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?

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Elizabeth's picture
Title one teacher

I enjoyed this post. Many things have been speaking to me lately about getting to know my students better. Your blog post is the latest nudge to do something about it. I have always known it is a good thing to know your students but have always felt too much pressure to cover standards so it was always put on the back burner. I am coming to realize more and more that by getting to know students I will be able to cover more. I really liked your list of questions and plan to include them in my own questions.

I am also thinking for my own personal children, it would be fun to create a book with a survey of questions that they answer so they can see how they have changed.

Katie Gay's picture
Katie Gay
4th Grade Math, Science and Social Studies teacher

I do a beginning of the year survey that helps me get to know my students. I ask my students the best way that they learn and a way of learning that may not be the most successful for them. Having this information at the beginning of the year allows me to create instruction and activities that are best fitting for all my students. I think it is great to take the time to really get to know your students.

Sheneka Denmark's picture
Sheneka Denmark
Pre-School Teacher

I think that building a relationship with your students is very important. I liked the way you reflected on how you can get to know your students by doing a survey. The way that i get to know my students is basically on a regular basis, because my lessons and activites are focused on building language skills with my students, so i am always asking them to share things about themselves and their knowledge of what they may already know about topics that we talk about; constantly asking open-end questions and higher thinking questions. My goal as well is to help make that social and emotional connection with my students, and that student-peer connection.

Rhonda's picture

Your post was interesting and it reminded me of an assignment that my seven-year-old son got. In the last academic year, he was asked to write about his family. At the end of the assignment, I must say, I learnt. I gained an insight into how my son saw his family and my role in the family. As a teacher, at the start of a new academic year, I ask my students several questions such as "What is one word you use to describe yourself?" in an effort to get to know them as a person, and as a student. I then use the information I glean from this exercise to help me tailor the lessons to suit their learning styles, their areas of interest and their perceived strengths and weaknesses. Normally I ask my students to give a verbal response to the questions but after reading you post, I will incorporate some of your questions and I will ask them to journal their responses. This documentation will serve three purposes: it allows me to revisit their responses and remind myself of their needs, they it also allows them have apple time to introspect and lastly, it allows them to reflect at the end of the academic year to ascertain if based on their new experiences if they would change any answer. Based on my brief experience as a teacher, I have found that it is easier to facilitate learning when I have an understanding of who my student is.

Barbie Jo's picture
Barbie Jo
k-5th grade science

When I was teaching 2nd grade one of the first assignments of the year was for students to create an all about me portfollio board. Students filled their boards with things that they loved, and that they thought connected with their families and with themselves. Students then would give oral reports and share with their classmates about things they loved. I was always amazed at the details that the students would share and the things that they thought about. It was a great way for me to get to know my new class and to help me to know what interest my students had.

SOS's picture

It is important to listen to students. At the beginning of the year, I do the Steinberg Survey to learn their learning style. We are also do a personal survey. I ask questions like:

What did you do this summer?
What do you dream of doing or becoming?
What do you do after school?

I ask questions that give me the opporunity to learn what I may be dealing with academically, but I also ask questions so that I begin to learn who they are. This is important because developing relationship with your students and promotes student engagement.

Alexandra B.'s picture
Alexandra B.
High School Agricultural Science Teacher in York County, Pennsylvania

I love how indepth the questions you used are. I have my students do a survey type item as well, usually in pairs using an interview process, but I realize the questions I have been asking are just scratching the surface. They serve as a good ice breaker, but will benefit me and my students so much more if I start pushing to take the activity further. Thanks for the great ideas. My head is already spinning with ideas on how to incorporate these items with my Leadership class next semester.

Jose's picture
Secondary Media Arts Teacher

The first day of school I always have students fill out surveys. They are either online Google forms and just simple sheets of paper with questions such as
1) What did you do over the summer that was exciting?
2) What is your greatest fear?
3) What is something interesting about you?
It is amazing the kinds of responses you get. I have learned new and interesting things about students but also learned of serious issues, such as students who are depressed or having issues at home. I agree with Elizabeth that this is a great exercise to use at home too.

I thought the photo that you used was quite hilarious. Students using Smart Boards to post their work? Is this what smart boards have become? A $4000 bulletin board.

Jessica's picture
I am a mother of 4 and a college student learning teacher education.

Your article caught my attention and I cannot wait to use your strategy through these sample questions to get to know my students. I currently am a student in the teacher education program at Stockton College in NJ; my student observation class is 2nd grade students. What a great way to get to know your students wants and needs. I love how you mention your son and that you did not realize his fears and distractions until going over the questionnaire. My daughter is in the 2nd grade and I have never seen this take home assignment since Kindergarten and never with my other 3 sons who are in the 4th and 7th grades. Thank you for your advice!

Josh Stock's picture
Josh Stock
Teacher, Innovator, and Awesomeness Expert

I love this idea. The only way to get to know kids is to ask the right questions at the right time.

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