August 9, 2015 by

Do You Ask Your Students This Dangerous Back To School Question?

What did you do this summer? This is the first question we ask students as they return after the break. At first, it seems innocent. Like an ice-breaker to break the long summer silence. Some students easily respond.  They boast of 100-dollar play station games, their under-appreciated (overpriced) sports camps, and the annual “are-we-there-yet” road trips.

But, our students with less extravagant resources during the summer, struggle to share their experience.

You may wonder, what’s the big deal if some students share more willingly than others? Let’s take a closer look at the seemingly harmless question, “What did you do this summer?” Unknowingly, I fear it communicates the wrong message. Let me explain three of my concerns. First, it’s a loaded question. It assumes that the student did something valuable (or that the class would deem of value) during the summer break. It puts the student in an awkward position (maybe even ashamed position) to defend the way they spent summer break. Next, the question assumes that the student wishes to share their summer activities with others. Yes, sharing is good, but unfortunately, students try hard to one-up each other. So, sharing summer escapades results in a competition for attention. You’ve heard students vacation bragging: I hiked the longest trail in Yellowstone. My sister threw up chili fries in Disney World, right on Mickey’s big feet. I climbed Mt. Na-Na-na-na-nana with one hand tied behind my back. My final (biggest) concern, is how the question highlights socioeconomic differences by revealing what students could (and could not) afford during the summer.

Thus, when we pose the question, be careful, because some of our students may hear: How will you impress us with what you did this summer? How many places did you travel to? How long could you afford to stay? Your mom and dad didn’t settle for a stay-cation did they? What new games/devices/apps/ did you buy? Did you upgrade your waterpark and amusement park pass? How does your summer compare to your classmates? Did you have a Kardashian-ish summer or a more pursuing happiness one like Will and Jaden?

So, what do we do with this dangerous question? We change it. We ask a better question. Let’s ask our students this instead: What will you do this school year? This shifts the emphasis from the past to the future. This empowers students to take responsibility, right now, for this school year.

When posing the new question, our students may hear: How can you strive to feel proud of your homework/classwork/tests this year? What new skills will you focus? What new traits will you aspire to? How will this year compare to the last? What can you do (or avoid) to make this year better- academically and socially? How can you spend this school year more like a leader?

I’m sensing that you may need a little more motivation to steer clear of that dangerous question?  If so, check out Katie Test’s suggestions on how to help your students really invest in their classroom goals.  Have digital-savvy students?  Courtesy of a great article by Elizabeth Stein, you can review apps and other strategies that support classroom goal setting.  Still undecided?  Download Beth Werrell’s free worksheet to help your students manage one of the biggest obstacles with goal setting:  meeting deadlines.

I’ll continue phasing out that dangerous question.  How about you?  For another way to up your game for the new school year, read this quick technique to improve your classroom assignments.