Student Semester Reflections, Part I

First, if there’s anyone out there who actually reads this blog, I offer an apology for my lack of recent posts. I intended to post a number of things over the holidays, but if I’m being honest, I found that I enjoyed unplugging far too much. I went almost two weeks without touching my computer, and it was everything I hoped it could be. I spent a lot of that time reading, and wrapped up a great year in books (perhaps I’ll post about that soon).

I’ve fallen down on my promise to reflect regularly, but I hope to get back on that this month. I’m also planning to begin posting reviews of some of my education/history reads, possibly as soon as tomorrow.

For now, though, I wanted to share some terrific mid-year writing from my students. As part of their semester assessments, I asked my students to write a series of brief reflections on their work so far. Of course, I didn’t have any “correct” answers in mind; rather, I hoped that intentional reflection on the semester would help students clarify the “big picture” takeaways at a time when it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the details.

I’m pleased to report that the results were much better than anything I expected. The students impressed me with their thoughtfulness, and I was especially pleased to see that many of them had apparently learned the skills and habits of mind I had hoped to impart.

This will be the first in a series of three posts on this topic. Below are my questions and a few reflections from students (mostly seniors) in my semester-length course, which is essentially an introduction to American government. I’m sad to say goodbye to this group, but it looks so far like I have another great group this semester. Later this week, I’ll post a few reflections from my juniors (American history), and I’ll wrap up with a few thoughts of my own based on their reflections.

What is the most valuable lesson you learned about government this semester?

The most valuable lesson I have learned about government this year is there is always two sides to every situation, and it is better to be educated about sides and form an opinion rather than just one.

Before coming to this class, I had many ideas about government based on my parent’s thoughts and things I had heard through the media. However, throughout the semester, I learned that our government is quite complex. I learned that being a well-informed citizen goes farther than just answering to what political party you believe you belong in. This class also helped stress to me the importance of not only voting when I am eligible, but also having my own reasons for voting. Instead of voting for which ever candidate fits my political party, I learned that it makes more sense to follow elections closely and form my own opinions based on knowledge I gather.

The most valuable lesson I have learned in government is government is one big balancing act. It cannot have too much of one particular thing in order to be successful.

I learned that in government having an opinion is not enough. Your opinion has to have evidence and
proof to stand up against others’ opinions. . . . The most valuable lesson I learned about government during this semester is that government is not just black and white has I had thought when I was younger, its black white and a lot of shades of gray. It needs everyone’s opinion for it to work. Because it is not just black and white, I learned that the people might not necessarily believe everything that the political party they associate with does. I figured out that people really do have opinions from other political parties and they just do not realize they do.


What is the most valuable lesson you have learned about writing this semester?

The most valuable lesson I learned about writing this semester is that all arguments need to be supported. In writing the topic sentence of the paragraph is the sub-claim that must then be supported. After the establishment of this main idea you much support the claim with specific evidence. At the beginning of the semester I was not used to this writing style, and struggled to support my claims. . . . I believe that the main reason I was able to take away so much about my writing skills was because of the availability of revisions. The revisions allowed me to see where my problems were and to fix and learn from them.

Before this class, I had a set way of writing a paper which usually involved using only three pieces of supporting evidence. However, I quickly learned that it is not the quantity but rather the quality of supporting evidence that helps make a great paper. This lesson not only helped me do well on government papers, but also helped me plan better for other classes.

The most valuable lesson I have learned about writing this year is that papers flow much better and sound more cohesive when organized correctly. In other words, the order in which arguments are arranged need to be strategically planned out, and within those arguments, the supporting evidence needs to be delivered in a logical manner.


What is the most valuable lesson you have learned about yourself as a student this semester?

I had always typically thought of myself as a person with very little to no opinion on anything related to
politics. I either did not care enough to form an opinion, or to argue the one I had. I did not see the point in arguing and debating when in the long run, neither side was going to change their opinion. Yet in Government, I was required to do just that. The class helped me to realize that I do have political
opinions and that those opinions are something I can express to others in a mature and confident way. It also helped me to become more educated in the way the government works and on current events in order to discover these views. Finding these political opinions helped me to realize more aspects of my identity and to actually hold my own in discussions on government.

As a student this semester I have learned to evaluate my own work instead of relying on constant grade updates to tell me how I am doing. I learned to self-evaluate by looking at the graded work I have submitted, the feedback I’ve gotten from that graded work, and the quality of my in-class work. I learned to look at myself and decide if I was meeting two expectations: my teacher’s and my own.

The most valuable lesson that I have learned about myself as a student this semester is my strength as a leader. Before this class I knew I was a leader in sports, but did not realize that I could also be a leader in the classroom. In a class full of seniors, I felt a little uneasy at first, but soon learned that I could still become a leader as a junior. Although a leader on the soccer field includes yelling directions to other players, I learned that there are different types of leaders. As a student, I learned that it was acceptable to be a loud leader or a silent leader. For the first part of the semester I was always talking and throwing out ideas to everyone, not really listening to everyone else. However, I quickly learned that I could also be a leader by asking questions and making others explain their ideas more in depth. I set goals for myself in the second part of the semester to focus more on directing the discussion with questions rather than always coming up with new ideas. Regardless, I think the leadership characteristics I have learned will help me in many future situations.

Through this class I have learned that I am actually pretty good at talking in class. Since middle school I have hated talking in class and refused to do so, but after being in a class where I have to talk, I have
begun to speak more in other classes to. I have become more confident in speaking up in class and now, because of this class, I not so concerned about my answer being wrong when I speak up in class.

This semester the most valuable lesson I have learned about myself is I am very cautious and hesitant to challenge my classmates. Before this year, I have always been taught to respect my classmate’s ideas. In doing this I never challenged their ideas. However, in this class I have learned that asking for clarification on an idea is parallel with respecting it.


What is one unexpected lesson you learned this semester?

One unexpected lesson that I have learned this semester is how when I actually participate and talk my comments actually make sense and spark the conversation some. When I thought of comments in my head I always thought they didn’t make sense and were dumb and that’s why I never contributed them to the conversation. Now that I see that they actually are decent comments that made me feel more confident of myself when it comes to participating in class. I never would have realized this anywhere else because I never had to talk for a grade like this. I am glad I took this class because I believe I have strengthened myself when it comes to talking and what I brought to the class in general.

An unexpected lesson that I learned this semester is that talking and discussing about class materials and readings with my classmates is very beneficial. There is a saying that two brains are better than one. One person can have really good ideas and a great understanding of a reading. However, a second person might think differently from the first person. Together two people can arrive at different conclusions than one person can do on his or her own. I tend to think out of the box and about many aspects of a reading. Sometimes, I even believe I completely understand a reading we read in Government class. But when we discuss it in class, someone can bring up something I never thought about. Discussing the readings has been really constructive and I have learned a lot of things from my classmates in Government. Government is the first class I took where students run the discussion about the class readings. I have learned a lot about the people in my class and how they think. Even though we read really complicated readings, we were able to understand them and make sense out of them by ourselves (with a little help from Mr. Edmonds).

One unexpected lesson I learned this semester was to not begin something thinking you will not like it. I have never been the best in history classes, so I thought that this class would not be one of my favorites. I thought government would not be as interesting to me as other classes, but I clearly discovered that I was originally wrong. Government as a general topic was not something I was too educated about before I began taking this class. My parents do not enjoy talking about politics or their personal political leanings, so I was largely uninformed about the subject. Because of this, I thought that this class would not strike my fancy as much as other courses. I am happy I was able to take this class, though, because I realized that I cannot think I will not enjoy a course before I begin going to classes. This semester has been unlike any other course I have taken, for we discuss many different things. Everyone has a chance to speak their mind, and this allowed for my own personal opinions about government and politics to flourish. I now know that government is something I truly am interested in, and I do not think I would have discovered this if I was not in this class. I will remember in the future to begin new classes with an open mind and desire to learn, no matter the subject.

One thing I learned that I did not expect was that I could learn in a discussion based class. It made me
uncomfortable because we were not given notes, or dates to memorize, and the teacher didn’t tell us the answer. By reading and then discussing what we read in a group helped bounce around different ideas and allowed us to think about all the possible ways government can work and let us discover that ourselves. I did not except to learn from my classmates just as much as I learned from my teacher.

One unexpected lesson that I learned this semester is the importance of asking questions when I need to. I first accepted the fact that I would not understand everything, especially some of the more difficult readings. However, I learned that by simply listening and writing down things I did not understand, I was not going to do well in the class. I learned that by asking questions I not only gained new knowledge, but it also helped the person who I asked because they had to use their ideas to back up their answer. I did not expect to learn this lesson in this class because of the discussion setting. I thought I was going to learn the importance of talking, but instead came away with the knowledge that asking questions is just as important when it comes to participation. By asking questions, I was able to understand the material better and began to analyze the texts easier on my own. With this new unexpected lesson, I think I can use this new knowledge in my other classes to begin to understand difficult material.


What single piece of advice would you offer to students in this course next semester?

For the students next semester I would advise them to take full advantage of the availability of revisions on the papers. The teacher is available to submit a draft, then a first paper, then a revised final copy. If the students utilize all three of these steps the final grade on the papers could be theoretically perfect. There is great chance for students to improve on their writing, and learn what they are good at and what they need to do better. I used this availability often in my writing and was able to greatly improve my works from the beginning stages to the polished final copy.

I would encourage students to not only speak up during class, but also help engage other students. I
learned a lot about government from the readings we were given, but also from how other students
interpreted the readings. I would also tell them to take the class for what it is and to be put off by the
different, discussion based structure.

The single piece of advice I would give to upcoming Government students is to really take the time to
soak up the information you are reading and discussing. The benefits of truly learning the course work,
outweighs any of the extra time you might spend on Facebook or other mindless things. . . . government. Now when I look at something I weigh the pros and cons: how it will affect the government, how it will affect the people, and if the downsides to a decision are worth it in the long run.

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