A colleague shared the “I wish my teacher knew” phenomenon with me this year. She’d tried it with her fourth-grade class, and I was anxious to try it with my own. When I did, I was amazed and humbled. I wished I had done this from the beginning.
What is this “I wish my teacher knew” thing?
The whole movement was started by Kyle Schwartz, a teacher in Colorado. She asked her kids to finish the sentence “I wish my teacher knew …” on an index card. Her students shared some personal and surprising facts that you can find on her website. She later published a book about her experience. (I haven’t read it yet, but it looks fascinating.)
The whole point of the exercise, of course, is to get to know your kids. To find out what they’re like: what they love, what scares them, what they need help with. Anything really. They hold so much in those little heads.
Using “I wish my teacher knew” with your fourth graders
Set the stage
I wrote my own fourth grade version to introduce the lesson to my class. I included three things I wanted my teacher to know about me. I was vulnerable but also had fun with it. This combination give them ideas for their own letters. Here is my letter, written from my fourth grade perspective.
There is a lot to me, so it’s hard to narrow it down to three things. You’ll get to know me as the year goes on, but there are three main things I think you should know about me now. First, I had an accident to my eye, and I’m really uncomfortable when people stare at me. Second, I really love horses. And finally, I am pretty shy and have trouble speaking up.
My accident happened early this year. I accidentally cut my eye with a knife. To answer the usual questions, yes it hurt, no I can’t see much, and no it doesn’t hurt anymore. But the important thing I want you to know is that it really bothers me when people stare at me. This happens a lot. When I go with my Mom to the supermarket, or to CVS, or anywhere, people will either stop and stare, or will look at me and then give me an embarrassed smile. I know they don’t mean to be impolite, but it makes me really uncomfortable and I wish I could walk somewhere and not have people gaping all the time. It’s actually really annoying. I know you can’t do anything about this, but it’s just something about me that I feel is really important.
On a less serious note, I love horses. You could say I’m obsessed. My next door neighbors have a horse, and I visit it every day and feed him bits of grass from my yard. His name is Patches, and he’s a sweetie. He follows me around when I go over to his fence. I’ve taken out all the books in our library on horses, both fiction and non-fiction. I can’t seem to get enough. I’d love to get riding lessons, but Mom says we can’t afford that right now. I hope to get a horse someday, though. My Dad says they are a lot of work and money, but I think I could do it. I love animals and I think I’d do a really good job of taking care of a horse. I’ve learned how to comb them, and where to stand so you don’t get accidentally kicked. I’d love to have more horse books in our classroom library!
The last thing you should know about me is that I’m shy. I feel like every year in school, the teachers tell me to speak up and repeat things. They say I mumble and talk too soft. I’ve tried speaking as loud as I can, but it doesn’t seem to help. I have lots of ideas, but I’ve kind of stopped sharing them, because I always end up having to say stuff over and over so they can hear me. I have a best friend, Mary, and I can talk to her about anything, but she’s not in my class this year. I have a couple of friends, rather than a whole bunch, but I kind of like that better. Anyway, if I don’t talk a lot in class, it’s not because I don’t know the answer all the time. I’m just shy.
So those are the three things I want to leave you with. I had an eye accident that affects how people act around me, I love horses, and I’m shy.
As any teacher knows, when you get real with kids, there’s an energy shift in the room. Nobody goofs off. All eyes are on you. Writing your own fourth-grade version letter is one of the most powerful things you’ll do all year. Don’t be afraid to to show your warts – if it’s all rainbows and lollipops, that’s pretty much all you’ll get in return. If it’s all deep stuff, it will scare some kids away. But if you have a good balance, they’ll feel more comfortable with their options.
I told the kids to write about three things they wanted me to know. These wouldn’t be corrected. Spelling or sentence structure wasn’t important. It could be one big paragraph or, if they knew how, they could divide it up into smaller paragraphs. I left the whole thing pretty loose on purpose.
I said that these letters were just for me. They would not be shared with other students.
Plain lined paper works great, but you can grab this freebie if you like a little more flair. If you have a very resistant writer, you can try index cards instead so they won’t get overwhelmed by a large blank page. (And if they use up one, just keep handing them index cards. Those bite-sized pieces will embolden them to write more. Index card templates are included in the free download.)
Writing the “What I wish my teacher knew” letters
Let your kiddos know how much time they’ll have (we did 45 min – 1 hour). Make sure they have what they need. And then let them go at it.
If you have private work space dividers, you can use those. You can also scatter your kids about the room in different areas, so they have space to think and write without worry someone might read their work.
And if it helps, you can put on some wordless music in the background.
While I can’t share individual letters here, I can say that the kids took this very seriously. Topics that came up included bullying, friendships, and the presidential election. They shared what made them feel good — gymnastics, reading, video games — and what they struggled with either at home or in school. New babies in the family. Recent deaths. It ran the gamut.
Most important, it gave me a more three-dimensional view of my new charges. It was an important shortcut in getting to know them. And as any teacher worth her salt knows, with a solid relationship in place, students can make incredible academic and personal growth.
If you try this, you will learn things about your kids you never suspected. And your relationship will be solid and unforgettable.
Grab the freebie and try this out with your own classroom!
And/or tell us in the comments below …
- Have you tried the “I wish my teacher knew” letters in your classroom? What happened?
- What do you wish your fourth grade teacher had known about you?
- What do you wish other people today knew about you?
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Lisa Turner says
I have used this activity in my seventh grade classroom several times now. I use it the last day of our first week together, then again the week after Thanksgiving (usually through a Google Form), then finally a week or two before the end of school. I usually ask them to add if there’s anything I can provide them that will help their summer be a good one. I’m always amazed at how thoughtful my students are each time. It begins with them telling me about themselves, but then closer to Christmas – they want me to know the struggles that other students are facing. Thank you for your wonderful post.
Boy — I love that idea of extending it throughout the year! What a terrific thought. I’m going to implement that. Thank you so much for sharing it!
Summer Ferguson says
I actually used this last year with the parents on back to school night. As they came into the classroom they picked up a paper that said “I wish my child’s teacher knew…” and allowed them to let me know what they thought was important about their child. I got a lot of insight into their concerns and hopes.
Oh Summer, what a wonderful idea! Thank you for sharing that!
Becki Zanardi says
Do you think this could work for sophomores and seniors? I teach English and have ALL sophomores and seniors. I thought it would be potentially neat to see how their lists change between those years. I am interested in any input and ideas for implementation in high school classes. Thank you!!
Hi Becki! That’s a great question. I don’t have experience with those grades, so I couldn’t say for sure if this would fit high schoolers or not. (I’ve mostly taught third and fourth.) My gut says yes, this would work. But you might want to check in with high school teacher colleagues to be sure or to see if it would need to be tweaked at all. Thanks for the question! I’m really intrigued at imagining how this would play out in your classes. Give it a shot and see how it goes!
Becki, I think I am going to try this with my freshman, juniors and seniors. I thought I might change the wording to: What I wish others knew about me. Still reassuring it would only be read by me. What do you think?
Love that idea, Jen. Maybe give them a couple of options and let them choose which feels right to them? I wish I were a fly on the wall seeing this take place in your high school classes. 🙂
Julie Goode says
Thank you so much for sharing this Katrina! I am teaching at a new school after being in Singapore for eleven years. It is a magnet school and so my freshmen kids will be coming from all over Dallas (huge district). I am going to try this as I suspect that coming to a magnet school will be new and scary. I wrote my own ‘freshmen self story’ to share with my kiddos and I started crying reading it out loud to myself! OK, don’t want to do that on the first day but obviously this is powerful stuff. I feel like if it affected me so much and they can see me being real with them, it will open avenues for kids to come to me. I have always been very real teacher and very vulnerable but I have never thought to do something like this! I will let you know how it goes. I love the idea from Summer about allowing parents to share too! btw: I am going to share this with my freshmen team as well.
Hi Julie, Boy — Singapore sounds incredible. What an experience! Your Dallas kids will likely be so curious about your time there.
Yes — this stuff IS powerful. Kids really react to it and love that they are being listened to. And yes, Summer’s idea is amazing. I’m totally going to try that too!
Let us know how it goes with you and your team. I’m so curious to hear about people’s experiences with high school kids.
And congrats on your new position! You’ll be great — I can tell just from your comment that you’re a wonderful teacher.
This is a great idea! It’s funny how alike your thoughts are to mine about getting to know your students. This is what I recently posted on my blog: http://readingwritingtechieteacher.weebly.com/blog/and-the-survey-says
I always have students write a letter to me and now I will have them start with, “I wish my teacher knew…” Thank you for sharing such a powerful idea.
That’s great, Amanda! I love your survey ideas! Everybody loves being asked their opinion, especially kids! 🙂
Shelly Bautista says
Do you have students share these out loud?
Hi Shelly! No — I never have them share them out loud. It’s a great question, because that’s often one of the first things the kids ask: “Do we have to share them?” Once they know, though, that this is just between you and them, they open up.
Bridget Braun says
I can’t wait to do this with my freshmen Intensive Language Arts students! This class is comprised of struggling readers with diverse backgrounds. Do you have students put their names on these?
Hi Bridget! Yes — I do have them put their names on it. I’m in a cotaught classroom, with one third of my students having significant academic needs. Many of the kids needed multiple reassurances that 1) these would not be shared and 2) that we were not correcting them. Once they felt comfortable, they opened right up and wrote their little hearts out. I’ll be curious how this goes with your freshman class! Sounds like a cool group! Come back after and let us know how it goes! 🙂
Kim Schade says
I have not tried this, but think it would be great to use with my ELL students. We are planning to work on a project with our students and this would be a great way to introduce the students to this project. Thanks for sharing!!
Oh Kim – what a fun thing to try with your ELL students!
Elizabeth Mans says
Thank you for sharing, this has so many wonderful possibilities. Do you ever “respond” to what they write, whether by writing back or in one on one conversations? I recognize the importance of confidentiality, I didn’t know if they would prefer it acknowledged or if it they prefer their words be left on the page.
Hi Elizabeth! Great question! I didn’t respond to them in writing, but I did pull students aside one-to-one to talk about what they’d shared. For example, one new student said that he was feeling left out and bullied. I talked to him in private later and he shared more. I touched base with his parents and we came up with a plan to help him and by mid-year he had a great group of friends. For lighter things, I might hold the student back after I drop them off at a special to say, “Wow! I loved hearing about your new baby brother! Tell me more about him!” It was a nice opportunity to get a jump on problems and to connect with kids.
That said, writing back might work wonderfully too! I think I chose not to because of time constraints, and it was quicker for me to talk to them. But if you did choose to write back, I’m sure the kids would love it. Let us know if you try that! I’ll be very curious to hear what happens! 🙂
Hi. My name is Veronica. I had heard about this activity and my boss did this with us as a staff development. I felt like it didn’t work, I for one did not have anything I wanted to share with her because I wanted to tell her things but our notes were to be written on post it’s and posted on a wall, so everyone else would see it. I also didn’t want to talk about it after. I noticed that you did this with 3rd and 4th graders. Do you think this would work with 2nd graders? I really want to try this with my class. I’d like to ask the, to put a W in the corner if they wanted me to write back or possible follow up with a conversation. That way I know who would be comfortable talking about it or not. I like the idea of extending it through the school year and possibly allowing other students the opportunity to change their mind and open up to talking about some of the things they might say. What are your thoughts?
A W in the corner is a great idea, Veronica! And yes, I think it would work great with second graders. I would think just an index card would work with them to take the pressure off writing a lot. Again, the letter you write as an example will really set the tone for them and will inspire them.
I can see how it must have been difficult to do this in your staff development meeting. I don’t think I would have opened up either had I known it would be publicly shared with or without one’s name.
When in doubt start it off real simple and see how it goes! I think you’ll be amazed at the responses you get.
I’m a music teacher and I see probable 600 students in a week. Do you think it would be beneficial to do this activity in say grades 3-5?
Hi A, I think if you were to do this with a large amount of students, I would go with the short option of just giving each kid an index card. Grades 3-5 seems like a good place to start. Or if that seems like to much, maybe start with grade 5 and see how that feels. The nice thing is that you can do this at any time of year. Maybe grade 5 one month, then grade 4 the second, and so on. Let us know what you decide to try and how it goes!
I have a box of these “I wish my teacher knew slips” in my classroom. The slips live in a funky coloured box. We have a monitor who checks weekly that there are slips in the box. The children know where they are kept and can write on them at any time. They fold them in half and slip them under my computer keyboard. They either write ‘private’ or ‘share’ on the bottom to tell me if it’s something they want to share with the class or if it’s just for my information.
I check under the keyboard at lunchtime and at the end of the day. We ‘share’ any slips that have been left in a Friday afternoon.
It’s a great way of the children communicating their thoughts, fears, achievements and having a voice.
There are flurries of them every few weeks.
Great idea, the children (aged 10) love it. Thank you.
Oh I LOVE that idea, Vicki! The fluidity of it is genius. I think I might try that too. Thank you for sharing it!
Jeremi Wooten says
I tried this exercise with my 5th grade students this year. I shared my own letter from my 5th grade self, as example and sent them on their way. Some of the responses I got broke me all the way down. Like I cried hard. I should mention that many of my 5th graders, I also had as 4th graders so I already have strong ties to them. But the things they shared just showed me how deep some of their struggles lie and how many of them were willing to trust me with that information. Thank you for this <3
Oh, that is so incredible, Jeremi. They must really trust you to share things like that. (Which makes sense if you were moving grades with some of them.) That comments gave me shivers!
Karie Trupka says
I have used this Journal Prompt for the past couple of years with students in grades 4-8. The student responses grounds my teching practices for the year. I’m humbled by their journal entries! This is one activity I plan to continue in future years. At the end of each school year, I have students create a scrap book to the students coming into my classroom. This is what they thing the new students should know. I also give students an opportunity to write a seperate personal note to me. This note was what they liked about my class and what would make my class a better learning environment for next years students.
Someone posted the idea of repeating this activity through out the school year. I like the idea.
Karie, I love how you took this further at the end of the year and also love the new student scrapbook. Such great strategies to make oneself a better teacher and to help new students. Absolutely brilliant!
I ask my students four things: what they wish their friends knew, their parents knew, I knew and what random people in their community knew (someone who they might not know but might assume something based on bias about kids, etc.). It provides a lot of useful information with a lot of variety.
I also use the disclaimer that they can tell me whatever they want and it will stay with me, but that, as a mandated reporter, there are things I have to tell. I don’t want to scare them from confiding but I don’t want them to be blindsided if I involve a counselor or admin.
(I teach middle school.)