The power of reflection

In an age when my students have more facts available on the phones in their pockets than even the smartest people of my generation could ever hope to memorize, I feel that cramming information into my kids’ brains so they can successfully bubble in the right answer on a scantron form is antiquated at best and downright ridiculous at worst. With all of that information at their fingertips, how can they decide whom to trust? How can they break up that information into useful pieces, think deeply about those pieces, and then use them to produce new ideas and new thinking? This is why, for the past 12 years, my history classes have forgone quizzes and exams in favor of analyzing primary source material and producing papers.

Right now, my students are working in teams on several topics in modern American history. One team is working on the ramifications of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Another is researching Koramatsu v. United States and Japanese internment during World War II. A third group is looking at generational conflict during the Vietnam War. The other three groups are working on additional topics.

Each team member has a job. The project manager is the overall leader who meets with me daily for a quick update on the work, updating me on the team’s progress on note-taking, evidence analysis, thesis creation, argumentation, and writing.

The senior editor is in charge of writing. While every member of the team is responsible to help with the writing, the editor is in charge of organizing the team’s writing and making sure all of the pieces fit together seamlessly so the paper reads smoothly as one voice.

The lead analyst makes sure the researched evidence from every team member is discussed and explained in the paper. S/he uses a tool called the “Say, Mean, Matter Chart” where each quote is explained in plain English and then related to the team’s arguments and thesis.

And then there is the archivist. The archivist is the guardian of process. Second in charge after the program manager, the archivist helps make sure all team members are getting their work done. The archivist also writes a short 500-600 word report each Friday that chronicles the process.

There is a lot of reflection going on while the team works. These talks with me and one another push everyone’s thinking deeper. Additionally, as a surprise bonus, the work is more fun when we can do it together. I’ve found that same dynamic to be true on the CTQ Collaboratory, and my students have found that to be true with their work.

When I think about it, I have to acknowledge how lucky I am. I’m lucky to have a few teachers at my school who share my passion for education and my drive to make my classroom experiences richer for my students. I am even more fortunate to have found CTQ and the Collaboratory, because in addition to the dozen teachers I can talk with around the photocopier, I have hundreds of colleagues across state lines and time zones who share my zeal and my passion for high-quality education.

My career as a teacher, and more importantly, my students’ experiences in the classroom, are richer because of the Center for Teaching Quality.

David Orphal is a 22-year veteran of the classroom. He has taught history and education theory from middle school to the university level. His career has taken him from rural California to inner-city Oakland and now to North Carolina, where he currently teaches American history in Pittsboro. He has been publishing about teacher evaluation and high-stakes testing since 2001. Honored to have been awarded the Quality Teaching Award from Oakland and recognized as a Leader in Human Rights from the California Teachers’ Association, he has also served on teacher-led educational think tank and action projects with the Center for Teaching Quality, the California Teachers Association, and Great Oakland Public Schools. You can see his TEDx talk on teacher leadership on YouTube.

  • GlennaSigmon


    I was looking for ideas for my VOICE webinar and stumbled across this video. Thank you!  I left school on Friday very upset.  My administrators walked in during a “social” time for students who needed some team building and made me feel as if it was time wasted. I wish I had watched your video before that happened as it would have equipped me with a great explanation of what they were observing. Sometimes we just need the language.  Thanks again. 🙂