The first days of school I am so excited to reconnect with students and my ‘go to’ conversation starter has almost always been a variation of “How was your summer?” But according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network approximately 25% of American children will experience at least one traumatic event by the age of 16, and there is a very good chance that many of our students had a summer they would like to forget. I realize trying to offer an answer to that question can be incredibly stressful and difficult for these students.
Many will be eager to return to a stable and predictable environment, but they don’t always express it with love and gratitude. Many are wounded and traumatized by experiences that make it difficult for them to build relationships, express emotions “normally”, or communicate effectively. What we interpret as indifference, opposition, or resistance to being a member of our school community may not reflect how much they are counting on us to invite them into the fold; to make them feel safe, welcome, and loved.
So what can we do instead of asking about their summer? Well, we don’t need to pretend it didn’t exist. If students openly talk to me about their time away from school I will be glad to listen and converse, I just won’t be soliciting that information in a public way.
What I’ll focus on is the here and now of this school year. I’ll think more carefully about what conversation starters and questions I’ll use in a whole group setting, where students may be reluctant to bare their souls to people they are unsure they can trust yet.
For whole group perhaps I could start a conversation with (depending on the grade)…
- What are you looking forward to in ____grade/this class?
- What are you hoping to learn this year in ____grade?
- How do you learn best?
- How can the teacher and your classmates challenge and support you this year?
For quickwrites, conversations, or surveys I could ask those same questions or…
- What do you want to be remembered for this year in school?
- What is a goal I can help you with this year?
- What is something you would like me to know about you?
When I see students in the hallways or playgrounds I might say…
- I’m so glad to see you. I hope you have a great year!
- Welcome back to ____ school. I missed you.
- If you heard of or read any good books, let me know. I’m always looking for recommendations.
There’s a wonderful article in the Aug 31 2016, New York Times “What Kids Wish Their Teachers Knew” that can give you even more insight and ideas.
My goal will be to reconnect and check in with students, to let them know their teachers care and are ready to support them. I cannot assume that summer was as wonderful for them as it was for me. I can learn about their summer and their lives as we work together. I’m not trying to ignore their experiences, I am trying to honor and respect the reality that not all summer vacations are created equal and I don’t want to start the school year accentuating the “haves” and “have nots” or putting students in a position of sharing ‘on the spot’. Also, I’m not going to guilt myself or others for asking students in the past. Our intentions are good, we genuinely care. I always remind myself, When I know better, I do better. I am always seeking to know better.
If you have other back to school conversation starters or community building activities that work for you, I’d love to hear them.
What’s On My Book Radar?
REFUGEE by Alan Gratz
Talk about traumatic childhood experiences…
There are a few times in my life when I have read a book and thought, “Everyone needs to read this!” As I dove into the pages of REFUGEE, I couldn’t stop thinking this. JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. How do the lives of these 3 refugee children intersect in history? Gratz masterfully weaves the heartbreaking story of their families, whose only ‘crime’ is seeking a better life, into a tale of courage, sacrifice, and hope. We all like to think we’d have helped the Jews in WWII, but how we treat refugees today is a window into our most likely actions then. I urge you to read this book, to share this book, to open your hearts and minds to the victims of today as you gain a deeper understanding of the history of refugees in our world. (Recommended for ages 8+ but because of the tragic nature of events I encourage you to read it first and decide the appropriateness or readiness for the children in your lives)