Honoring students’ voices and deepening the student-teacher bond can be effectively accomplished through meaningful academic activities. A few years ago, I implemented one practice in particular that enabled me to know my third-grade students on a much deeper level than any previous group. Students completed a “you and me diary” three times a week, in which they wrote to me about anything (their home lives, goals, the best or worst parts of school, academic or personal questions they had for me, etc.) and, on the bottom half of the sheet, I responded.
It was writing for authentic purposes at its best – Emilio writing about why he loves the zoo, Cristal describing her desire to learn to swim, Juanita reporting to me on the death of her hamster, and Marcos asking me question after question about when we would learn more about mammals or planets. As they developed their writing skills, they were also sharing with me their inner lives and what made them unique. Although writing was their least favorite subject at the beginning of the year, they embraced the two-way diary with vigor and would even take it home to complete when they were sick.
Through this process of self-discovery, reflection, and confiding in me, they felt heard and respected. As author Sam Keen notes, “We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.” While these diary entries were confidential, they provided me with a deeper understanding of my students that I could draw upon in the classroom. For example, when I noticed that Luis wrote about going fishing following each weekend, I brought this up in front of the class during writing class as an example of picking topics that interest you. Luis, my most hyperactive student, listened intently as he smiled at me from across the room.
As a child myself, I remember feeling that most adults were too busy to recognize or take interest in my thoughts and experiences. The teachers, coaches, and mentors that truly listened became my confidants and even heroes. My trust and admiration for them propelled me to do my very best. Remembering the small stuff like a child’s favorite hobby can make a profound impact. As American education becomes more grounded in relationship-centered classrooms, we will undoubtedly see students arriving each morning more eager to learn.