Children's Literacy Initiative

Prioritizing Care:

Getting To Know Our Children When Schools Reopen


Caring for Our Children

Care for children, in this pivotal time marked by COVID-19 and an outcry for racial justice, should be our first priority as educators as we embark upon a new school year. We will be met by a group of children that, in one way or another, have had an experience—one that was new, different, and certainly deserving of reflection. Our children’s experiences during this time, like those of adults, will likely run the gamut from experiences of extreme hardship, sadness, and trauma, to experiences of resilience, growth, and a new commitment to citizenship and advocacy.

Now, to begin teaching and learning anew, we need to consider how to make care our first priority, and can do so by first reflecting on how we feel cared for, as adults. Care depends on recognition and knowledge. A child who feels recognized and known for their assets, strengths, and true character feels cared for by the adults in their life. Recognizing and getting to know children in caring ways requires attention to what children wish to express about themselves and their lives. Nell Noddings, the education philosopher, reminds us “when I care, I really hear, see, or feel what others try to convey.”

Getting to know our children is a familiar practice that we would employ at the start of any new school year. We spend time committed to getting to know them as human beings—beings who bring from their diverse backgrounds and experiences, an enormous multitude of interests, strengths, and needs. This year, after children have lived through—and are likely still in the midst of—challenging and new experiences for them, it is even more important that teachers work to truly hear, see, and feel what children wish and need to convey. By doing so, we send the message that children’s experiences and ideas not only matter, but add value to the larger class and school community.

What then can teachers do to better recognize and get to know students in caring ways right now? Three widely used literacy practices, often associated with social-emotional learning and culturally relevant pedagogy, can help with the work of really seeing, hearing, and feeling what children want to share with us about their lives and experiences: interest surveys, dialogue journals, and family stories.

Interest Surveys

Interest surveys give children the chance to make their own thoughts and preferences known to the teacher, and the class as a whole. In No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships, Jaleel R. Howard and colleagues explain why interest surveys are particularly valuable at the beginning of the year: “... the survey can help create a first impression of the student as created by the student. Who does the student want the teacher to know they are? Those choices of self-representation are important (52).”

Some sample questions on interest surveys, suggested by Howard and colleagues, include:

  • What do you expect (want) to learn this year from your teacher?
  • What do you like or enjoy about your community or neighborhood?
  • What are you usually doing when you are the happiest person ever?
  • If you could fix or correct one problem in the world, what would it be?

Doing interest surveys shows respect for students’ thoughts and preferences. Actually using interest surveys to inform teaching, learning, and the establishment of a thriving classroom community shows respect and care. The information teachers learn from surveys shows a teacher or a peer where to start building relationships, what topics to start talking to others about and learning from others about.

During school closings, many children may have developed new interests that will show up on interest surveys—everything from cooking and digging to mastering new video games. Others have had critical conversations with their families and communities about race and social justice, and feel inspired to live these learnings and lessons in their daily lives. 

These new interests can then become entry points for more formal learning at school, and help us to support the child’s choice of writing topics, to help them find a compelling independent reading book, to jump start an informal conversation with classmates with the same interest, to have a quick “get to know you” chat on the playground, or to break the ice at a parent-teacher conference. Interest surveys can also inform how a teacher fosters social relations between classmates, and how a teacher adjusts their teaching style to more closely match some of their children’s learning preferences and needs.

Most importantly, interest surveys remind teachers and classmates how knowledgeable each child is about the rich and meaningful world of their own lives. By recognizing each child’s experiences and interests—particularly during this pivotal time—and using them to inform our instruction, we are not only demonstrating our care for children, we are motivating them to be engaged in learning that originated with their experiences and lives. Their learning will help them to more deeply understand their experiences, and inspire them to learn and grow more.

Dialogue Journals

Dialogue journals provide a space for written conversations between students and teachers. Dialogue journals may take many forms—open-ended exchange, responses to occasional engaging prompts, or a mixture of both—but they should always remain a space for appropriately informal, friendly conversation, not a space for evaluation or direct instruction. In response to a student’s journal entries, a teacher may offer a brief question to stimulate further thought or a brief comment or to connect with and extend the student’s ideas. Their responses should demonstrate that they are listening to children thoroughly, taking their ideas seriously, and care about their thinking.
In many ways, dialogue journals take up the caring conversation started by interest surveys and ensure that it keeps going throughout the year. Opening the dialogue journal of the second-grader who loves cars, the teacher asks if he can tell her more about his favorite cars. What kind of car is one of your favorites? What does it look like and sound like? Who does he imagine riding it, and where does he imagine it going? Piece by piece, entry by entry, a story emerges of a ride in that car that the child is motivated to write.

As teachers respond to each student’s thoughts and ideas, ensuring that they each are seen and heard as a valued members of the classroom community who are growing and changing throughout the year, children begin to feel their thoughts are heard, validated, and have provoked interest. As a result, they will be increasingly willing to write more, share more, and maybe even debate more with their teacher. This increase in a willingness to share highlights another strength of dialogue journals in this time. 

When our children return to school in this current time, they may feel shy and tenuous, likely deeply affected by one experience or another. This could make connecting to their teacher and peers hard. Dialogue journals can get children used to expressing their thoughts and feelings publicly again in a very unthreatening way, which can remind them of the pleasures and joys of sharing observations with others at school.



3 Literacy Practices for Establishing Care from the Start:


JULY 15, 2020 @ 3:00 PM EST 

Family Stories

Valuable at the opening of any year, the telling of family stories will be particularly meaningful during school re-openings as children work to connect the many months spent at home to the future months they will be spending at school. During school closings, students’ families demonstrated resilience, strength, and joy—as well as hardship and frustration—in ways that students are naturally aware of and proud of. Children sense the care in a classroom community when they have the opportunity to tell about these moments, and honor the people in their lives who lived it with them: the grandmother who looked after them while their mom did essential work, the father who drove to a parking lot near a community building to get them temporary internet access, the sister who helped them learn to read, the cousin who showed them pictures of himself protesting.

One way to model how to tell a family story is to use read alouds about family life as an example of the processes of telling family stories. Two classic books often used to model family stories are Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, in which a family picnics on the roof of their apartment, and Carmen Lomas Garza’s Family Pictures/ Cuadros de Familia, in which the author recalls celebrations, daily routines, and special moments from her family’s life in Mexico. Both of these books portray the warmth of ordinary family life, as well as aspects of social and racial justice that impact children’s lives, in ways that inspire children to share their own stories of family life orally or in writing.

Encouraging children to share family stories orally and in writing, like doing dialogue journals and interest surveys, needs, of course, to be done thoughtfully, so students do not feel vulnerable and exposed. Yet all these practices are worth the time and effort they take to enact thoughtfully because they are, when done right, so affirming of children’s unique life stories and experiences.

While all three practices are powerful alone, used together they are even more significant, as they work synchronically to give a full picture of students’ lives as they see them. When learning can start from a place of experience and interest, it is likely to be engaging, inspiring, and lasting. Doing this work of getting to know children carries the even greater benefit of helping to reunite and energize classroom communities after school closings and a nationwide reckoning with endemic racial injustice. Such care, grounded in recognition, is often healing, affirming, and empowering in ways that benefit children as learners and people.

Works Cited

  • Howard, Jaleel, et al. No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships. Heinemann, 2020
  • Lomas Garza, Carmen. Family Pictures/ Cuadros de Familia. Children’s Book Press, 2015
  • Noddings, Nel. The Challenge to Care in Schools, 2nd Edition. Teachers College Press, 2015.
  • Ringold, Faith. Tar Beach. Dragonfly Books, 1996.

Communities of Practice

Webinar Workshop Resources

During our workshop series, Communities of Practice: Reopening Our Schools Classrooms Communities with Care, we share many resources school leaders, educators, and administration can utilize during planning sessions for the upcoming school year. Check out the resources from the latest session we hosted.

Session No. 1
Three Key Mindsets to Establish a Caring School Climate: School Leaders

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