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No More “What Did You Do this Summer?”: 8 Questions We Should Ask Our Students as We Start the Year

August 8, 2015

School begins this month in millions of classrooms, and as teachers begin to build a learning community with 25-180 unknown humans who will enter their classroom spaces, many of us will ask some version of the question “What did you do this summer?”

I know what you’re thinking. “No we won’t. We are so beyond that.”

We will.

It might sound like “tell me about your family” or “tell me something you want me to know about yourself” or “tell me what you’re good at” or “interview/introduce the kid sitting next to you.” It might be writing an “I Am From” poem or completing a list of “favorite things” or an open-ended free write, or an autobiography, or a survey about reading or a “bingo” game where they find who has a pet like theirs or is left-handed or has lived in another state…but essentially, it will be a way of learning tidbits about students’ life experiences and contexts.

And this is fine. But as I think about some of the things I’ve been reading and learning this summer, I believe we still aren’t asking the right questions to set the tone for the year in my opinion. (And, believe me, I know that if I were preparing to greet students, I would be getting out some of my favorite ice breakers, music, readings, “I Am From” poem examples and quick writes to prime this pump just as I always do.)

And I’d be missing the boat just a bit.

(Apologies to those of you who hate sentences beginning quite ungrammatically with coordinating conjunctions. My thoughts on this topic keep unfolding in just that way with “ands” that keep cascading.)

New research shows that the students I will greet next week likely will not work in a traditional economy. Over half of them will be freelancers doing project work in teams (with colleagues like themselves, some of whom they will know only virutually). Their success will rise and fall based on their ability to deploy a set of skills that I am only beginning to articulate to myself:

-the ability to see and quickly understand a need/problem,
-the creativity to design solutions,
-the skills to analyze what it will take to build the answers,
-the confidence and self-awareness to identify what skills/knowledge they personally can bring to a project
-the experiences and networks to find others they need to collaborate on their project for successful outcomes
-the knowledge of where to go to learn what they need to get a job done if they don’t have all the skills/information,
-the communication powers to reach out to teammates and entice them to join the work,
-the practice with and skills to collaborate,
-the ability to critique and revise without fear,
-the confidence to defend what they think and create,
-the ability to communicate results, and sell themselves as solution makers by building their own brand,
-and the knowledge of where the best “product placement” of themselves will be to get asked back to do more projects.

They will need to be constant learners and scanners of “what’s out there?”–frequently analyzing their options and paying attention to the details of evolutions so they don’t become extinct themselves and so they stay fluent and relevant for their own work.

What questions do I ask the people who will live and work in that world as they come through my classroom door for the very first time? How can I get them starting to orient themselves to a world that probably even they cannot envision because A: they don’t even think about adult life yet really and B: it doesn’t quite exist in that form in most of the things they observe around them…YET.

I struggle to think about what I need to ask these learners, to set the tone for the year of learning ahead, for the kind of work ahead…

And I think I’d start with some small shifts in what I want to learn about them as we begin. I would start by changing my OWN first questions to them.

Not “What did you DO this summer?” but “What did you LEARN or LEARN TO DO this summer?”

Not “Tell me about your family” but “Tell me what things you do that help your family survive and succeed” (or some version of that). “What skills do you have that no one else in your family has?” “What are each of the people in your family good at?”

Not “Who are your friends?” but “How do you make friends?”

Not “What do you like?” but “What do you want to know more about?”

Not “What is your learning style?” but “Where and whom do you learn from?”

Not “Tell me about your pets, bedroom, etc” but “Tell me what’s on your bookshelf, Kindle, iPod, app list, blog, “recently viewed” history, or Twitter feed right now and what does it tell me about you as a person?”

Not “What worries or upsets you?” but “What do you do when you’re faced with a really interesting or tough-to-solve problem?”

Not “What do you want me to know about you?” but “What do you want the world to know and think about you?” Now and in the future.

Yeah. I think that’s where I’d start. (And I would STILL entice them into the fun of my favorite “I Am From” poem creation…but before that, I’d start with the kinds of questions that the world is going to be asking them someday.)

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  1. Jamie permalink

    Hi Jenny, great blog. Love the questions. I plan to use them with my students this coming fall — and with my own blog. Thanks! Jamie

  2. Hi Jenny, I was so inspired by your blog I wrote my own about questions. I cited your blog in my blogpost. “Because I’m all About The …Questions” , Thanks for the inspiration!

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  1. Because I’m All About the … Questions | glawlor130

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