Podcast: I Wish My Teacher Knew—Author Kyle Schwartz Interviewed!
“I really just asked them to tell me what I needed to know.”
Kyle Schwartz is a third-grade teacher in Denver, Colorado, and she has written a book and sparked a Twitter sensation about the unique way she asks her students to open up about their personal struggles, unseen barriers to learning, and sometimes, simply things they are interested in and want to know more about.
The exercise itself is simple, explains Kyle: “The basic concept behind I Wish My Teacher Knew is a lot simpler than people might think. I really just came into class one day and passed out a bunch of sticky notes to my students, and had them finish the sentence ‘I wish my teacher knew___.’ And I did this in my first year as a teacher just because I wanted to really get to know my students better. I had a feeling that I didn't know what I didn't know. And so instead of making assumptions about my students, or allowing some pre-conceived notions to affect my opinion of my students, I really just asked them to tell me what I needed to know.”
Once the students had completed the sentence, Kyle shared their responses with the rest of the class. Even though the students had the option to remain anonymous, most signed their names and in many instances were willing to talk with the class about what they had written. “I think something really interesting that surprises most people about the notes is that after kids have written me these notes, they all wanted to share them with the class. They wanted everyone else to hear what they wrote. I wasn't really planning on letting them all speak out, but they asked me and I went with it, and it kind of has become a part of the activity for me,” says Kyle.
According to Ms. Schwartz, the students in her third-grade class at Doull Elementary School face weighty challenges: many live in poverty, more than half speak a language other than English at home, and a third qualify for special education programs. So it was not surprising that many of the student responses spoke to urgent, unmet needs:
“I wish my teacher knew I don’t have [a] friend to play with me.”
“I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.”
“I wish my teacher knew that lunch at the school is the only meal I get during the day.”
“I wish my teacher knew that my family and I live in a shelter.”
“I wish my teacher knew how much I miss my dad because he got deported to Mexico when I was 3 years old and I haven’t seen him in 6 years.”
Other notes spoke to more kid-like interests. “I wish my teacher knew how to do a backflip,” wrote one.
“There were some very funny responses,” admits Kyle. “Like, ‘I wish my teacher knew more about velociraptors.’ Yeah, like this kid just really wanted me to know more about velociraptors. But I thought it was also telling what children chose to share, and what they chose not to share,” she says.
Cutting through the clutter
Kyle was surprised by the power of social media when her classroom exercise, under the Twitter hashtag #IWishMyTeacherKnew, became a viral sensation:
“I was very shocked at the power of social media. I think a funny thing people don't really know about this is I have just recently become a part of the Twitter community. I mean we're talking like within weeks of these notes going viral. So it was very surprising to me how powerful social media could be, and I say in my book it should shock people that children are going without basic resources. It should be front-page news when kids have to go to school, and are hungry, but it isn’t usually. And I think that there is something about these notes, and the raw emotion behind them, and the vulnerability that students displayed, that really kind of cut through the clutter, and was able to reach people and allow them to understand what it's really like to be a student in America today,” explains Kyle.
Creating community and acceptance
“For learning, you must create a community,” writes Kyle in I Wish My Teacher Knew, and one of the significant results of the “I wish my teacher knew” exercise is how it can help build a sense of acceptance and community in the classroom. One of the ways Kyle uses the completed notes is to assemble the kids in a circle and invite them to share what they’ve written, if they might care to.
During the interview, I mentioned an episode described in the book when one boy wrote, “I wish my teacher knew that I don’t think the other kids like me.”
Kyle reminisces: “That was a moment in our classroom that I very vividly remember because the other kids really rallied around him, and they were like, ‘We do like you. We do like you!’ And just to have him be able to hear that from the other kids was, I think, really powerful for him. One thing I haven't shared about that story before is that this kid is such a great kid. His thinking is so far outside the box. He created a survey for kids, and he said, ‘Do you like me?’ And it was like, ‘Yes. No. Kind of.’ And he was like, ‘Can I give this to the class?’ And I'm not sure if in every situation I would have let that happen, but in this situation knowing my students and knowing him, I did. And literally, they all wrote, ‘Yes. We like you.’ And for that kid and the way his brain worked to have hard, tangible evidence that the kids around him liked him, and that they were willing to put it on paper, completely changed his confidence level. It completely changed the way he related to them. So it's kind of like those moments that aren't on the lesson plan that teachers can really grab hold of, and do so much good within their classroom.”
Ms. Schwartz’s book provides educators a great inside look at how to make the “I wish my teacher knew” exercise work in their classrooms. “Each chapter is kind of an issue or a reality that students face in our schools,” says Kyle.
In addition to chapters that focus on common themes like student arrivals and departures, poverty, and trauma, each chapter also includes a special section titled “Teacher Tools.” In these sections, Ms. Schwartz outlines actionable things teachers can do to effectively address these issues.
To learn more about the book and order your own copy, look here: I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids. Meanwhile, enjoy the following excerpt, provided by the publisher.
Chapter 4. We Will Get through This Together
Supporting Students through Grief and Loss
My Classroom Community
Simon started to shut down in class regularly. He would curl himself up in the tightest of balls and wriggle his way behind the computer cart or in between thick winter coats. I always wondered what he was thinking as he wrapped his lanky arms around his legs and rocked back and forth. Maybe he was perseverating on a difficult thought or maybe his mind was going completely blank as the gentle rocking soothed him. Either way, Simon was checked out of our classroom world, floating somewhere by himself.
The incidents that triggered this reaction were always small. Someone stepped on his shoe or another student cut in front of him in line. The truth was these little slights were not the cause of Simon’s distress. I was told Simon’s mother had moved to Nevada. Whether or not she would return was uncertain. Simon was grieving.
It took me months to figure out a how to gently coax Simon back into our lessons. At first, nothing I did or said worked. I waited out his episodes. I attempted to bribe him with promises of free time. I gave him community incentives like earning the whole class extra recess, and I gave him access to calming activities. I also enlisted the aid of our school psychologist, who worked with Simon privately. Regardless of my approach, he would sit tightly woven in a ball, until one day I stumbled upon a strategy that broke him out of his guarded state.
Simon had wedged himself into small space between the computer cart and the wall, making himself invisible. Instead of asking him to join the class, I said, “Simon, can you help me push in these chairs? The kids left them all a mess and I need your help.” Taken off guard, he stood up and started pushing in the chairs with me. I showered him with praise: “Thank goodness you’re here. This room would be such a disaster if we didn’t have you helping us. We need you.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “These chairs really need to be pushed in. Everyone has just left this place a complete mess.”
From then on, “Can you help me?” seemed like a secret password. Feeling that he was contributing seemed to lift Simon out of a dark place. I think that’s because it made him feel he was needed and appreciated by the class. He knew our class could not function without him. The rest of the school year was not perfect, but he was always more engaged after he completed a task that helped the classroom, whether it was turning on lights or wiping off tables.
Simon found strategies that would help him bounce back after his emotions overwhelmed him, like taking deep breaths or finding a chair in a quieter place in the room. He still struggled at times, but I could see he was processing his grief and developing skills that would help him overcome this challenge.
As a teacher, it was essential for me to uncover the true cause of Simon’s change in behavior. He was not following class rules, but not out of defiance. He was grieving. His refusal to participate in classroom activities and lessons was not something to take personally, because it was a cry for help. As teachers, we should work hard to recognize students’ needs so we can help them through difficult times in their lives.
Childhood Grief and Mourning
Death and loss are difficult subjects to discuss, even with adults. For teachers, tackling these subjects with children is even more daunting. It can be a challenge to find the precise words to say, or know what supportive moves to make. Often our apprehension at broaching the subjects of grief and loss might cause us to avoid conversations that could be uncomfortable, so we do not respond at all. But it does not have to be this way.
As teachers we can learn how to support our students even though the most difficult times in their lives. In fact, it’s imperative that we do so, because when a child is dealing with the negative spiral of grief and loss, that child is not in the best position to learn.
First, it’s important for teachers to recognize that grief may be a response to something other than death. In children, grief might be the result of the absence of a parent due to many reasons, like divorce, deportation, incarceration, or abandonment. The loss of a pet can often be the source of grief for children; so can changing homes. It may be easy for us adults to dismiss when it happens to children, but genuine grief can be the consequence of the ending of a romantic relationship or the conclusion of a friendship.
The process of dealing with that grief is called mourning, and it can last for varying degrees of time. The American Cancer Society explains mourning as the “outward expression of loss and grief. Mourning includes rituals and other actions that are specific to each person’s culture, personality, and religion.” Mourning is an important step and should not be rushed.
Every incident of death or loss is different. Therefore, every response will be equally unique. Some students may exhibit strong signs of anguish, while others might appear as though nothing happened. George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University and author of The Other Side of Sadness, has studied grief for over twenty years. Among his most provocative findings is that 50 to 60 percent of mourners show no symptoms of grief one month following the loss. Some even overcome the grief within days. Due to this spectrum of grief responses, it is important to give children the amount of time they need to mourn, and it is equally important to understand the variety of ways in which grief is displayed and experienced.
Excerpted from I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids by Kyle Schwartz. Copyright ©2016. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Kyle Schwartz is a third-grade teacher living and working in Denver, Colorado. After an early childhood spent in central Illinois, Kyle’s family moved to Denver, where her straight-A report cards were out of step with her (self-described) ambivalence to the change in surroundings. Perseverance and academic success inspired her, and in 2008 she moved to Washington, D.C., to spend a pivotal year working with the education nonprofit City Year. When her work with City Year ended, she completed college and moved to South America to work in schools in Chile. Upon returning stateside, she moved back to Denver, where she was accepted into the Denver Teacher Residency program. During her work as a student teacher, Kyle earned her master’s degree in education.