How do I write a reflection paper on critical articles about Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Composing a reflection paper can be an enjoyable writing experience because it invites one's own personal reactions and thoughts into the writing process. For, a reflection paper integrates what students have read along with their classroom experiences and personal reactions and thoughts.

(Without knowing what critical articles have been read, an extract from Twain's Life on the Mississippi will be used for purposes of example.)

One of the first things that students want to do in composing a reflection paper is to identify a theme that can unify the paper. Certainly, if students have ever seen or been on the Mississippi, they must have been impressed by the size and majesty of this river which bisects the entire country. So much lore has been written about this river and so much history attached to it, that the Mississippi seems to possess a both a physical and mystical life. In fact, this mighty river has been personified in many a tale and song. African-American folklorist Ruth Bass described the power of the river by saying,

"Ole Miss' was lying mighty peaceful and tenderlike now, but she could be high-handed when she took a notion.

Similarly, with his rich baritone, Paul Robeson in the musical Showboat sings of the eternity of "Ol' Man River" in contrast to man's mortality:

I must keep fightin'; / Until I'm dyin', / And Ol' Man River, / He'll just keep rollin' along!

In several passages of Life on the Mississippi, Twain describes his experience of having to "learn" the river as a steamboat captain, an overwhelming task requiring the acquisition of a tremendous amount of knowledge of all the changes to depth of the river, alteration of shoreline, sandbars and wind bars, shoals, snags, etc. Ironically, once Twain finally masters all the skills he needs to steer the large boats, he has lost something in the process: "...the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river." No longer can he view the river with the romantic illusions he once possessed as he finds himself analyzing each spot he passes, instead.

...a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face....

This reflection of Twain, points to a theme. That is, the paradox of something always being lost in the process of gaining knowledge. Such a theme as this can, of course, invite student's own reflections and analyses. So, in composing the reflection paper, the theme is brought together with classroom discussions; these ideas, then, are reflected upon as to how they have affected the students' own thinking and practice (actions, reactions).

The steps to writing a reflection paper are not dissimilar to those for writing an essays. But, here are some steps to consider, as well:

  • A reflection paper exhibits students' understanding of the material and its impact upon their ideas and future actions and thoughts. This understanding includes an identification of the theme of the readings and writings read and discussed.
  • This type of paper is written in first person, of course, and contains an assessment, or "consideration" of how what has been learned and the theme alters students' prior knowledge and way of thinking. [e.g. for Twain, his newly acquired knowledge of the river changes his prior romantic perspective]
  • This paper alludes to important aspects of classroom readings/discussions as connections to the personal reflections (i.e. students demonstrate how their previous ideas have been altered and how new ideas have been generated by texts and discussions)
  • This reflection paper contains the requisite structure of opening paragraph, body, and conclusion
  • This paper includes in-text reference a works cited page for any materials to which references are made. 

(There are links below which should also assist in the composition of this reflection paper)

Read the study guide:
Life on the Mississippi

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