5-Minute PD: Discovering Students’ Dreams on the First Day

by | 07.27.18

On my first day of teaching 27 years ago, I gave my high school students a piece of paper. It had two questions written on it: “What do you dream your life will be like in 10 years?” and “What should I know about you?”

On that first day of school, answering those questions was all I asked of them – and because of it, I think they knew their answers really mattered to me. My desire to get to know my students led me to discover the power of relationship-building in setting the tone for the school year.

Now that I teach in a blended classroom, students answer the same questions via a Google Form. That way, I can create a chart with their responses and reference it throughout the school year. Sometimes, during class, I’ll look back to remind myself about their dreams and what they shared about themselves. This informs my practice all year long.

Some of what I learn helps us avoid conflict. Students tell me how to interpret their moods. They’ll tell me things on that first day like, “If I put my head down, I’m not trying to be disrespectful. It means something happened at home, and I need time.” Some write something simple, like “I love English, but I hate math.” Some students put, “I can’t do any homework on a computer, because my family lives in a homeless shelter.” And then they never have to raise their hand and say, “I didn’t do my homework because…”

Some of what I learn helps me forge strong connections between my kids and my lessons. I once had a student whose dream was to go to Alaska and attend the Iditarod – surprising coming from a kid in rural Missouri. Then later, when we were reading a poem set in Alaska, I remembered what he told me and was able to connect with him around it. I could say, “You’re really going to like this poem. Why don’t you do some background research and share it with the class?”

Sometimes, students will just say, “I have no idea what my dream is.” And that’s when I know there’s room for us to figure out that dream together.

I’ve used this first-day exercise across contexts – in a small school in rural Missouri and then later in a big urban high school – and it works with just about every student. They appreciate the chance to tell you what matters to them. I think people sometimes underestimate students. I don’t know a single kid who comes to school and doesn’t want to be successful. They all want to learn. They all want to be the one who gets an “A.” They sometimes act like they don’t, because they have never experienced that success before or because something else is going on in their lives. However, most of them will open up when we reach out and listen to them. When they know they can trust us, they will let us support them in achieving their goals.

It’s such a simple activity – just two questions – and it sets my classroom culture. All students want is for their teacher to see them as individuals, and this way, they know I do – right from day one.

About the Author

Robyn Howton
Robyn Howton

Robyn Howton is a high school teacher in Delaware. Follow her on Twitter @robynhowton.

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