Reflective learning and metacognition Frank O’Hara style

Meta reflectionsSource of image:

Anyone who has taught for any length of time will have at some stage encouraged students to reflect on their learning and will be familiar with the work of Donald Schön , Kolb, Gibbs, Brookfield, Mezirow, and others. Many students are required to keep learning journals which are thought to encourage metacognition i.e. learning about one’s own process of learning. Jenny Moon has written about this extensively in her book, Learning Journals: A Handbook for Reflective Practice and Professional Development.

The term meta crops up regularly in the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry course (ModPo) in relation to meta poetry, i.e. poems about the process of writing a poem.  This week’s assignment (the third in the MOOC) has been to do a close reading of Frank O’Hara’s  poem – ‘Why I am Not a Painter’ –  and through this discuss the differences between poetry and painting.

Why I Am Not A Painter by Frank O’Hara

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Source of poem:

For a audio reading of this poem click on this link –

As Al Filreis (ModPo convenor) explains in a video discussion of this poem – this poem is a meta poem. It is a poem about a painting that behaves like a poem and about a poem that behaves like a painting. This poem is process oriented. It is a poem that shows you how you can have a meta painting in a poem and how you can have a meta poem in a poem. It is a meta meta poem.

In the light of this discussion I have been wondering how we could encourage students to engage in meta meta reflection, i.e. reflect on their reflection. Many students find reflection and reflective writing difficult, but the video discussion incorporated a lot of points that I thought might be helpful for reflective writing in general.

  1. Consider what you want to represent and how you want to represent it.
  2. Think about structuring the writing in three parts i) Present your case, set up the story ii) Through reflection on your observation and experience, begin your analysis iii) Turn back in on yourself and relate your analysis to your own learning.
  3. Frank O’Hara is one of the New York School poets. He writes present tense narrative – ‘I do this, I do that’ and keeps us in the moment.  This style would serve as a helpful illustration of how to write freely for students engaged in reflective writing.
  4. O’Hara’s poem also depicts the passage of time, the process of unfolding over time. Reflection is not a fast process but a gradual unfolding.
  5. In O’Hara’s poem the composition/process determines the content rather than the content determining the composition. This focus on the emergent process, which will often be unpredictable and surprising, seems to me to be a necessary element of deep reflection.

I have written about reflective learning before (see for example – Reflective Learning and the Glass Half-Empty), but these thoughts from Week 7 in ModPo are welcome additions.

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