How do we know if international teaching sojourns are more than a great travel experience? That is the question we have asked ourselves for the past three years as five of us have researched sojourn preparation, reflection and debriefing. The term “sojourn” refers to a period of time spend abroad. In the case of this research, the sojourn is the time the BEd students in our Teaching Across Borders program spend volunteer teaching and living abroad. While our larger project examines reflective writing in the preparation and time away, this research update focuses on reflection upon return home.
Sojourn debriefing – usually we like to begin at the beginning, but in the first phase of our research we started where most research, and programs, do not even venture – the end. We designed a reflective writing model that we used during a reflective writing workshop the participants attended after they had been back home for two months. We wanted the participants to reflect deeply on one significant event from their time away. The model provided quite effective as students were able to use it to think and write about this event, starting with descriptive writing, but moving on to descriptive reflection, dialogic reflection, and in some cases, critical refection (These are four types of reflective writing described in other research as levels of depth of reflection).
What did we learn?
First, we learned about ourselves as researchers who have also each spent time abroad. In designing the model, we tested out three widely known models on ourselves: Gibbs’ (1988) Reflective Cycle; Rolfe, Freshwater, and Jasper’s (2001) Reflective Model; and Johns’ (2010) Model for Structured Reflection. We met, tried writing based on each model, and then discussed which aspects of each we felt should go into a hybrid model we would use for our program participants. Through sharing our writing and developing this process, we became more aware of the strengths each of us brought to the project. We found this method effective for helping us design a model we could envision using, because we had lived the experience of assembling it. The new model was more than a sum of its parts because we added to it from our own insights. We have written about our design of the model in this scholarly publication:
Dressler, R., Becker, S. Kawalilak, C., Arthur, N. (2018). The cross-cultural reflective model for post-sojourn debriefing. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 19(4), 490–504. doi:10.1080/14623943.2018.1530207
Second, we learned about reflective writing and our participants. Reflective writing forces writers to think about their experiences and consider what they might learn from them. Some of the experiences were difficult ones: experiencing homesickness, encountering systemic racism, questioning one’s career choice (in this case, teaching). Others were poignant: reaching out to a misunderstood student; seeing the historical, political significance of the place one was living, surprising oneself with language and intercultural competence that was previously unnoticed. While not all students reflected to the degree of dialogic or critical reflection, each had the opportunity to reflect, grow, and make sense of their experience.
We have recently submitted an article about these post-sojourn reflections and anticipate writing more about them when we look at the cases of individual participants over time.
Looking back at our work summarized so succinctly does not do it justice. Stay tuned for more updates in the coming year.