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Ask, Listen, Do: How to Find Out What Kids Need From School

By Justin Minkel — December 19, 2016 6 min read
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What do our students want? We know the kids in our class well, and we can probably come up with a pretty accurate list.

More recess. Less homework. More art. Class parties with cake, candy, music, wild dancing, and pizza.

But what makes teaching so hard, fascinating, and fulfilling is that every child who walks through our door wants and needs something different from her time in our class. It’s our job to figure out those individual needs, child by child.

We can begin to do that by putting ourselves in the kids’ shoes, and thinking through each day from their point of view. How much do they get to move around? How many choices do they get to make? How comfortable are those hard plastic chairs?

I have always liked the “gut check” question, “Would you want to be a child in your class?” But Shanna Peeples, 2015 National Teacher of the Year, made me rethink that question at a talk she gave in early November at the Clinton Presidential Center. She pointed out that what a particular child in our class might want could very well be different from what we wanted as kids, 20 or 30 years ago.

My friend Steve’s 3rd graders, bored of their cooperative groups, told him once, “We want the desks in rows like Ms. Skokie’s class.” He threw his hands up and said, “But these are child-centered!”

We can try to put ourselves in their shoes, but in the end, we are not them.

There is only one foolproof way to find out what kids want: Ask them. Middle school teacher Pernille Ripp, author of Passionate Learners and Empowered Schools, Empowered Students, has three steps for transforming our classrooms to become more child-centered: “Ask. Then listen. Then do.”

Here are three ways to do that:

1. Student surveys

Make a quick SurveyMonkey if your students have the devices to take it online, or make a paper survey. Ask the kids whatever you want to know. You could have them rate how much they like different parts of the day—math, Writer’s Workshop, Guided Reading. You could ask what they want to learn about, or learn how to do, for the rest of the year.

Ask, too, for ideas on how to make class better for them—the physical arrangement of the chairs and desks, what hangs on the walls, what books they read, and how they spend their many hours in your classroom.

2. Parent surveys

Parents entrust a school with the people they care most about on Earth. They deserve to have their feedback sought, and at least some of it implemented. You can email or send home a brief survey every month or two, asking parents what they like about your class, whether there’s anything they’d like you to change, and any questions they might have.

You don’t have to act on everything they say. But it’s worth finding out how your class is going from their perspective, and just making the time to ask can build goodwill and start a two-way conversation. Parents are used to being informed about all kinds of things, from upcoming school events to reminders about homework policies. But it’s rare that they are asked for genuine input, and that is often particularly true in high-poverty schools.

3. Class meetings

The day after the Presidential election, when many of my Latino students were terrified about what a Trump presidency could mean for their families, I resolved to make my classroom as positive a place for them as possible. We started by all sitting in a big circle at the rug, and I asked each child for ideas on changes they’d like to make to our class. I wrote down every idea on my clipboard, even a couple of outlandish ones, to show that I took their suggestions seriously.

Most of their proposals were completely reasonable: “Do more drawing and art to go with our writing.” “Go outside sometimes for Writer’s Workshop and get our writing done out by the trees.” “Read books at guided reading without always having to fill out a little paper about the book.” “Buy more beanbags so we don’t have to fight over who gets to sit on them.”

The next day, we did an art project where the kids first made collage art inspired by Eric Carle’s illustrations, then did a piece of writing to accompany their art. They made all kinds of work—volcanoes surrounded by dinosaurs, huge vibrant suns, haunted houses, and a creature surrounded by actual flower petals one student happened to have in her desk.

Two things were important about that class meeting. First, I acted on what they said, and I did it quickly—the very next day. Our students need to see that we value their input. It’s not enough to do Pernille Ripp’s first two stages: “Ask” and “Listen.” We have to follow up with the third: “Do.”

Secondly, I came to the meeting wanting to hear new ideas. It’s tempting sometimes to simply guide kids in the direction we already have in mind, to get them to think they came up with the ideas on their own so they’ll be more willing to implement them. But think of how we feel as teachers when our “input” is sought about a decision that, we find out later, was actually already made by the administration or state legislature weeks before. It’s worse than not being asked at all.

Most of us find that our students do have good ideas that would not have occurred to us. When I asked the 2nd graders to come up with several possible desk arrangements and then vote on them, the winning layout worried me. It involved groups of six desks, so that kids worked in trios rather than the pairs I was used to. Even worse, half the kids would have their backs to me when I was at the front of the room.

My worries were ungrounded. The arrangement worked beautifully.

I put a child in the middle of each trio who tended to be less engaged, and with two partners leaning in on either side, that child didn’t really have the option to stare off into space. The kids with their backs to me simply turned their chairs around when I needed to talk to them, and it occurred to me that I shouldn’t be doing much talking from the front of the room anyway.

Design Flaws

Most of us agree that we have deep problems in education, ranging from inequity to apathy. So, whose fault is it?

Buddhists have an answer to that question: mu. The word means, “You are asking the wrong question.”

At Shanna Peeples’ talk at the Clinton Center, she built a compelling argument for how to fix our educational system. First, stop asking whose fault it is—apathetic students, uninvolved parents, lazy teachers, or clueless administrators. Blame doesn’t lend itself to solutions, and it shuts down innovation.

Second, approach the problems in education as design flaws, coded into the design of school itself. This is true of almost any problem you can name, ranging from short periods between bells that make it hard to get much deep thinking and complex work done, to the discrepancies in funding between poor schools and wealthy schools based on property taxes.

Third, treat those flaws as design challenges that can be investigated, analyzed, and solved.

The last part of this approach is simple: Involve students in the redesign of school, beginning with your own classroom. When your students come to school tomorrow, ask them how they might like to rearrange the desks, or what they’d like to see on the walls.

Students are not inherently apathetic. When we involve them in the design of school, they become more engaged, behavior problems diminish, and the structure of school itself can be adapted to their needs rather than our own. We can stop trying to shape kids to fit our system, and start shaping our system to fit kids.

We can start small. But we can all find a way this year to make that start.

“Ask. Then listen. Then do.”

Photo of student artwork taken and provided by the author.

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