First Day of School: The Questions Our Teachers Should Not Ask

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For many students, the new school year is starting. For some, this is not a happy time; they have enjoyed the freedom of the summer months and time away from the routine of classes and homework. They can spend time with friends near and far. For others students, the start of school brings important structure and in some cases safety and caring adults. For these children, going back to school is stabilizing.

I have been reading articles and hearing news stories about families equipping their students with bullet proof backpacks (do they really work?); others groups and celebrities are putting basic backpacks with appropriate content for kids in need so they have the basic tools to do there work. Good step to have a backpack (if one can afford it) filled with new supplies. But, let’s be very clear, we need way more than backpacks (bullet proof or not) to make for an enriching educational experience.

The First Question:

I think most of us who have been to school or have children at school are aware of the commonality of this question (or some version of it) from a teacher to her/his students on the first day of class: Did you have a fun summer? Where did you go that was fun this summer? What did you do with your family for fun this summer? What fun and amazing places did you visit this summer?

When this type of question is asked, whether of children in urban or rural schools, rich or poor or mixed neighborhoods, these is an embedded assumption: children and young people had a wonderful summer; they were with family; they went away on wonderful trips; they have fond memories. I suspect some of us, whether or not we are educators planning for the next academic year, never had those summers if we really think about it….

Embedded Assumptions

I think those questions are antiquated and/or represent misguided assumptions for many children and young people, given the rising tide of trauma and toxic stress and social divides and violence — all of which are virtually omnipresent. Just look at the number of shootings or natural disasters in the last two months — after school was released in May or June. Sadly, we do not have an abundance of trauma informed educators across pre-K — 20 education to identify and address this observation.

I think that for many many children, from all walks of life and in all locations, the “did you have fun?” type question may not be the optimal way to start the school year. Consider students in areas where they had to work the farm or harvest grapes while their “other friends” visited wonderful beaches and resorts. Consider students who did not go anywhere “special” this summer; their families were working; they sat on a stoop or watched TV or video games or tried to tolerate the oppressive heat in many locations without air conditioning. Money might have been an issue. Social culture another.

Ponder the number of children who saw a parental fight or were separated from one or both parents for all or part of a summer, including on military bases far away. Reflect on the students who moved — to a new school or a new home or became homeless. Consider the number of students where a family member or friend got sick or shot or addicted. Consider students who were left to their own devices over the summer and they weren’t making visits to a museum or conducting a science project or playing an instrument or attending a planned summer program.

Yes, there are children from all walks of life who have meaningful and productive summers, filled with joy and new experiences. There are camps and travel and opportunities to expand one’s imagination and enjoy the glories of nature or a new city.

Ask a Different Question

But, were I a guessing person, not all summer memories are good for many children. So, why start the new school year with a question that will make some children uncomfortable, will make some make up truths or hide truths or will arose sadness and disquiet.

What, if instead of this “SOP” question, we thoughts of other ways teachers and professors can start the first day of a new semester. After a greeting of “Welcome” or “Welcome Back” “I am so glad to see you and have you as my students this year. I think there is a lot we can accomplish together and look forward to having many successes.”

Then, as to the summer and reflecting on it (and the absence of rainbows as pictured above for many), what if educators said: “Write down or draw (for yourselves or to share if you want) one thing that had meaning for you this summer — something or someone or some place that was important and affected you.” For younger students, they can share this in private oral conversations.

Wouldn’t that kind of question open the door to many answers and create door openers for later conversations? Might the answers enable some self-reflection and a calming of the autonomic nervous system that is on alert for many students as a new year begins? And, have teachers thought of ways to lower that autonomic response to allow learning in from the first moment of the school year?

And educators, asking good questions and teaching students to ask good questions is a wonderful skill. A starter book for educator’s is James Ryan’s short but powerful book, Wait, What?.

A New Book

I am writing a book called Generation Trauma Goes to School (coming out from Columbia Teachers College Press in early 2020). I am writing this book to address just the sort of topic that appears here in this Medium piece. And, I’d welcome readers sharing other ways they start a new year to engage all students and enable them to see the possibility of success in the coming months.

Starting right (and not just school) matters. It matters a lot.

Note: This piece was inspired by Tatiana and Jorge — from whom I am learning a great deal.

Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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