Listening to Students | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Last week, my son's third grade teacher sent home what at first glance looked like a long homework assignment -- three sets of survey questions with many lines for his responses. After reading the directions, we learned that I was to ask him the questions and transcribe his responses. Each night we settled down for what turned into a thoughtful, reflective conversation about my child: his reading preferences, learning style, interests, likes and dislikes, fears and hopes.

I thought I knew my kid, but I was surprised by some of his responses -- "What distracts you more -- sound or movement?" one question asked. "Movement, definitely," my son said. "I can concentrate if there's music on or whispering but if people start walking around and doing stuff then I can't concentrate." I immediately felt guilty -- he often does his homework on the dining room table while I bustle about cleaning or making dinner.

"What's one thing you're afraid of?" I asked, moving down the list of questions. "Doctors," he said definitively. "They know everything and I'm afraid they'll give us bad news." I never would have guessed that this was a fear he held. We spent a long time talking about doctors that evening. And then moving on to other questions including where he'd like to travel ("The Taiga forest"-- which I'd never heard of; how does my child know about places I've never heard of?) and what his preferred classroom configuration would be if he could design the seating arrangements.

This was the best homework assignment my kid has ever received, at least from my perspective (and I've generally been an advocate of abolishing homework. I know he enjoyed it too -- the conversations, the thought-provoking questions, perhaps the ensuing self-knowledge. It also made me think back to how I used to get to know my students at the beginning of the year.

Beginning of the Year Surveys

My first years teaching were in elementary classrooms (I didn't survey my kids because I feared they couldn't write the kinds of lengthy responses I wanted). I wish I'd thought of doing what my son's teacher did. When I moved up to teach middle school, I started surveying my kids every year, as an in class assignment. I wanted to hear about their experiences in school, their perceptions of themselves as learners, what they enjoyed and struggled with, and about outside of school factors that impacted their learning.

I also knew that by asking these questions I was building a relationship with my students. When I administered diagnostic reading assessments, I'd often sit with them and we'd discuss what they'd written on their surveys. I'd ask follow up questions, probe, clarify, and often express sympathy -- many shared difficult in-school or out-of-school experiences. I kept these "data points" in mind all year, planned intentionally around them, and used them to support my students' learning.

So what might you ask your students? Well, what do you want to know?

Here are some of the questions I asked students:

  • Tell me about a teacher you really liked and what he/she did that you appreciated
  • Tell me about a teacher that you felt wasn't effective and why
  • What do you think makes a "good" teacher?
  • Describe the most interesting activity you ever did in school
  • Describe the most challenging class or unit of study
  • How do you like to get feedback?
  • If I notice that you're not following one of our classroom agreements, how would you like me to let you know?
  • On a scale of 1-5, how much do you like reading?
  • (1: not at all, 2: sort of/sometimes, 3: most of the time, 4: I like reading, 5: I LOVE reading)
  • On a scale of 1-5, how would you rate your reading skills?
  • (1: I'm a terrible reader, 2: I'm not a very good reader, 3: I'm an ok reader, 4: I'm a good reader, 5: I'm a really, really good reader)
  • What did you read last year in school or outside of school?
  • Who do you know who likes to read?
  • Outside of school, who do you think believes in you and supports you most?
  • Who do you want me to tell when you do really well in school?
  • Tell me about something that's been hard for you in your life
  • Tell me about something you feel proud of
  • Tell me about something you love doing that has nothing to do with school
  • What's your favorite thing to do on the weekend?
  • If you could have three wishes, what would they be?
  • What would you like to know about me?
  • What else can you tell me that would help me be a better teacher to you?

Just by asking these kinds of questions teachers can create a classroom culture where student voice is valued, where students feel their needs will be attended to, and where students begin to trust their teacher.

How do you get to know your students? What kinds of questions do you ask?

Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

connectwithkids's picture

I think I'm going to use these with my kids! What you are talking about is something I whole-heartedly believe in: helping kids find an emotional and social connection to school that makes them WANT to learn!

coachkays's picture

As a high school teacher I have always struggled with getting to know my students, especially if I have to write copious letters of rec due to teaching mostly seniors and juniors. Along with that I have also always had trouble with how teachers and students are separated by, and to use the drama terms, "the fourth wall". (Us and them instead of we). I wanted to get to know my students more, build community, give them ownership of the classroom, engender a sense of self worth and value etc.

I watched a TED video about a woman by the name of Candy Chang from New Orleans who turned community space into interactive spaces of community expression and it inspired me. (video can be found here Since I think the use of "decoration" in the classroom is wasteful, boring, an inefficient use of space for what should be true educational environment, I took her idea and applied it in the classroom. My bulletin boards have become community space for the dreams, aspirations, and problems of my students, the experience has been transformative. This has not only been enlightening for me but for many of my students to have an accepting community forum for expression that transcends the boundary of what is "teacher" and what is "student" and more on what is "ours".

In a truly student centered education, the classroom space is not the "teachers" but the community of learners that reside inside of those walls.

Mike Herring's picture
Mike Herring
Instructional Effectiveness Specialist/Chicago Public Schools

Great post - I like the sound of the homework assignment and appreciate the questions you shared about how you got to know your own students. It reminded me of an activity I created when I was teaching HS English.

On the Friday of the first week of school, I'd spend an hour sharing a five-paragraph introductory letter I'd written to my students while asking them to reply in kind. I'd set the purpose by telling students that I wanted to get to know each as an individual and not just as "that kid that sits in the third row in my fifth period."

I would show them the first paragraph of my letter (the introduction) on the overhead. I'd read it aloud (5-7 sentences) and then allow 3-5 minutes for clarifying questions. This paragraphed included my date of birth (as intimidating as that seemed when I was first teaching), my place of birth, and the different places I'd lived. After answering their questions, I'd ask the students to take the next 7-9 minutes to respond in kind to me.

The process repeats for paragraphs 2-5. These of second paragraph is family. Theme of third paragraph is hobbies. Fourth paragraph: short and long term goals. Fifth paragraph: conclusion (What do I need to know about you to be a great teacher for you this year? What advice do you have for me about how to be a great teacher for this entire class?).

I can say without reservation this was one of the best activities I ever designed. You learn a tremendous amount about your students in reading those letters, and they can serve as the baseline for future conversations should the student struggle later in the year. I would often pull these letters out when having one-on-one conversations with kids in different contexts.

An added bonus is that by the end of the period, every student has written five paragraphs. Showing them that if they can do that on the first week of school, it's not going to be a surprise when I'm asking for papers of greater length as the year progresses. You can also choose to have the students read each others letters as a way to get to know each other. A nice, simple task that shows that writing isn't just "for a grade," but for real, authentic purposes.

A *GREAT* way to learn about students and build class culture.

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

On the first day of school I asked my students how they learn the best and what they're good at. It was a question more for me, I said, but would eventually be good for you, too. You know, once we get to work.

A few of them huffed and dropped their heads on their desks. That's the power of the phrase ... get to work.

I had a yellow legal pad out and a pen ready to write. One of the nicest things you can do for someone is to shut up and listen to them ... and even write down what they say while they're watching you.

They were watching. I got the impression no one had ever asked them those questions.

Lazlo said he loves vampires. Nesbit said he's good at sleeping late. Brainerd said he wanted me to quit talking so fast.

I made the time-out sign with my hands and said ... Oh-kay. Why don't we start all over again.

Ben - Socrative's picture

Hi Elena,

I really enjoyed your post and the 20 questions in your survey. I created a Socrative activity from all the questions so the community could use with their classroom technology.

If anyone has Socrative, you can import the 20 questions into your room with this code SOC-451661.


Jessica's picture
Building Confidence in Students, One Child at a Time

A great way to understand the student. Not only it will help the kid with studies but also help parents in understanding their kids really well. For me such type of survey should be done by every school.

Christina F.'s picture
Christina F.
3rd Grade Teacher from Georgia

Wow! The wheels are turning as you have motivated me to use your ideas as an inspiration for new lessons in my classroom. As a third grade teacher, I am intrigued by any assignment that helps me connect to my students. I love the questions and the ideas of how to listen to the students, especially of how to really let them know you are listening. I am learning that the more I get to know my students, the better I can teach them. By getting to know them, I can figure out their learning style and the what works for them. I want to work on my list of questions for my survey. I also love the letter writing idea as a creative writing lesson. Any ideas of how I can best implement these or other ideas into a diverse third grade classroom with little parent support?

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