Reflecting in my Classroom

In pursuit of helping my students be authentic learners

Adrian Neibauer
8 min readNov 11, 2023

I’ve always been a reflective person. I’m introspective. I enjoy a quiet room so that I am alone with my thoughts. I usually have my classroom lights off and at the end of the day, you will see me sitting in a dark staring off into space. What went well? How will I handle a particular challenge? What will I do differently tomorrow? What if I tweak this aspect of the learning experience?

I have also developed a journaling practice over the years. I’ve had a lot of starts and stops, but over time, a little bit everyday, I manage to journal for about 30 minutes before I go to bed. I start listing out my day, and once I enter a flow state, I begin to process certain parts from my day (personal and professional).

My reflective personality serves me well. It allows me to quietly reconnect with my thoughts and feelings. I’ll admit, that at times, I’ve been known to ruminate, but in general, I use reflection to tap into deep thinking and feeling.

Although I reflect personally and professionally, it wasn’t until returning to the classroom after the pandemic, did I begin integrating regular reflection as a learning tool for my students. Yes, I’ve used exit tickets and qualitative formative assessments, but having my students reflect on their learning process is relatively new for me.

I’ve begun experimenting with #ungrading after studying the work of Jesse Stommel from the University of Denver. I’m focusing more on qualitative instead of quantitative assessments. Since I teach in a standards-based school district, I do give grades at the end of each trimester. However, I stopped grading individual assignments, and began asking my students more questions and engaging them in conversations about their work. My intention is to help my students focus on their learning process instead of the final product, project, test, etc.

Here are some questions that I ask my students at the end of the day, project, unit, or week (adapted from the Colorado Department of Education).

Reflect on your thinking, learning, and work

What are you most proud of? Why?

Where do you encounter struggles? What do you do to deal with those struggles?

What about your thinking, learning, or work brought you the most satisfaction? Why?

What is frustrating you? How do you plan to deal with that frustration?

What are you most proud of? Why?

I want to give my student the opportunity to share a point (or two) of pride. Whether it be specific to a particular concept, a challenging situation with a peer, or overcoming feeling stuck during a learning experience, I want students to share something positive. Oftentimes, my students share something that I didn’t notice during the learning experience.

Where did you encounter struggles? What did you do to deal with those struggles?

Learning requires struggle. I want my students going into all of our learning experiences knowing that at some point, they will struggle. The struggle isn’t the place to stop and give up, but instead, the point where I want them to settle into their discomfort. I want my students to be comfortable with their discomfort because that is where learning happens.

If students struggle a lot, I want to know this, too. I teach my students that, as their teacher, I cannot always be the one that intervenes when they are struggling. Are there other resources they can use? Notes? Peers? If students are struggling to the point of disengagement, how are they advocating for themselves? Do they need a break? Are they taking deep breaths to refocus. Or, do they need Mr. Neibauer to sit with them and troubleshoot?

What about your thinking, learning, or work brought you the most satisfaction? Why?

Students are never given time to savor that moment when something finally clicks. As teachers, we push students through one unit of study to another without spending time relishing in those Aha! moments. I want my students to think about where they experienced a great sense of satisfaction. They’ve earned the right to enjoy the moment!

What is frustrating you? How do you plan to deal with that frustration?

Again, frustration is a part of learning. I want students to be able to identify where they feel frustration and how they are working through it. Do they have a plan when they need to collaborate with a difficult peer? What will do when they come to a particular math problem they feel less confident in solving?

When teachers ask students questions at the end of a unit of study, they tend to ask things like, What did you learn? What questions do you still have? These are not necessarily poor questions. They can be a good starting place for more conversation. The problem is public schools do not give teachers or students time to have those conversations.

Unit 1. Test. Unit 2. Test. Unit 3. Test. Report Card. Ad nauseum.

Instead of promoting this industrial model of passive learning and assessments, I encourage curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition.

In John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (2018), he structures his college-level writing experiences in a way that introduces his students to a way of processing the world through a writer’s practice: the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits-of-mind of writers. These habits of mind are how I structure my classroom learning experiences. I embed a reflective question with each one, providing students multiple opportunities to self-direct their learning, improving their motivation and engagement.


Instead of curiosity being a buzzword for innovative pedagogy, Warner states it simply. He wants his students to want to learn more about the world. I want my students to do the same.

Reflective question: What made you curious today?


Warner encourages his students to “consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.” In my classroom, I work with my students to heal previous educational trauma so that they regain their willingness to learn and grow.

Reflective question(s): What did you discover about yourself through this learning experience? What did you hear today that challenged your ideas?


Unfortunately, many of my students come to my classroom jaded and guarded. They do not trust their teachers and have convinced themselves that school and learning will not serve them in their lives. It’s tough work, but slowly, I help students re-engage with their education, questioning processes and protocols and reflecting on their individual learning process.

Reflective question(s): What skills are you able to apply to this learning experience? What new skills are you learning? How will these skills help you as a future student?


We all want more creativity in our lives. Warner wants his students to “use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas” specific to writing. I teach my students that creativity comes in many forms and part of their reflective process is investigating and identifying how approach problems.

Reflective question(s): When do you feel the most creative? What path did you take to learn this concept? What alternatives did you consider earlier in the learning experience? Which alternatives could you take from this point?


Warner emphasizes that professional writers do not write 5-paragraph essays to be turned in for a grade. Instead, they must “sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.” When I allow my students time to reflect as learners, they gain a better understanding of themselves.

Reflective question(s): Do you notice a point in learning where you tend to get stuck? What helps you get started again?


Warner defines responsibility as “the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.” I teach my students to own their mistakes, apologize, and make amends. I don’t always want to be the one who intervenes and “fixes” conflicts. I want my students to gain a sense of independent accountability, especially in their academic work. If they are dissatisfied with their academic performance what are they doing to be successful?

Reflective question(s): What learning strategies do you plan to use in future lessons to help you understand the material better? How can you better manage your time or stay organized in future lessons/projects?


I find that many students get to my classroom with very little practice adapting to situations, expectations, or demands. It can come as quite a shock to them when I don’t try and control everything in the classroom. Students have been taught that teachers control the behavior and the learning in the classroom. Yes, I do set expectations for how I want our classroom community to function. No, I do not micromanage every element of our classroom community. Students need to be flexible because learning is messy.

Reflective question: How do you adjust to changes you have no control over?


I am always pushing my students to think critically about their school experiences. I don’t want them to accept the status quo because that is the way it has always been. However, it is important to teach students how to respectfully and thoughtfully question power dynamics and the authority figures in their lives. Metacognition is “the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge” (Warner, 2018). Students should be given the freedom to lean into their academic genius and authentic selves. To do so, students need to regularly reflect on their own thinking and their learning environment.

Reflective question(s): How does this learning experience differ from a more traditional lesson? Did you learn what you set out to learn? If not, what got in the way? Why are we learning this? How does it connect to you?

Students need to see teachers ask questions. Teaching and learning do not happen in a vacuum and it is important that educators model vulnerability, struggle, honesty, caring, and reflection. My practice of personal reflection helps me strive toward Dr. Chris Emdin’s reality pedagogy. I’m not in the job of delivering content. Pizzas are delivered; not knowledge. As an educator my job is to “connect academic content to what’s happening in the world that affects students and make sure that their lives and backgrounds are reflected in the curriculum and in classroom conversations” (Emdin, 2021). Reflecting in my classroom helps me help my students to become authentic learners with agency and the tools they need to transform society.


Emdin, C. (2021). Ratchetdemic: Reimagining academic success. Beacon Press.

Warner, J. (2018). Why they can’t write: Killing the five-paragraph essay and other necessities. Johns Hopkins University Press.



Adrian Neibauer

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.