Can equity in the classroom start with a survey?

When I saw a student nodding off in class during my first year as a high school teacher, I am not proud to confess that I responded with, “Gary, I’m deducting participation points. We don’t sleep in class.” I am forever grateful for his honest response:

That’s not fair. I mean, some of us have been up all night because of a crying baby sister. You just take off points because I closed my eyes for a second? I’m trying my best.

So many thoughts ran through my head in that moment, standing in front of an increasingly silent and watchful audience of 10th graders.

Wow, that’s a really understandable reason to be nodding off right now. I wonder, what are other reasons students struggle to remain attentive in class? How can I support students with meeting essential expectations like showing up, staying awake, and completing assignments?

Equity in the classroom means that every student has the support they need to be successful. It took several more years for me to establish systems, routines, and learning activities that would help all students meet high expectations. But one place to start is finding out about students’ lives outside of school at the beginning of the year. From there, we can plan instruction and assignments with students’ specific needs and challenges in mind.

What materials do your assignments assume students have access to outside of school? Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash
What materials do your assignments assume students have access to outside of school? Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

In the beginning of a school year, after some initial icebreakers and community building, I ask students to respond to this survey, so that I can design a classroom experience that will help them thrive as learners.

I discovered that some students had a two-hour commute to and from school everyday that involved hectic transfers on public transportation, making it difficult to work on assignments or catch up on sleep during bus rides. One student served as a translator for his entire extended family, accompanying aunts and uncles to doctors appointments and grocery stores every day after school. Many students worked part-time to help with family finances. And in some cases, students did not have a stable place to live, much less steady access to a quiet place to draft an essay.

In other communities I taught in, the challenges were different. Students had reliable places to work at home and didn’t need to contribute to the household income, but they had a series of counseling, therapy, and tutoring appointments to attend. Others just couldn’t concentrate because of toxic stress they experienced from fractious relationships with parents or siblings.

Beginning of year survey: What factors outside of school can impact students’ progress?

The digital divide – inequitable access to technology outside of school – is a known factor that impacts students’ abilities to complete assignments outside of school. But possibly a more common cause is our false assumptions about students’ access to time, space, basic supplies, and support from a trusted adult. Even in my first year I suspected my students wouldn’t have access to the technology needed to do certain projects outside of class. So we worked on the project during class, where students could collaborate, access materials, receive and provide feedback, and benefit from scaffolds and modeling. What I didn’t realize was that crying baby siblings and various other obstacles would impede students’ abilities to do even low-tech assignments outside of class.

When creating your own classroom survey, consider what you already know about the communities of students you teach and craft specific questions that will give you the information you need. Teacher Matt Hiefield advises that “it is not adequate to ask if students ‘have internet access at home’ as this question takes on different meanings for different students.” A student, he explains, might think a brief turn with his parent’s phone is adequate internet access. With precisely worded questions, we can determine the nature of students’ access and provide necessary support systems.

How do students interpret “internet access”? Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

Once I asked students about their commutes, access to supplies, and available time, the results indicated that some of my initial plans for homework, group projects, and hands-on learning would need to be revised so that all students would have opportunities to participate successfully.

One assignment asked students to “Find a political cartoon in a newspaper or periodical and use close reading skills to critically analyze the visual elements you notice.” I intended for students to experience productive struggle with the analysis, not with finding a political cartoon online or in print. Some of my students would have to detour to a library and wait their turn for a computer, or ask a librarian for help locating a print periodical that might have a political cartoon in it. Some just wouldn’t be able to take that detour.

Some might say that the added struggle of commuting to a library, waiting their turn, and speaking to a librarian is “good for students” and helps them develop a variety of useful skills, like resourcefulness and perseverance. But if the homework assignment or school project is not intended for all students to develop these skills, then the added expectation for certain students is an unfair (and unnecessary) burden. Students who have to go to great lengths to complete a task are not getting the intended and necessary practice with the task. By the time a student finds the political cartoon, how much cognitive energy is left for analysis and written expression?

Knowing about students’ responsibilities outside of school, I can change the assignment in a few ways. If I want students to independently apply the visual interpretation skills I’ve taught, then I can provide time for that in class. If I want them to apply the skill outside of the classroom, I can ask them to consider any visual texts they see in their community (billboards, subway ads, commercials, signage, graffiti) through the critical lens they have practiced in class. They will be invited to share their thinking the next day.

If time management is the intended skill students will practice, provide tools and methods students can use to develop the skill.

And if we want students to explicitly practice skills like resourcefulness and time management, then we can teach those skills to all students and provide strategies they can practice to develop these skills over time. For example, if we want to teach students how to manage their time to meet a deadline, we can teach them how to use calendars, backwards plan, schedule check-ins with a teacher or friend, and set small deadlines. We can provide feedback and monitor progress with this skill, like we would with reading and writing skills students are learning.

Of course, a beginning-of-year survey can certainly feel impersonal and not our first choice for getting to know our students as whole people. I give the survey to students on the first day of school, but my learning doesn’t stop with the survey. On every following school day, I use the two-minute relationship builder routine – I choose a student and chat with them for only two minutes for several successive days before moving on to another student. I keep track on my seating chart and note down what I’m learning about my students’ lives over time. The first day of school survey, however, is a way to learn about students’ experiences so that assignments, deadlines, and opportunities are meaningful from the start.

Once we take that first step to survey our students about the challenges they face outside of school, we can begin the real work to ensure our classrooms are equitable. When a student nods off in class, we are more likely to know why. We can’t make the baby sibling stop crying, but we can approach students’ behaviors with understanding and a readiness to support them to meet their own high expectations for learning.

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