With the start of a new school year, teachers are readying classrooms, engaging in professional development and asking "How can I make this the best year for my students?" There are few opportunities as impactful as those opening moments between teachers and students to send the message "I want to see you and I want to hear you". Last year I met with a group of students and asked "What is the one thing your teachers can say or ask to start the year off well?" As I thought about their answers and one question in particular, I reflected upon how it exposes socio-economic status, family constellation, values and more. I, like many educators, have asked it and always from a genuine desire to partner with my students but as my student partnerships have become more student centered I realize the import of those opening moments and eliminated asking "What did you do this summer?"
This seemingly benign question puts all students in an position of vulnerability. They risk exposing their family’s socioeconomic background (vacations they did or did not take, camps they did or did not attend and events they were able/unable to participate in), family constellations (needing to stay with family members and/or babysit siblings while parents worked), sexual orientation (discussing a romantic partner) and geographic background (providing insight into to the kinds of homes they live in). When I told a group of students that I asked their teachers not to pose this question last year, one student 'Ava' said “thank you” and shared that when her class was asked to write about what they did over the summer, she replaced her own experiences with her cousin’s because she didn’t want to risk saying something wrong and having classmates realize she was a student on full financial aid. When asked if that impacted her relationship with the teacher she commented "she is a great teacher and I learned a lot from her, but.... I don't think she gets me".
As students approach the year they all have common needs for the routine of school, focusing on learning, meeting their developmental goals of fitting in, understanding the expectations of school and deciding how to manage their time and energy. Students will discover these while managing a social life, physically growing and cognitively developing. It isn't true that all of these goals will be met by simply changing one question. However, it is the process of thoughtfully considering the possible impacts of the questions we ask and measuring them against the goal of creating safe and nurturing classrooms that we are better able to send the message to our students we want to truly see and hear you.
So what did the students suggest we ask instead of “What did you do this summer?” How about, “What is a question you have for the start of the year?” “What can we do to help you create a start of year routine?” and my personal favorite “I want to partner with you to create the best year possible, what do I need to know about you to do so?” I am pleased to share, 'Ava' facilitated a discussion with her teachers, including the one who "didn't get" her with prompts including "How can teachers let students know they want to make them feel comfortable in class". The teacher's prompt this year...."I hope you all had a good summer and ask you to be in this moment, leave your summer stories at the door and let's write a 2016-17 story together".