Teaching our Students About Metacognition


I have taught high school freshmen my entire teaching career, and one of the things I like to expose them to at the beginning of the year is the process of metacognition:  thinking about your thinking.  Honestly, I believe the majority of the general population does not practice this valuable habit of checking in with one’s thinking.  Metacognitive thinking can be re-examining beliefs and values, or evaluating if one is on the right track for the goals they want to achieve.  For my young students, I encourage them to use metacognition to contemplate questions such as: what areas of life do I feel successful in?  What do I need help with?  Am I giving my best effort and attention to different areas in my life?  How can I improve and what steps will it take to make that happen?

Just recently I asked my students to engage in a metacognition check in.  I want to share some of the their responses, with some comments about where I see them in their educational career.  Perhaps you can recognize some of your students in these reflections.  This simple exercise provides a valuable place to peek into their thinking to respond to and mentor them.

Most days at the end of class when the bell rings and all the work I didn’t do is homework, I always regret it, because I tell myself that I should have done it when I had the chance instead of getting distracted.  I could improve by focusing more and not get distracted in my thoughts because when I do, I just stop working.

Wow – how many of our kids fall into this pattern in class?  This year, I have had an epidemic of students not being productive in class, NOT doing their work as homework, and they seem to be constantly behind the 8 ball of being late.  Perhaps, when they recognize this, changing the conversation back to their own metacognition realization so that they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated?  Worth a try…

Thinking about my thinking is like research on myself, observing what I’m thinking and the reason behind it.  And, if my thinking is on the wrong path, then I should start thinking how I can control it and bring it to the right path.  Right now, I’m thinking more about the STAAR  – it’s the first time I’ve taken the star, so I have no idea what they are like.

Bravo, this high achieving immigrant student, for understanding how she is thinking.  But, the pressure of these standardized exams are real for our students.  Our state has changed these tests 3 times in my short 13 year teaching career.  It’s hard to continue hitting the benchmarks when everyone has to start from scratch again.  Here’s another student’s response to her thinking about the STAAR exam:

The STAAR test is giving me second thoughts everyday.  I just need to relax about the STAAR test and think good thoughts that I’m going to pass…

The struggles are real.  I often encourage my students to focus on the areas of information they feel solid on going into an exam, not about the things they think they don’t know.  That simple tactic can change a negative attitude into one that is more positively focused which can help their performance.  But the reality on our campus is that there is a large percentage of English language learners, SPED students, and low socio-economic families.  These are huge hurdles for these students to leap over, just to come close to passing these exams.  It’s no wonder some of them just give up – they just don’t have the supports they need to help them be successful.

One of my sophomore students in my PreAP class would approach every project asking me what she should do.  It was a classic case of the student wanting the teacher to give them the solution because they are fearful of making a wrong choice.  I was pleased to see what her thinking revealed:

I believe that I need some work on thinking more clearly and faster.  I need to work on thinking to understand my work rather than only trying to finish it.  I will start trying to think about my thoughts so I will understand more.

We’ve been making handmade books in the art classroom as our final project for the year.  I love this project because it is so student driven.  I assess the students on how much effort they put into their artwork in addition to the objectives I want them to hit.  They are racing against themselves; are they pushing their thinking for their visual solution and are they working on improving their individual skill level, because they are not being compared to other student’s talent or skill level.  I loved seeing this response from a student:

In terms of my thinking, I don’t think that my thinking is on track.  I have the lowest grade in this class out of all of my classes even though this class is the easiest.  I really want to end this year with better grades overall, so I’m going to actually start a new book with everything looking really good and complete.  Hopefully, after that I’ll be able to increase my grade.

Yes!  As we are near the end of the school year, he has done just that, and will make a top grade on this book for the effort he’s put in!  Another student is at the end of the spectrum in the Myers & Briggs personality system as a feeler instead of a thinker:

I don’t think with my mind a lot.  I’m that kind of person that uses their heart too much.  I just follow my heart through every situation – it’s not a right way to think and I’m aware of that.  I try to change that sometimes, but deep down I’m not determined enough since being a feeler instead of a thinker doesn’t bother me that much. However, following my heart like that doesn’t keep me constant most of the time:  one minute I want to do more of something or be someone, the next I’ll have a whole new plan.

I, too am a feeler, and can relate to her struggle.  But I am also glad that she recognizes the benefits of strengthening her thinking (like I have!) for better balance, consistency and performance.

The last student response gets at the heart and soul of metacognitive thinking.  I’ve had this student for two years, and she is one of those I will miss a lot.

The dictionary defines metacognition as an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.  I go through the process a lot.  I always try to make the best decisions for myself and think often about my actions because I know what’s good for me.  I know myself better than anyone else and do the things I do for a reason.

Bingo!  Ultimately, this is what I want every student to understand – that they are the creators of their life path and have the power to make the best choices for their goals.  Not everyone has such clarity about their insight.  Using this simple exercise in the classroom from time to time can strengthen the habit of using metacognitive thinking at various times in their life where it could impact their decision making or evaluation of their efforts.  Try it out for your self or with your students!  Feel the power of metacognitive thinking!


In Search of my Previous Teacher


Are you tired, discouraged, fed up, and wondering why you struggle so in your job?  This post is for you…

This has been a rough school year: students not doing their work, more disrespect to me than usual, behavior issues and classroom management problems that have me feeling like a lion tamer with a chair and a whip in my hands.  I teach in a 9th & 10th grade high school with every ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation representation there is.  Many of our students come from low income homes, we have a sizeable SPED and English Language Learners population.  I have been teaching there for 9 years and it has always been a challenging environment, but this year is seems particularly difficult.  I’m 63, a legitimate age to consider retiring – I’m tired, and this is going to be my last semester as a classroom teacher, even though I am short a couple of years before jumping through the golden hoop.  With all of the problems this year, I am sad that my teaching career is going to end this way.  I have felt this year that it feels like I’m mostly spinning my wheels.

Well, the Universe wanted to give me a pick me up, and remind me that the work art educators do is vital and essential to our children’s education.  It couldn’t have come at a better time.   I received an email in my school email from a former student Friday, from a student I’ll call Steve.  Steve searched me out.  He combed the Internet to find me, reached out to verify I was his high school art teacher, and we launched into a conversation.  This is what he said to me:

I took your Art I Sculpture class for the credit, and often times in your class (as in many classes) I would not pay attention, sleep, etc.. typically student. I was not a “bad” student per se. ( I use quotation marks because “bad” is subjective to me) I was an average student as far as academically visibility.   However, I will say this. That school year was one of the worst years of my life, but your class was one of the few things that defiantly made it livable.

I was recently going through videos of my interest, then remembered a video that you showed me in class back in 2014 ( if I am remembering correctly). This made me think about you more and more. This is not the 1st time I recalled back to your classes, but this time it stuck in my head more. What particularly I remember about you is your passion you had about just about everything you did. My thinking is because you are an artist. Your class was a major factor of something I would learn later in life, even if I did not know it when I did learn it. What art truly was. Whether you meant to teach this lesson or not, or if you even agree with it. But that art is not how good one can draw or sculpt. It is what one can create, even if not physically. The human mind and spirit itself, and the uniqueness of each individual. You taught me this indirectly with your passion for just about everything you did. You would often times lecture for minutes before class about life, meaning, etc… this was my art lesson, even if often times I did not listen. It was more than that as well, it was not just solely your passion; it was not just the fact you could care about this or that, but the why, how, who, what, etc.. and your motivations and feelings, even if I disagreed with you. To me it was also a message that art and beauty is in just about everything in life, that it comes from the soul and all humans including myself are capable of creating such a beautiful world that spirits such as yours inspire to create others of equal yet different inspire. Later, I learned this on my own and through other things, books, people, as well after your class and school year, however your class was my foundation that I grew from.

I am not sure I described perfectly what I am meaning to say, or if I am making sense. However, what I wrote is an understatement. However, I do not want to go into too much detail because I am a writer, and I will spend hours trying to edit rather than just sending you the email.

Wow!  Tears came to my eyes.  What a gift at this moment in my career, when I feel I am at a low point.  But the real juice in this message is not for me alone.  I asked Steve if I could share his message with the art community at large.  He said yes – this is my response to his email:

Thank you for reaching out to me today.  My soul, spirit & passion have taken hard knocks this year; not from disinterested students, but from a constant barrage of disrespect and downright meanness from many of my students this year.  I should teach 2 more years to make it to my full retirement benefits, but I just can’t do it.  I am broken, and my passion is bruised, and I will say ridiculed by many of my present students.
You have given me the greatest gift a teacher can ever receive, acknowledgement (albeit after the fact) and sharing of your intellectual, mental, emotional & spiritual growth.  I consider myself a seed planter, constantly sowing seeds that I often don’t know will germinate.  To hear you express your understanding of the importance and nuances of art is confirmation to me that the power of art has sprouted in your soul and will continue to impact you as you navigate life.  Art is in our DNA.  It is the heartbeat of mankind.  The entire world can crumble, but man will continue expressing the human condition through art.
Thank you, Steve, for finding me and sharing your well articulated thoughts with me!   I am very proud of you that you are tapped into curiosity and a thirst for more.  It will serve you well, my friend.
I have a request.  I would like to make a blog post about this experience of a student seeking their teacher out with appreciation and gratitude.  You see, I’m not the only teacher who feels broken.  This story can provide hope and motivation at a time when teachers are at their lowest point.   Your generous expression of gratitude could ripple through the Universe to others.
This is the time of year when teachers are burned out, BUT are also beginning to think about the next school year.   Hope springs eternal as we imagine our next crop of students and rethink our curriculum and how we can present it in better, more effective ways.  This post is for all of the seed planters out there.  It’s time to order up a new batch of seeds to be planted in the fall.  You may have drought conditions, there is bound to be some stormy weather that unseats your solid footing, or there could even be an illness that creeps through your school.  Stand firm and hold on.  Your work is making an impact and is changing lives.  I hope someone looks for you, their former teacher.

The Power of Photography – Artist of the Day Video Theme

Day 8 - I see you

This is such an exciting time in the history of man!  I want to share the history of photography with them, and get them thinking about the POWER they carry around with them – the camera in their phone.  Never in the history of mankind have so many had such a powerful tool in their pocket.  The 21st c. has seen the explosion of communicating information through visuals.  The fact that a high percentage of the population of the world has the capability to transmit images globally in the blink of an eye has completely shifted the way we understand our world.  It has been a huge democratization factor, and has changed not only art, but also politics and society.

This week’s Artist of the Day videos centered around the theme of Photography.  I wanted to help them find out how to take better pictures, and to think more broadly about the kinds of pictures they might take.  Here is the lineup:

My student teacher came up with these questions for the students to reflect on after viewing the videos:

  • What is one way to improve the composition in your photographs?
  • A photographer in Dubai takes photos while skydiving, how can you change the way you take pictures based on your interaction with your settings?
  • What might be some challenges and considerations of taking successful photos underwater?
  • Micro photography is taking photos of the smaller details in life (like the ant carrying the pink leaf). What objects or organisms would you be inclined to take photos of at the micro level?
  • If you were a photojournalist, what story would you want to capture through photos?

Showing our students these viewpoints of professionals broadens their perception of the world.  I asked each class how many students were interested in photography, and a healthy number of hands were raised in each class.  Photography and video content are trumping text in information dissemination.  Helping our students to strengthen their visual literacy is an important skill art teachers can pass on.  Enjoy this lineup of videos, consider showing them to your students and use these questions, or come up with your own questions or activities to connect our students to the power of the image.