The waitress placed four plates on the table: pancakes and bacon; an egg fried over-easy with buttery toast; a sausage, cheese, and hash brown omelette; and a side of corn beef hash for the table to sample. I was eating breakfast at Sullivan’s, a local restaurant that I worked at through high school and college. Every year at our school carnival raffle, I donate “Breakfast at Sullivan’s with Mr. Bailey.” It is supposed to be a big prize for the students, but honestly it is one of my favorite days of the year and not just because Sullivan’s has the best breakfast in town. I always leave the breakfast table with new insight about the students we serve and how they view school. Today was no exception as I met with two fifth grade students. We spent the early part of breakfast talking about our favorite books, family members, and sports we play. Right around the time the food arrived, the conversation shifted to what the girls liked and didn’t like about school, especially related to classroom organization and the learning environment established by different teachers. The students were clear. They loved every teacher during their time at Hemmeter but loved each for different reasons. I sipped my coffee, fascinated by the things they were saying and secretly taking notes in my head. We do parent, staff, and student surveys every year, but they always seem somewhat artificial. This conversation at Sullivan’s was truly some of the best feedback I have received about the school. If you want to know what works for your students, take the time to sit down and ask them. Have a conversation and let them share what is working and what is not working.
Here is what I learned:
The furniture in the room matters to kids. Both shared how they were initially disappointed when they found out they were going to be in a third grade classroom that was using tables instead of desks. This may seem odd, but they both viewed having your own desk as a right of passage into the upper elementary. They wanted space for the books they were reading and the writing they were creating. “Desks allow you to keep stuff that is personal to you at school.”
They also loved having different options for seating. “It is so cool how Mrs. Howald lets you bring your own chair to school.” A quick glance at Mrs. Howald’s room shows many students agree with this assessment. Mrs. Howald has used a BYOS (Bring your own seat) approach to classroom design for the past two years. The students get to take ownership over their seating. The classroom is filled with different seating options: exercise balls, wiggle stools, and all different types of chairs. My favorite is a chair completely decorated in fancy faux fur. Standing desks, pillows on the floor, and camping chairs were also popular with the students. Most of all, the students loved having the option of what was comfortable to them.
Both students preferred when teachers let them pick their own seats in class. Not exactly a shocking revelation. However, the students recognized why teachers use seating charts, they just thought it was more powerful when students came to the realization on their own. “In Mrs. Ode’s class, it was awesome because we got to pick our own seats. The class was also the best behaved for her.” They shared that the kids knew she was trusting them. She trusted them to choose their own spot. She trusted them to choose the group they would be working with during the day. She trusted her students. And they responded. They shared that she used the app Flippity and when the student’s name was selected, they picked their desk. The NFL draft version of seating charts. The students knew they would be moved if they didn’t follow classroom expectations. Guess what? Mrs. Ode didn’t have to move anyone the entire year. The students understood she was giving them ownership and they respected that.
The classroom library was another topic where the students had strong opinions. “You can’t just fill your class library with books and put them on a shelf.” The best class libraries are organized. These students preferred books sorted by genre. They wanted them displayed in a variety of ways.
“Ms. Lewis has a cool classroom library. She has a big shelf of books in the back with all the series and favorites. She has another shelf in the corner with all the new books she has bought this year.” A bulletin board hangs above the bookshelf where all of the students have laminated name tags where they use whiteboard markers to indicate the books they are currently reading. She uses her window ledge to highlight books the students book talk. “In the front of the room, Ms. Lewis has a small bookshelf with all the March Book Madness books and another with our #classroombookaday books. It’s so easy to find what you are looking for.”
They wanted the popular titles and appreciated teachers that asked them what books they wanted to read. They shared that one of their favorite activities was going through the Scholastic Book Orders and picking books for the teacher to use their bonus points on to add to the classroom library. “And get rid of the old books that no one reads. They are just taking up space.”
This was definitely the topic they were most passionate about during breakfast. “I hate when a teacher says, ‘You can finish that assignment during independent reading time.’ I don’t want to finish something during independent reading time. I want to read during independent reading time.” Different teachers have different expectations during independent reading. “It can be hard to get lost in your book if people are moving around or doing their classroom jobs during independent reading time.” They didn’t want to hear any excuses for missing independent reading time either. “It’s the best time of the day. I hate any day we miss it.” We strive to provide students at least 20 minutes (preferably 30 minutes) of independent reading time EVERY day. However, half days, assemblies, school safety drills, and more can throw a wrench in that. The students made it clear though – this should be the LAST thing cut.
The students talked highly about all of their teachers. They LOVED Every. Single. One. But for different reasons. They loved Mrs. Ode’s because she did “Pop Shots” with the class. “Mrs. Ode loves basketball. She even has a hoop in her room. When you do something to impress her, you can take a shot and win a prize.” We talked about how it was cool when teachers share about their family and the things they love. In second grade, the teachers love Disney so they do a special unit on Mickey Mouse. Mrs. Weber is a Harry Potter fanatic so she sorts her students into Houses with the sorting hat and has the students build wands. It didn’t matter what the teacher was passionate about, they just loved their teacher sharing that passion with the class.
As the check arrived, we wrapped up our conversation. They thanked me for breakfast and I thanked them for everything they shared about the school. I asked if I could share what they told me with the teachers and in a blog post. Thankfully, they said yes.
If we want to know what our students think about our classroom or school, we need to ask them. This 45 minute breakfast session was one of the best forms of feedback I have ever received. The students were thoughtful and honest. The ideas suggested in this blog post were those that were best for these particular students. They may not be the best ideas for your students. If you want to know what your students think about the classroom environment, the classroom library, or independent reading time, you will have to take the time to ask them.