George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Figure 1. The great wall of responses.

The quality and skill of the teacher is one of the most important factors (if not the most important) influencing the success of any learning environment. But you can stand at the front of a classroom and teach until you are blue in the face, and it doesn't guarantee that any learning actually happens. So what separates successful teachers from less successful ones? Anyone will tell you that it's relationships. That's why it is critical to establish and maintain positive relationships with students throughout the school year. It's also not a bad idea to get some learning to happen while you're at it.

One Simple Question

It was from a newsfeed or a tweet that I learned about an activity by Wyoming elementary school teacher, Ms. Freundlich. It was simply called "What kind of teacher do you want?" Every year, Ms. Freundlich asks her first graders this question and puts their answers on a poster that she displays in her room all year long. It was such a great idea that I decided to do something similar in my seventh grade math class at Challenger Middle School in Colorado Springs. Ms. Freundlich's inspiration has led to a mini-project that not only gets the relationship engine firing on all cylinders, but also makes for an authentic mathematical learning experience. Here's how it goes.

It starts with a simple question: what kind of teacher do you want? Students write their responses on a piece of paper. There's no need for complete sentences, just a few thoughts jotted down or a short list will do. After they have written their responses, they get a piece of tape from me (and I make sure at that point to thank them for their effort) and personally post their papers in the room. Last year we used the entire blackboard on one side of the room (Figure 1), but anywhere will work. I made sure every math student on our team of 52 participated. Then I looked at the responses. Quite a few indicated that they want their teacher to be funny, so I seized the opportunity to tell several exceedingly stupid jokes of my own invention. After a brief review, we left it at that -- for the moment.

Over the next couple of days, I revisited the papers during class and made a point of giving them consideration. Then it was time to spring the project. The students were asked to work in groups to study the responses, condense them into a manageable number of categories, and produce an easy-to-understand graph about what kind of teacher they wanted. I didn't specify exactly what a manageable number or the "right" kind of graph was -- they had to cooperatively figure that out for themselves (Figure 2). Most decided that bar graphs were best. Each graph went through several iterations, with feedback from me, until they looked good. After making a final graph that filled a sheet of paper, each group went somewhere different around the school to post their work for all to see.

Figure 2. Working out how to analyze and display the data.

Credit: Philip McIntosh

Personal Engagement

Several things came together to make this one of the best collaborative analytical activities I've done.

  1. The kids were really into it since they were the actual source of data. The data were not numerical but came from their opinions, so there was a strong emotional connection with it. Because of that, there were few qualms about embarking on a critical mathematical thinking journey.
  2. Since it was announced up front that their graphs would be on display for the whole school to see, it proved to be further incentive to do quality work.
  3. It was clear to them that I took their responses seriously, and that their input mattered. This made for a large deposit in all of our emotional bank accounts.

Although my view of the project is purely subjective, I think it has been effective at establishing good relationships and a positive learning environment. The kids know that I care about what they want, and I have a better idea of what children hope for in their school experience than I ever had before. And who knows what affect it will have on the whole school population when other students and teachers in the building see those awesome graphs made with pride and hanging in the hallways (Figure 3)? Sometimes all it takes is a simple question.

Figure 3. Just one of the many graphs on display in the hallway.

Credit: Philip McIntosh
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Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Kristen's picture

How incredibly true it is that student-teacher relationships are at the heart/core of effective teaching. It comes as little surprise to me that the years where I have "bonded" with my students/classes, student test scores are higher. It's not always easy to develop rapport with students, so I really like this idea. I'm almost a quarter of the way into the school year, but I think it will still be effective if I find a way to incorporate this into my classes. Thanks for the inspiration (and connection to math; it provides an authentic learning experience for students)!

Josephina's picture
preschool teacher from New York City

Thank you so much for your post. Having a positive relationship with your students is important in building a positive learning experience. I enjoy the strategy questions that helps them think and expand their knowledge skills more profoundly. Thank you for sharing.

Joanna's picture
Third Grade Teacher Albuquerque NM

I really liked how you gave them the opportunity to be part of a decision making process and give them feedback on what they wanted in a teacher. It was great to see that you made it about something they were interested in and showed you cared about their opinions. I think building relationships with students is so important and you did just that in this activity. Thank you for sharing!

Mrs. Jurica's picture
Mrs. Jurica
5th grade social studies teacher from New Braunfels, Texas

Fabulous Idea!
I can't wait to do this! I am thinking of an extension... What type of student do you want to be? Oh the possibilities!


Keith McCray's picture
Keith McCray
5th Grade Teacher from Hagerstown, MD

Great Post! This is an awesome idea. I have my kids write down what type of teacher they want every year but it really does not go much further than a class meeting and I attempt to fulfill their requests. I love that you are able to tie it to a math concept and really tie it in with something that the students are generally interested it. I firmly believe that by tying a concept to a students interest they are already hooked and getting them hooked sometimes is the hardest part.

Dr. Fortune's picture

What a great article. I often tell teachers the best thing we can do as teacher is to allow our students to be more than just students. Allow them to be part of the decision process. I love how this teacher is making the student input important. It amazing how more involved students are when they feel they have "equal" input on the education process.

Ms. Are's picture
Ms. Are
MS ELA and journalism, CA

This is absolutely fabulous, and I want to do the same, but I teach English and journalism ... so how can I create quantitative data in a way that works for a writing-based class?

I do a monthly reflection with students on what we (including I) want to improve on, what we've done well, etc., and this would be a fun way to add more oomph than just anonymously posting the answers around the room.


Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Ms. Are!
I think generating quantitative data in a writing class would begin with careful consideration of the prompts for reflection and discussion. A very simple example would be "Which of the most common mistakes (then/than. whose/ who's, affect, effect, etc) do you struggle with the most?" or "Which journalist's coverage of (insert event here) was highest quality, in your opinion? Time, HuffingtonPost, Drudge, etc." or even "Does this article reflect the journalist's bias? Yes/ no"

I'll bet that if you start looking at the way you phrase your reflective questions through this lens, you'll come up with lots of great ideas.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi there!

I thought you might want to see this website:

It's a fun grammar quiz that can be used by kids alone or with a teacher, using sentences on topics they like- I even find it fun. Maybe this is a way to reinforce and quantify skills in a more enjoyable way?

teacher/student's picture
elementary pe

I share the same reviews as the others...great idea to engage students in decision making in the classroom and then being able to build relationships with their peers. I think it makes the students feel important when they are able to make decisions. Thanks for sharing...and I also think Mrs. Jurica has a great idea in asking...what kind of student do you want to be?? Good thoughts!

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