Teaching to the Teenage Brain” conference leader, Gessner Geyer, 25 July 2005, Sierra Nevada Mtns, CA)



Filed under beauty, challenge, creative solutions, reasons for writing

2 responses to “On Being a Student: exposure + reflection = learning

  1. Wendy

    This is lovely, Bill! Thank you so much for sharing:) I sincerely hope that I will have the chance to “borrow” this exercise while teaching AP this year!

  2. I imagine you will. I designed the reflection-questions to be as flexible as possible. The template is based on descriptions of the brain, whatever that organ is absorbing.

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