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Quick on the Intake: Surveying Students for Success

This blog is written by member Oona Marie Abrams. 

Oona Marie AbramsI love the start of the school year. For me, two months at home with my young children is much harder work than my paying job. You know that opening scene of The Sound of Music where Maria, escaping the cloister, spreads her arms wide and spins in giddy circles? Yup, that’s my back-to-school feeling!

As an English teacher of high school seniors, I’m not at all surprised that my students aren’t walking into school at 7:30 am on the Tuesday after Labor Day with the same effusiveness. But after a month back in the game, I’ve found that the intake survey I administered has certainly helped all parties get off to a focused start.  But how to survey students in a way that is both meaningful and productive for the entire year?

My goal this year, and every year, is to be a “multiplier.” Liz Wiseman and Gregory McKeown, authors of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter define multipliers as those who “invoke each person’s unique intelligence and create an atmosphere of genius—innovation, productive effort, and collective intelligence.”

I’m fortunate to work in a great district, and my supervisor is CEL Associate Chair Heather Rocco. This being the case, I have a great deal of agency in my classroom to tap into my own students’ talents and interests, and differentiating to those is my goal. I have felt that to get the best answers possible out of my students, I needed a “back door” method to ask them how I could be a multiplier for them. Sometimes, the best question isn’t a question. For instance, one “question” I put on the survey was: “Describe an experience you had when a teacher really impressed you.” This would allow students to tell me about previous multiplier teachers in their school careers. Yes, some students answered this with silly responses about teachers who could do headstands, or teachers who were champion rollerbladers. A few students talked about teachers who brought in breakfast for the class. (Headstands and rollerblades are out, but bagels and donuts I can manage.) For the most part, students took a deep dive of inquiry and impressed me with their reflections. Here is a sampling of those responses about teachers who impressed them:

She was able to pull the information out of me when I was writing my papers. She made me feel that I had the ideas covered up there but they just needed to be uncovered. It only took one conversation for my ideas to be uncovered and flowing onto paper.

As he talks with people, they usually come across an everyday topic that could turn into the perfect segment. This impressed me because he makes it so easy for his students to express what is on their mind and he can help them flip it into something productive.

He did not seem to care about the grade aspect of school. He was more focused on the learning aspect and that was a very nice change of pace from teachers I had in the past.

Our teacher allowed for us to be able to have open discussions about current events and politics. The teacher was basically like a mediator of the conversation by staying neutral, as well as playing the devil’s advocate.

He made every student feel like they were important and they had the ability to do whatever they wanted to do in life. We would spend at least an hour each week where the whole class would discuss things we wanted for our futures or things that were going on in our lives … He used the things we loved to help us keep going during a class or as some form of motivation. There were many instances of this like some people loved to draw and he would have them draw things we were learning about and he would hang them up around the classroom.

My history teacher shattered all my ideas I had thought of society and the government and showed me the truth of how things work.

Her class was not easy, but for a good reason. She pushed all her students to know the most difficult problems of each unit to ensure we were  able to excel at all the easier ones. So, although her class was not easy, I really enjoyed it and admired her diligence and dedication.

In an age where we’re often asked to deliver “data-driven” lessons, I can’t think of more timely and relevant data than the types of comments my students provided. Their responses affirm key truths about this profession. Our students scrutinize us every day, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. They do, indeed, see it all. And they feel it all as well. They recognize our efforts and our struggles.  Our students have a natural sense of wonder and curiosity, and it’s our job to model that for them as stewards of inquiry.

This summer, one of my professional reads was The Innovator’s Mindset  by George Couros. In it, he says, “Culture is often not something you can measure. Rather, it’s something you can feel.”

Creating a classroom culture where every student feels valued requires frequent returns to the intake data I collected. I keep all of my students’ responses to my survey on a clipboard and refer to it each day during class. I refer to their responses when I observe them in small group work, prior to calling on them, and before I confer with them individually or in small groups about their reading and writing lives.

The good news is that you don’t have to wait until next year to send out an intake survey. All you need is access to Google Forms. Students can complete an intake survey at the start of any unit—it doesn’t need to be the start of the year. A few weeks ago, I sent out a survey asking my eleventh-grade AP Literature students to identify their top choices of poems to study in small groups. It helped me to set up their groups, but it also helped me to see which poems were not too popular among the students and to inquire why that was.  It was a means of pre-assessing in a personalized way and determining how I needed to deliver whole-class instruction. Overall, I’ve found that being “quick on the intake” via a survey helps me to be “quick on the uptake” in designing more meaningful learning experiences.

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Oona Abrams teaches high school English in northern New Jersey. She is the editor of English Leadership Quarterly, the journal of the Conference on English Leadership. The newest issue, Vol. 39, No. 2, was released October 2016.