As a first-year teacher, Kyle Schwartz just didn't know where to begin. "I just really didn't know what I didn't know," she says.
So, she came up with a very simple idea: She offered her third-graders notecards and asked them to complete the sentence, "I wish my teacher knew... ."
"Instead of making assumptions about my students, I really just allowed them the space to tell me what I needed to know," says Schwartz.
The responses were varied, and Schwartz came away with a deeper understanding of her students, their thoughts, and their home lives. As it grew, students began to read aloud what they had written to their classmates, creating a powerful community-building experience. This, in turn, says Schwartz, led to valuable learning.
"I do believe that relationships are at the heart of every learning experience," she says.
In this edition of the Harvard EdCast, Schwartz, now in her fifth year of teaching and author of the book I Wish My Teacher Knew — a collection of students' answers — speaks about the exercise, its effect on learning, and why she decided to share it with the world.
[Matt Weber] Hello and welcome to the Harvard EdCast, a series of conversations with thought leaders in the field of education from across the country and around the world. I’m your host Matt Weber and today we’re here with third grade teacher from Denver and author of the book, I Wish My Teacher Knew, How One Question Can Change Everything For Our Kids, Kyle Schwartz. Welcome to the EdCast.
[Kyle Schwartz] Thank you so much for having me.
[Matt Weber] So Kyle, I think our listeners would be really interested in the, sort of, the premise for your book and also how this whole thing originated. You asked a very simple question of your students. And the question is, “I wish my teacher knew...” What compelled you to stop and ask them about what they wished they knew?
[Kyle Schwartz] Well, I started doing this very simple exercise in my class in my first year of teaching. And I just really didn’t know what I didn’t know. And, instead of making assumptions about my students, I really just allowed them the space to tell me what I needed to know. And it really was as simple that first year as passing out note cards and writing on the board “I wish my teacher knew blank” And then I collected them. But, over the years that I’ve done it, the kids really insisted on sharing them with the class. And so they, they were like, “Ms. Schwartz, I want to read mine out loud.” So, it really became a community-building exercise in my class where all of the kids kind of sat in a circle and they read out to their peers what they wished their teacher knew. And, it’s been a really powerful experience.
[Matt Weber] You know, at the heart of what you’re saying, the community-building component and the relationship-building component, it’s really that teachers listening to the students rather than just vice-versa. And, I’m curious, do you think that teachers today have a hard time hearing their students and why? I mean, just something to message out to all the other teachers across the country.
[Kyle Schwartz] Well, I think there are certainly like forces and pressures in education that would make us think that our time is best spent, umm, you know just, umm, collecting data and measuring everything. In that type of world, it really does take courage to value that which we can’t measure. Um, and, I do believe that relationships are at the heart of every learning experience. So, it’s about teachers really taking the time and making the space to hold sacred the time that it takes to make those human connections with students. I will say, I think most teachers are doing that work. Umm, but I would really like the education, you know, industry and the powers that be to really honor that relationship-building work, that community-building work that we’re doing every day in our classrooms.
[Matt Weber] Yeah, it’s something that’s sort of hard to quantify, yet it’s really at the core of so much of what makes education work and beautiful. Um, you used to, you do this exercise with elementary school students, Kyle. Um, do you see this is something that all ages can use? Teachers of different grades, as well?
[Kyle Schwartz] Well, I’ve heard from teachers, I mean, running the gambit, everything from kindergarten and students doing this all the way up to college students doing, “I wish my professor knew.” Um, so I really think that there’s no real age limit. I’m sure, of course, you’ll have to adapt it for your particular students. Um, but really what’s at the heart of it is just, you know, saying to students, “Hey, I want to know you better, and I want you, as the expert in your own learning, to let me know, you know, how I can be a better teacher to you. What information do I need?” So, really, at any age level this can take place.
[Matt Weber] Kyle, I think our listeners would be intrigued to know, like, that this was an activity that you did in your classroom, but then it had suddenly all sorts of national attention. Tell us about how this idea and this concept went viral for you?
[Kyle Schwartz] Well, like I said, I have been doing the lesson since my first year of teaching, and um, it’s always been a success for my classroom and I always really enjoy the experience with my students, but I didn’t really share the lesson, you know, not even with the teachers in the classroom next door. Um, you know, maybe I just thought it was, like, too simple to reach out and share to them. Um, but one day I found a crumpled orange piece of paper in my kitchen and as I unfolded it I noticed a child’s handwriting and that note said, “I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.” Um, and when I saw those words, you know, I kind of remembered that student, but I also saw something worth sharing and so I took a picture of it, I uploaded it to my new Twitter account, and I really just hoped that other teachers would ask the same question to their students and, much to my surprise, they did, and it ended up, you know, going viral and, you know, like TV cameras all of a sudden came to the school and there was a lot of attention on it, and it really amplified my students’ voices. And, while I was very surprised at the media attention, I do think it should, um, I think it should be noticed when, you know, kids are living with realities in their life, um, that are really difficult. You know, when kids are impacted by poverty, when they don’t have the resources that they need to learn. I do think that that’s a conversation worth having, and I’m really proud of my students for sparking it.
[Matt Weber] So you’ve been a teacher, is it now, for roughly five years?
[Kyle Schwartz] This is my fifth year, yes.
[Matt Weber] Well, you know, what is it that inspires you as a teacher? In so many ways others would probably say you, and your lesson, maybe now y our book inspired them as a teacher because it, you know, shows all the needs of the students and the sort of beauty of that relationship between teacher and student. But what would you say, now, going into your fifth year, inspires you as a teacher? Is it still the same things that inspired you when you were a first-year teacher?
[Kyle Schwartz] Well, I really got into education, um, after doing an AmeriCorps year through a program called City Year, where we worked on the public schools in D.C. And just noticing just how inequitable our school system was, was a real shock for me and it definitely angered me when I, um, first realized it. Really juxtaposing these schools in southeast D.C. to those suburban schools that I was able to go to. Um, and so I mean really the inequality in education, um, is definitely a motivator for me, because I see my students every day and they have so much potential and they’re so smart and, you know, oftentimes they’re met with a school system that’s not leveraging their potential, that’s not acknowledging their assets, and investing in them. So that’s certainly a motivator for me. But I also, um, have had really great mentors in my, in my career. Um, just, you know, the teacher across the hall who’s there every day and trying new things and, you know, trying new technology. That’s definitely a motivator for me. Um, as well as, um, I’m the product of a residency program, so I did a year of a teacher residency before I got my own classroom. And that teacher, Rachel Bernard, who I worked under, was a huge inspiration to me. And she really modeled for me that relationship-centered classroom. So I really get my inspiration every day, as hard as teaching is, um, you know, from the students and from my colleagues of teachers that I see working so hard.
[Matt Weber] Kyle, the question that you asked, you know, it’s-it’s a very simple, but a very profound question. Are there other, other lessons that you sort of have in your toolbox that you also bring out that are in that same vein as, as a question that you pose to the students that they are prompted to answer?
[Kyle Schwartz] Absolutely, and I talk about this in the book. It’s kind of broken up into chapters that really focus on an issue that could arise from these news, like grief or loss. Or, um, even, you know, even when a child is in danger. So one lesson I do with my classes, um, just who are your allies? Like, who can you go to if you need help? Who are the adults at school? Who are the adults at home that you can really trust, that you can confide in? And just having students, you know, identify those allies, I think it’s really powerful. But another thing I do for students, um, especially if they have experienced a grief situation, perhaps, you know, someone that they love has died, is to just say like, “How are you feeling about that?” or “Write it down.” Like, “I honor these feelings that you’re having. I know that it’s impacting your learning. Let’s take some time and let’s, let’s collect all your memories, and let’s write them down. And that’s something I do, in like, um, what I call the book, Memory Book. So I think that there’s a lot of really actionable steps that teachers, real life teachers like myself, can really do in their classrooms that are gonna respond to students’ needs and really impact their learning.
[Matt Weber] Kyle, last question, um, I’m assuming that you’ve probably participated in this activity yourself. And if you sort of flipped it, what would you write down if you have to answer the question, “What do you wish your students knew about you?”
[Kyle Schwartz] Well, I certainly have done that with my students. I think it’s kind of a prerequisite. If you’re going to ask students to share their life with you, you should really be willing to do the same. Um, but one thing my students are always surprised to hear is that their, you know, cuddly third-grade, elementary school teacher was once had major problems in school. I really struggled with behavior and connecting with my peers and forming relationships and making friends. I really had a prickly outer shell when I was a kid. So, I’m really honest with the kids about that. I had some things in my life that were really difficult to deal with. But I dealt with them in really difficult ways that made it hard for me to make friends and made it hard for me to succeed in school. And I think kids are always surprised to hear that because I think they idealize their teachers. But I think it’s a real model for growth for kids. And also it just gives me a lens for understanding students. Like, knowing every time I got sent down to the office, you know, the thing I needed wasn’t like, quote unquote, to be disciplined. The thing I needed was understanding and supports and resources. And so, I look for that in my students. Not just like, “How can I punish you for this behavior, but how can I get to the root it? What do you need from me? What are you looking for?” And that for me, it’s been really powerful in my teaching, but I think it’s also been powerful for my students to hear me being so honest about.
[Matt Weber] Kyle Schwartz, third grade teacher in Denver, Colorado and author of the book I Wish My Teacher Knew, How One Question Can Change Everything For Our Kids. And Kyle is so committed, she’s in her classroom right now at 6:30 a.m. doing a landline interview with someone on the east coast. Kyle, thanks for your commitment to your kids and to education.
[Kyle Schwartz] Oh, thank you so much for bringing attention to this. I think it’s very important.
[Matt Weber] Go out and buy the book folks. This has been the Harvard EdCast, a production of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I’m your host Matt Weber. Thank you kindly for listening.
The Harvard EdCast is a weekly series of podcasts, available on the Harvard University iTunes U page, that features a 15-20 minute conversation with thought leaders in the field of education from across the country and around the world. Hosted by Matt Weber and produced by Jill Anderson, the Harvard EdCast is a space for educational discourse and openness, focusing on the myriad issues and current events related to the field.