Freeze Frame: Celebrating Understanding

Throughout my career, I aggressively tried to move students away from the term “smart” as a way to name their academic identity – to no avail.  It is the term they consistently use to describe themselves, so I decided to approach it from a new angle –  to define “smart” – to make it visible and then name when and where “smart” happened in our classroom.  I wanted to create a classroom that allowed students to publicly experience academic success.

I started by narrowing the focus of what I would define, and I settled on a skill set that I felt would transfer to other classes and beyond the school doors: the ability to participate in a discussion.  We began the process of defining the characteristics of an effective discussion.  We watched discussions online (book clubs and college seminars), and my students visited other classes during our class period to observe discussions. Then we shared observations and looked for patterns across our notes and named what it looks and sounds like to be involved in an effective discussion.  We defined “smart” as it relates to discussion:

  • Listen to each other.
  • Be willing to contribute.
  • Don’t dominate; everyone needs a chance.
  • Support opinions with evidence.
  • Respect what is said even if you disagree with it.
  • Shares opinions, asks questions, makes connections, and analyzes author’s craft
  • Work for dialogue (not talk):
    • Build on others’ comments
    • Work toward discovery of new ideas

We began reading and annotating short stories in preparation for our discussions.  The success of our discussion would be measured by whether we left class with a new understanding of the text.  We referred to this as reaching deep meaning where we stopped discussing the surface of the subject/text (who, what, where, when, and how) and moved to “why” – moving beyond what the author says to what the author means.  The skill set identified above became our process to get to deep meaning. One day during discussion, I realized “it” was happening.  We were having a meaningful, thoughtful dialogue; I was worried they weren’t seeing it so out of nowhere I yelled “freeze frame!”  A strategy was born!  The entire class froze.  I ran to the white board and mapped what I could remember about how the comments built to the point where I had stopped them.  I named exactly what I heard and who said it to make visible how the collaborative building of ideas was leading us to deep meaning.

Naming contradicted advice I was given early in my career where naming a student might make them the object of teacher-pet teasing.  Students’ names were used, their contributions were named and analyzed publicly, and they were all encouraged to replicate the process they had just seen and heard as we continued our discussion.  Creating knowledge became visible, and when it is visible, it can be replicated and controlled.  Making-meaning of difficult text became a celebration!

In Emma’s end-of-the-year portfolio, she reflects on what she remembers as being her most memorable discussion.  Her comments illustrate the visual nature of naming academic thinking:

We knew that we were getting close to dialogue because Mrs. Cleland was webbing on the white board (she tends to start webbing when we get to dialogue; this is a habit that she picked up over the year).  Dialogue happened when we started adding to each other’s ideas and getting closer to the deeper meaning that way. We could see where it happened in the web. It was exciting.

Eventually, the students would call their own freeze frames and name what they saw.  We found that an entire class discussion made it impossible for everyone to experience the process and to meet personal discussion goals, so we moved to an inner/outer circle structure.  I created a discussion observation chart for the outer circle to record their observations through our discussion criteria lens.

When visitors came to our class, students invited them to use the strategy if they needed explanation of what was happening or if they saw a process they wanted to share with the class.  One story I will always remember happened when I told my students that visitors from an area high school were coming to observe our freeze frame technique so they could use it in their classrooms.  One student said “Let’s use a story we have already discussed so we look really smart.” Another replied “Mrs. Cleland, why don’t you give us the hardest story you can find so we can really blow them away.”  I knew their academic identities were moving beyond the fragile stage; they knew the process to put into place to create meaning of difficult text, and they were ready to use that process in a public forum.

Here are two journal entries from that class (Freshman Reading) that illustrate the importance of “naming”  and freeze frame as a strategy to nurture academic identity.

Entry #1:          In our class a moment when I felt smart in class was when we were having a discussion and I said something.  During the freeze frame you told the whole class that it was a really good observation and that we built a dialogue out of what I started.  When that happened I felt better about myself and I felt smart in the way where I was actually getting somewhere in the discussion we were having.

Entry #2:          The first time I really helped the class to enter into the deeper meaning of the text was a day that I remember.  The fact that you pointed it out not only to me but to the whole class made me feel even smarter.  The fact that I can really understand the things we read for a deeper meaning just makes me feel like I am more than just a simple student.  I can get the deeper meaning and really understand it.  Not only do I use this in this class but I use this all the time which makes me feel smart all the time.

Connections to other posts;

This example provided an additional illustration to the difference between reflection and critical reflection from a previous post.  At the conclusion of the discussion, you might ask students the following reflection questions:

  • What role did you play in today’s discussion?  Give a specific example.
  • What is comment/question you had in your head but didn’t get a chance to share?
  • What will you do differently during our next discussion?

These questions will encourage students to revisit the discussion and share their perspective with you.  However, in order to move to critical reflection, students use the “characteristics of an effective discussion” as the lens through which they reflect?

  • Which of the characteristics was your strength today?  Give a specific example.
  • Name someone who clearly demonstrated one of the characteristics in today’s discussion. Specifically, what did he/she do that allowed them to demonstrate this characteristic?
  • Which of the characteristics will you work on in tomorrow’s discussion?  Where could you have demonstrated this characteristic in today’s discussion?

One technique is not better than another.  Giving their perspective through reflection may give the personal insight a teacher needs.   For my students and me, critical reflection let us focus on the behavior rather than the person, and in this setting where I was working to nurture academic identity, that was the best strategy choice for us.




Students as Researchers

In the entry “The Language of Learning,” I discuss the need to define a common language across academic contexts as a way to make learning visible for students of all ages. When learning is visible, learners can control the language they use in order to create meaning of difficult content. The ultimate goal is to move control of language to an in-head process; however, first, the learner must understand the language available to them and that involves creating processes for making learning a concrete, visible experience.

I will share the process that colleagues and I created (and revised with the help of our students) that puts students in the role of researcher, collecting and analyzing their own data as way to understand, and to control, their individual learning process.  Hopefully, my practice will spark conversations with your colleagues about adaptations that will work in your context.

Early in the school year, we read and write about several short stories. My only direction to them is “make comments in the margins of the story that will help you understand what you are reading.” Then they write responses to the stories with the direction “write an entry that helps you explore why you think the author wrote this story.” This is their qualitative, baseline data. It must be dated and collected in a way that will allow students to return to it easily for comparison and contrast. When back-to-school sales offer spiral notebooks for a reasonable price, I buy my daily allotment and stockpile them for this purpose. However, if you are in a school district with individual laptops, you may choose an electronic journal format.

After multiple entries, the analysis begins! I explain that they will be researchers with me (I do every assignment with them). I share the Language for Learning document (we tape a color copy in their notebooks for easy reference), and I explain how and why colleagues and I created this language. Even reluctant learners are intrigued by the concrete, analytical nature of the what I am explaining. “This may be different. I may be good at this.” (If you are struggling with following my description of this process, the foundation for my thinking is in the entry The Language of Learning.)

I have a zip-lock bag of colored pencils that correspond with the colors on the Language of Learning document (one bag for each two students). We begin with our first journal entry of the year – my entry projected for all to see. Category-by-category we analyze our response and underline our discoveries in the color that corresponds with the one in the document.  Every line of the entry will eventually be coded.

In example #1, Emma discovers that her predominant colors are green (opinion) and yellow (summary).  The colors literally make her thinking visible.  After we have color-coded three or four entries, they have a large enough sample to see patterns in their thinking, and they create a summary of their discoveries by listing the color they see most to least often.

I explain “the goal is to push yourself beyond your “go-to” language when creating meaning of difficult content – to understand that when you are “stuck,” there are other options for how to enter the content.  However, we don’t want to abandon the language that works for you.”

We create two goals to guide their next response to text:
• I will continue to use ____ (fill in the blank with one of the colors you listed as #1 or #2).
• I will push myself to explore _________ (fill in the blank with a color listed as #5 or #6).

In her October 21 entry, you can see that Emma lists her goals at the top of her journal page as a reminder, and she color-codes to see exactly what happened in her writing.  Note that entry #1 was dated 9/10 and the goal-guided entry was written on 10/21.  The process of collecting baseline data, analyzing responses, setting goals based on the analysis, and using your goals in future entries is a bit over a month.  When you reread  her first response and her 10/21 response, it is easy to see that the process has led her to explore meaning with more depth and thought.  And…every student in the class is using individual goals to guide their response based on their personal discoveries about their thinking process.

In most cases, they have never considered the language they use when they are trying to make sense of something they are reading or of a problem they are solving.  Their discoveries give them options, but most importantly, their discoveries give them control.  They know what they are doing, and they understand how to set concrete, manageable goals to guide next steps.

Future entries:

  • What if their goal-directed entries don’t lead to a plausible interpretation of text?  What if they are wrong :)?
  • Using the Language of Learning to guide discussion



Summary, Reflection, or Critical Reflection?

“Reflection” – an often-used but consistently-misunderstood term. Research confirms its importance in the learning process (Boud, Keogh, and Walker, 2013). School, state, and national standards include it as a mandatory component in curricula; yet, it remains largely misunderstood in actual classroom practice. The confusion may be resolved by distinguishing the characteristics of three terms that, too often, are used interchangeably:

Summary: a valuable reading strategy that encourages the reader to confirm the accuracy of who, what, where, when, and how as the foundation for asking “why.” If this surface level knowledge is inaccurate, determining why the author wrote the text or why an historical event impacted future events can lead to erroneous connections, assumptions, and interpretations.

Reflection: a strategy that allows learners to retell or rethink an event/experience/text. This retelling typically follows with the learners’ opinion about or personal connection to what they read, heard, or experienced. It is a necessary practice to make sense of daily life, to make a decision about whether to repeat a practice, an action, or an activity; however, it is not a practice that necessarily sparks an in-depth examination of a practice or a behavior.

Critical reflection: Enter Stephen D. Brookfield (1995), who helps us understand that reflection is not, by definition, critical. It becomes critical when you define the lens you purposefully use to question your assumptions and current practice. This type of reflection includes working to understand the power dynamics that may be at play in your practice and among your students. Brookfield suggests there are four important lenses through which educators should critically reflect:
• Through our autobiographies as teachers and learners
• Through our students’ eyes
• Through our colleagues’ experiences
• Through theoretical literature

Classroom teachers might wonder about the questions they have always labeled as reflection. How could they tweak those “reflection” questions to become a vehicle for “critical reflection” for their students?

Here is an example from my practice. Below are the questions that I pose to students at the conclusion of their personal narrative process – a reflection process:

• What is the most important change you made from your first to your final draft? How did that revision improve your narrative?

• What part of your narrative are you most proud of and why?

• What do you know about effective writing that you did not know before you began your narrative?

• What do you feel you need to work on in your next piece of writing? How can you improve this aspect of your writing?

Consider how the answer to these questions might change if I asked students to answer the same questions through the lens of the rubric I use to grade the narrative. This revision from reflection to critical reflection provides students an opportunity to reflect based on research about what makes an effective narrative rather than from their personal reaction to their narrative.

The introduction “hooks” the reader.
It makes the reader want to continue reading
Providing background about characters and setting.

The writer focuses on a specific incident rather than a broad story.

The writer provides detail so they reader can visualize the story.

It is evident that there is a point for sharing this specific story.

The writer uses descriptive language to sustain interest in the story.

The story flows smoothly as a result of word choice (e.g. transitions).

Authentic dialogue is used when appropriate.

The author makes use of varied sentence structure.

The author gains insight as a result of telling this story. There is an element of reflection present.

Another example:
Let me use the content of previous posts to illustrate the differences among the three terms from a teacher, rather than a student, stance.

Summary: I summarized the plans I use with my students to share stories about significant teachers in their lives – when I use this activity, what poem I read, how I design the lesson, and what I hope this accomplishes.

Reflection: At the conclusions of the three-day activity, I reflect on 1) whether I will use the same poem next year, 2) whether I will continue to facilitate the activity as a whole class or break into smaller groups, and 3) whether students provided insights that I need to monitor as the school year progress (i.e. those who were especially nervous sharing with the class).

Critical reflection: Ultimately, the activity is designed to provide a vehicle for critical reflection – a way to view my practice through the eyes of my students. The identification of the characteristics of effective teachers and the tool to provide feedback through the lens of those criteria moves this from a community-building activity to a forum for critical reflection.

Each of these strategies serves an important, but entirely different, purpose in learning and in the learning process. Being conscious of these differences helps us, as educators, to make decisions as we design the learning space for our students.

Future entries will share ideas for how to design critical reflection through the additional lens outlined by Brookfield. A closing testimonial – his text Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher will impact both your teaching philosophy and practice in an on-going and lasting way.


Brookfield, S. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.

Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D. Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. London: Routledge, 2013.