Last spring, a community-building lesson by a Denver third grade teacher, Kyle Schwartz, went viral. Ms. Schwartz gave her students the sentence starter “I wish my teacher knew…” and received eye-opening responses, which she shared on Twitter using the hashtag #iwishmyteacherknew.
I, like so many of you, was deeply moved by this lesson — though it is not unlike many community-building exercises used in classrooms across the country each day. This movement, however, served as a reminder of the importance of HEARING your students. The importance of validating their human experience.
As I’ve grown as an educator, I’ve come to know my core truth: Every child deserves to be heard. You have to know a student’s heart before you grow their mind.
I was so drawn to the “I Wish My Teacher Knew” movement because it spoke to this core truth of mine. It embodied the idea that children deserve to be heard — whether it’s anonymous or signed, whether they want to share it with their friends, the counselor, or just you. Children need a safe space to express the complex feelings that fill their hearts and minds. Without the validation of being heard, the space for all of those wonderful lessons you’ll teach will be insufficient.
Now I know you might be saying — “I did this. The kids didn’t ‘GET’ it. Their responses were silly. Can this really be worthwhile for my kids?” I think so. I’m not going to say emphatically that it will. You know your students best.
But I will say this — “I Wish My Teacher Knew” isn’t effective as a one-time event. Every child may not feel comfortable or know how to express their feelings and thoughts the first time around. Every child may not need to tell you something the first time around. Every child may not trust you the first time around.
This, like anything, is a process.
I created a create-your-own “I wish…” station to go along with the movement so that it is easier for teachers at all levels to open the lines of communication year-round — not just once or twice, or only at the beginning of the year. After all, life happens every day and a child’s circumstance can change rapidly.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN
Before you create your “I wish…” station, I recommend discussing confidentiality with students. This will, of course, look different depending on your grade level/maturity of your class, and your personal take on the subject. I give a talk about privacy and confidentiality at the beginning of the year in which I’m up-front with students about the scenarios in which students’ trust will need to be broken: if they’re being hurt by someone, if they’re hurting someone, or if they’re hurting themselves. This has never deterred a student from confiding in me, but it has strengthened our relationship as they are fully aware of the limits of my confidentiality.
Next, you’ll want to talk to your school’s counselor. One of the best allies we have as educators are the amazing counselors that we have at our schools that day-in, day-out, take on so much to keep our kids healthy, happy, and safe. Bring him/her into the loop — let them know you’re starting this initiative in your room, invite them into your classroom, and open the lines of communication. Odds are, you will need them.
Then you’ll want to decide if you want students to have the “share out” or “reply to me” options on their “I wish…” notes. While I personally love the idea of allowing students to request and receive peer support, there does need to be a clear structure and expectations for the interactions in place. For my classroom, that means my students need to know how to discuss sensitive issues with one another, know how to display empathy, and know how to help each other problem-solve. Our amazing school counselor (love you, Mrs. Gruman) teaches lessons throughout the year that guide students in peer-interactions so our kiddos have a knowledge-base to draw from. This is where the above step becomes CRITICAL!
Finally, decide how often you’ll check-in and respond, and what your next steps are if a child needs additional help. It’s important to know what you’ll do in a situation where a child has disclosed something that warrants additional attention, resources, or discussion. For instance, I had a student disclose that their clothes hurt because they didn’t fit. I was able to connect that child with resources that provided them with some appropriately-sized clothing. I wasn’t able to specifically remedy every situation brought to my attention, but I was able to address many of my students concerns or find someone who could.
CREATING YOUR STATION
I highly recommend creating a dedicated place in your classroom to house your “I wish…” station. I chose to put it in our classroom library, which is tucked away and more private than other areas of our classroom. This is also an area where students feel comfortable, which was important to me. I didn’t want students to have to write at their desks or in the writing center, which can sometimes be high-traffic (it’s a popular choice and right next to our sink).
I use a set of heavy black cardboard boxes I got at Michaels as our “mailbox,” but an empty Kleenex box will surely do the trick! To spruce up our box, I used this transfer method to create a chalkboard-look. I wanted to include the statement “You’ve been heard.” I also placed an anchor chart above the box so that students could refer to it, and placed a smaller black box within it that contained a few notes options (lined and unlined) and my “receipts” next to it. For ease of use I also placed some pencils and erasers next to it and two clipboards, so that students didn’t have to return to their seats in order to write their notes.
USING YOUR STATION
Before you allow students to use your “I wish…” station, have a class meeting. This is the time to set expectations and boundaries with your students — the time to talk about confidentiality, both between you and them, and between them and their peers. It’s also the time to talk about what it means.
Whenever I have to explain a tough topic, I use a read aloud. Pick your favorite fiction text that includes a character experiencing a real-world problem. (When we began using this station last year we had just finished reading The One and Only Ivan, so that is the book we used.) Read aloud the text with students, stopping to jot — either on a chart or with post-it notes — about how the character may be feeling.After reading the text initially, re-read and stop at the same points. This time, instead of identifying the character’s feelings, work with students to brainstorm what the character could write on an “I wish…” paper. For example, we talked about how Ivan felt seeing Ruby, his elephant friend be mistreated. We brainstormed the sentence “I wish my teacher knew that I feel helpless watching my friend be hurt by others.”
Allowing students to use literature as a model for this exercise takes the pressure off. Students can try out what it feels like to share some very raw and personal emotions without sharing their own. Because most students are already used to talking about a character’s thoughts and feelings, this will come naturally.
Next, model from your own life experiences. Think about an experience — happy or sad, you decide! — that you can share with your students. I shared with my students that when I was in elementary school I had to have surgery and miss a week of school. I felt scared and missed my friends. “I wish my teacher knew that I’m scared to have my surgery because I don’t know what to expect and I’ll miss my friends.”
Now listen. Using the procedures established — such as when a student could go to the station — let students write when they need to. Check the station at whatever interval you decide (I did it every 2-3 days) and respond as appropriate. Let the information students share guide your practice. I was surprised at how much of what my students shared enabled me to further shape our classroom to meet their needs… trust me, if they don’t like something (or like something a whole lot), they’ll tell you!
Building relationships with our students is one of the most important parts of our profession.
The teachers I remember the most about, the teachers that lit a fire in my heart for this profession… they are the teachers that made sure I was heard. They listened when I talked (or wrote) about new barbies, and they listened when I tearfully talked about my grandmother passing away. They heard my voice cry for help when I was bullied, and they heard my voice say I needed to be challenged.Hearing our students’ voices may not be a Common Core standard, but it should be THE standard I set for myself. My students deserve it.
I’ve also included options for using this for your colleagues, and if you’re an administrator, your staff. Opening the lines of communication is SO important for a positive school culture!