Kyle Schwartz, a third grade teacher at Denver’s Doull Elementary, tried a social experiment on her kids that involved asking them to write on an index card or sheet of paper what they wish she knew about them that she probably didn’t. Schwartz is the first to tell you that she didn’t expect to be as moved by the assignment as she was, nor did she expect it to have a global reach.
(She claims to have received messages “from all over the world” in response to the assignment, and many teachers have adopted the activity for their classrooms.)
Why did it strike such a chord? In part, it was because of what it revealed about the less than stellar lives of some of these very young children (who are about 8 and 9 years old). Here’s just a sampling:
- I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.
- I wish my teacher knew how much I miss my dad because he got deported to Mexico when I was 3 and I haven’t seen him in 6 years.
- I wish my teacher knew I don’t have a friend to play with me.
- I wish my teacher knew that sometimes my reading log is not signed because my mom is not around a lot.
How did Schwartz get the idea for this assignment? In an interview with Colorado Public Radio (CPR), she said she thought it came “out of conversations that teachers have all the time about ‘what’s going on with this kid,’ ‘how could I best help that kid.’ And so instead of making assumptions about my students, I really decided to let them tell me. When it happens in a classroom setting, when students feel like they can advocate for themselves, that’s when we can build a really strong community in our classrooms.”
Around 90 percent of the students at Schwartz’ elementary qualify for free or reduced lunches, so there was plenty of material that would break your heart included in the final assignment. Schwartz started to anonymously tweet some of the more memorable ones, and from there a viral phenomenon was born.
But what does Schwartz think about her students and what did she learn from them? Here’s a breakdown from the CPR interview, which you can read in its entirety at this link.
It’s well worth the time, and the website also speaks to one of the parents of the students who participated, so give it a look. In the meantime, let’s get started with the key takeaways.
1. That her kids are very hard workers.
“… what I do see in my students is this relentless attitude of hard work. They come every day and they read for an hour and a half every day, they come in and they write circles around kids, they write computer code. So I couldn’t really compare them to other students but what I do see is this huge presence of grit within my students. That makes me so proud of them as a teacher.”
2. That these students’ challenges aren’t excuses.
“I think that people who don’t work in education and who don’t work in these schools would think that, ‘oh a kid who has these challenges, that’s all they have is challenges.’ But you would be amazed to see just how resilient kids are. And sometimes what’s going on with them is not them focused on what they don’t have or this need that’s not met. Sometimes what’s going on with them is, ‘I need to learn more about what’s going on with dinosaurs and my teacher needs to teach me because that’s exactly what I need to know.’
“My goal is you are going to read regardless, you are going to know your multiplication facts regardless of what’s happening at home. So that attitude of regardless, that attitude of pushing kids even further, helping them reach their dreams. I think that’s what teachers have, we don’t typically get bogged down or feel defeated by the struggles that they face. At least not the teachers that I know in Denver. We really try to look for, how can I get this kid to reach their goal because at the end of the day, that’s what I want for my kids.”
3. That the challenges aren’t always because of deadbeat parents.
“But there are situations that just break your heart, when you hear about it as a teacher, that just are really heart wrenching. It’s just devastating that kids have to go through some things that are so far beyond their years. It’s just devastating that parents who love their kids so much and value education so deeply have struggles that prevent them from getting everything they need for their kid. And it’s heartbreaking, but as teachers, we go on.”
4. That her students are community builders.
“I think mainly what the kids have really taught me is how they’re able to support each other, that they were able to share what they needed with their class and then those classmates stepped up. So just talking to kids today, they heard another student say, ‘I don’t have a friend,” and they realized ‘I can be that friend.’ And so that has been really powerful. But I think also been powerful that their story has been just picked up all over the world and they can finally realize just how powerful they are, that as kids, even 8 years old, 9 years old, that if they show that kindness, that if they develop that empathy, that will be noticed the world round and they really can make this change that we talk about in schools.”
Written by Aric Mitchell
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Teachers love Yoobi! This week we got the chance to hear from one of the teachers who received a Yoobi classroom pack in her class.
Meet Kyle Schwartz, a teacher in Denver, CO.
We asked Kyle…
What grade do you teach?
How long have you been teaching?
This will be my 5th year teaching
What inspired you to pursue a career in education?
Growing up, I didn’t particularly like school. I was constantly in trouble and had difficulty connecting to my teachers and classmates. I took a year off from college and moved to Washington D.C to work with the education nonprofit City Year. As an AmeriCorps member there I worked in schools and tutored students. I was partnered with an energetic kindergartener who was bright, lively, and I absolutely adored him. As the year went on, I realized what I really wanted to do was work towards giving kids like him a better opportunity to succeed in school.
After City Year, I completed college and moved to South America to work in schools in Chile. When I returned stateside, I headed back to my hometown of Denver. I knew that kids there needed dedicated teachers and hoped to become one.
Who was the most influential teacher or administrator in your life, and why?
Several members of my family are educators and their commitment to students has always inspired me. My cousin Rae Jean Martin was a teacher in a very small in rural Missouri for 27 years. Her dedication to her developing her students as people and as learners has been a great inspiration. My uncle Jan Galbraith was a teacher and administrator in an urban school district and though he is retired he still fights for equity in education. My cousin Erica Nichols started her own school a Montessori and homeschooling hybrid to serve students in an innovative way.
The educator who turned has had the most impact on my teaching is Rachel Bernard. I was a student teacher in her classroom for an entire school year. The community she created in her classroom and the relationships she built with each student is what I strive for as a teacher.
Does having access to school supplies really make a difference in the classrooms at your school, and to kids? If so, how?
Some students in my classroom have school supplies at home, but the truth is some do not. At many schools, like mine, resources are already stretched so thin. Each day we are tasked to do more with less. Having school supplies makes the job of a teacher easier. We can teach creative lessons and gives students the opportunity to play, make art, and do the hard work of learning.
What do your students think about the One for You, One for Me idea?
I have found that all children are naturally generous and enjoy helping others. When we received school supplies from Yoobi, the kids were thrilled. They felt like even strangers believed in them and wanted them to do well in school. It is powerful thing for a child to know that there are people willing to invest in their future.
How will you use this idea/ lesson in your classroom?
My students’ generosity astounds me. They are always looking for ways to help other people. Last year, they raised money to give animals to families in need through Heifer International by making and selling bookmarks. We read a beautiful book called “A Long Walk to Water” which inspired them to raise money to help build a well in South Sudan. We also help our community in smaller ways like passing on what we have learned to younger students.
What inspired the creation of the "I Wish My Teacher Knew" Assignment? What made you want to share your students' stories with others?
A passage from my book explains this best:
“As a first year teacher, I worried about how much I didn’t know about my students. I explained to my students that I wanted to get to know them better. I wrote “I wish my teacher knew…” on the board and ask them to complete a sentence.
Each student’s response was unique. They responded with honesty, humor, and vulnerability. Sometimes the notes talked about about their favorite sport. Sometimes students complained about conflict with siblings or friends. They wrote about their home life and the people who mean most to them. Sometimes students articulated their hopes for the future and sometimes they explained obstacles they were facing. After completing this lesson I was amazed at how well it helped me connect with my students. Their notes became a tangible reminder for me to give my students a voice in my classroom.
It was always a meaningful lesson for me, but the problem was all of the power of the lesson stayed inside Room 207. I did not share the idea with my colleagues. I thought that a simple question wasn’t important enough to share.
That was until one night when my cat knocked over a basket and out tumbled a crumpled orange note that I had saved. In shaky handwriting it read, “I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.” As I reread those words, I felt the same ache as the first time had I read them. I thought of my former student, and how even though she didn’t always have access to basic resources she still came to school every day so willing to try, willing to struggle, and willing to learn.
After years of teaching, I have learned the sad reality is that her situation was far from unique. I wondered what the millions of children in our country’s classrooms would say to their teachers if given the opportunity. I decided to share the activity with other teachers. I took a picture of the note with my cell phone and uploaded it to my new Twitter account. I typed in this girl’s words and hit the “Tweet” button.
I suppose my goal in posting this little girl’s note was to share a simple message with other educators—that students will share their realities with us if we simply give them an invitation. The real power of this exercise–-and why so many people responded to it – has to do with the raw truth of the students’ words. When we are willing to really listen our students might just feel safe enough to be vulnerable. As teachers, we need to ask so that students will answer. But we also need to listen, so our students are heard.
Soon I began to get messages from around the world. I heard from teachers who were inspired to ask their children the same question and began to share their students’ responses. States away, fellow teachers had their students complete the simple sentence. Notes written on index cards began to form meaningful relationships between teachers and students.”
How has this assignment transformed the dynamic in your classroom and your students' outlook on their learning?
By reading my students responses I have been able to understand my students better. I am able to hear directly from them what exacting I need to know. More importantly it has been a powerful way to build empathy in my classroom. When students share their experiences with each other they can support each other. It turns a group of students into a strong community of learners.
We love to put the spotlight on our Yoobi teachers. Share your story with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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