Listening to Students
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?