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This post is written by Laura Sarsten & Pam Koutrakos.

The New Year has been long-regarded as the time for a “fresh start.” It is the time of year where many of us commit, recommit, resolve, and/or revamp. We consider what our “OLW” will be and how we will invite this “one little word” to saturate all facets of our lives. The energy of the New Year can be exciting and invigorating. It can also be a bit daunting: Will we live up to our own expectations? Will our commitment last? Will this be the year we actually meet and exceed our lofty goals?

The two of us recently got together and quite quickly, found ourselves celebrating and laughing about some of our recent classroom “fails” and feats. Our conversation quickly evolved into the importance of reflection, goal-setting, and the power of this inseparable partnership. In both teaching and learning, we often use our past experiences to help us shape our future goals; we look back while focusing forward. As we talked together, we realized that we don’t need to go far to feel renewed. There are simple, practical ways teachers and students can make positive changes in our daily practice. One of the most effective places to start is with our peers: using each other as inspiration.

LOOKING BACK: Providing time for students & partnerships to powerfully reflect on past work (Laura’s Experience)

The questions that swirled around our 5th grade classroom as the 2015 year came to a close were the following: “Why and how we did what we did?” “Who we are because of this?” & “How can we make plans to be more mindful learners for the work that lie ahead?”

Students took several class periods to collect, observe, and reflect as they used their own work as evidence of their learning progress. By providing time for students to look back at their previous work and thoughtfully examining it, they were then able to develop powerful reflections and realizations regarding their learning attitudes, habits, and efforts. They revisited their reader’s notebook entries, reread individual reading responses, returned to past formal assessments, and sifted through their reading logs, to learn more about why and how they did what they did and what it tells them about their learning.

After collecting, they used their work as artifacts to showcase their strengths and also to self-identify the areas in which they would like to improve by writing “I can..” and “I can not yet..” statements. These discoveries varied as they looked at learning attitudes and habits as well as specific reading/writing skills that they recognized as areas of improvement.

This inspired us to also use each other to gain helpful feedback and encouragement from our peers as another layer to our reflection process. Students shared their portfolios and responses by choosing pieces that they felt showed something important about who they are as readers and writers. Students then left thoughtful compliments and meaningful feedback to help one another in their future work. By handing over the power to students and allowing them to shape their own learning, the experience was truly rejuvenating, inspiring, and energizing for all.

FOCUSING FORWARD: Fueling our own teacher spirits to enhance future practice (Pam’s Experience)

In our first blog, we talked a bit about taking the time to nurture our own spirits. We need to seek fulfillment for ourselves so that we can best serve our students. As teachers, we work to cultivate a collaborative classroom community. We nurture an atmosphere of respect, friendship, and team-spirit. We strive to have our students use each other as resources and rely on one another when needed. However, we can sometimes forget that we have that same community to reach out to ourselves: our buildings are filled with smart, creative, and incredibly giving colleagues whose professionalism, experience, and know-how is a tremendous asset. One of the best gifts we can all give each other is the gift of inspiration. . . and reaching out to our own professional peers is a fantastic way to fuel our own spirits!

In my former position as a literacy coach, I had the opportunity to visit several classrooms every day. I was welcomed into unique classroom communities across grade levels. My rate of learning skyrocketed and my inspiration soared. By studying classroom walls and intentionally investigating the “moves” of so many innovative instructors, I experienced high-quality professional development all day, every day. I was fulfilled, and in turn, able to use this inspiration to uplift other colleagues.

Since returning to the classroom, I have found myself missing this daily professional collaboration. When Laura recently invited a group of teachers to “see” inquiry in action, I was reminded of the power of a visit to another classroom. As soon as I entered Laura’s room, that same sense of excitement returned. My eyes immediately darted from one chart to the next. I tried my best to use some sort of Cam Jansen “CLICK” strategy to commit it all to memory. I watched Laura talk to her students- using precise, explicit, and motivating language. I listened in as her students (2 years ahead of my own class) conversed in small groups. Immediately, I was energized. I could not wait to sort out all I witnessed; how was I going to twist and mold Laura’s charts, words, and methods to enliven my own practice and meet the needs of the learners in my room?

As classroom teachers, we admittedly have way too much to get done in way too little time. We might love the thought of seeing a colleague in action, but also feel panicked at the idea of more time out of our rooms, writing sub plans, or finding ways to make a labsite work. Our administrators may not be able to secure substitutes. Here are a few ideas for how we can make this happen:

  • co-teach a lesson by combining your classes into one big class for a period

  • take one precious prep period a month to go visit a colleague

  • switch classes with another teacher for a period

  • bring photos of charts and classroom set-ups to team meetings

  • hold your team meetings in teacher’s classrooms so you can see their set-up and work, rotating who is the host

We can recommit to finding fulfillment. We can awaken inspiration in each other. As we move forward in 2016, we can help fuel each other’s professional practice!

Let’s help our students and each other reflect on past practice and breathe “newness” into the coming year.

Careful reflection helps us plan effectively for future goals. Students and teachers can work collaboratively to reflect and plan together. It has been long said that giving is better than receiving. We believe both are powerful! By explicitly teaching our students how to help each other reflect in meaningful ways, we are allowing them the opportunity to impart and receive new knowledge. By taking initiative and inviting colleagues to pioneer new learning journeys together, we are building each other up. We can always accomplish more together. Our wish for the new year is to continue to wonder . . . and work together to feel empowered and excited about our learning lives.

Laura taught 5th grade in Hohokus, NJ and is now a literacy consultant for Gravity Goldberg, LLC. She can be reached at or on Twitter @laurasarsten7.

Pam taught 3rd grade at Hillside School in Allendale, NJ and is now a literacy consultant for Gravity Goldberg, LLC. She can be reached at, or on Twitter @PamKou (professional account) and @MrsKoutrakos (classroom account).

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