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Opening the school year with a letter to your physics teacher

July 15, 2018

Every year, I seem to go through some variant of an introduce yourself to your teacher activity, from asking students to fill out some sort of template I’ve created or to answer a Google survey. All of them have been fine—I often find myself learning some useful things from every response, and in the best cases, they do set up a basis for a building a strong relationship between me and the student.

This past year, I wanted to do something a bit different. I expressly wanted to start a dialogue with students, and I wanted to open up the format so that they could share with me the things that were important to them, rather than filling in answers to the questions I had. I also got the idea that we don’t really write letters anymore, and in the past, some students have gone the entire year without ever emailing their teacher.

So to change things, I invited students to spend 30 minutes writing me an introductory letter to me. I gave them some of the questions I’d asked in previous questionnaires (mostly cribbed from Moses Rifkin). Here’s the assignment (also as a Google doc):

Introduce yourself

I’d like for you to introduce yourself to your teachers by writing a letter. The purpose of this letter is to help your teacher to get to know you better as a student, especially when it comes to knowing how I can help you to see success in physics and achieving your personal goals. We ask that you write this letter by writing continuously for 30 minutes—don’t stop to think about what you should say, and don’t spend time proofreading or trying to find the perfect word. You will find that writing continuously is often the key to discovery—of a solution to a problem, of a thesis for a paper, or in this case, insights into who you are and why you are taking physics.

Here are some questions you can consider answering in your letter (don’t feel obligated to answer all or even any of these).

  • What should I know about your prior experience with science?
  • Is there anything you’re thinking after today’s class that you’d like to share?
  • What motivates you?
  • What are your goals for this semester?
  • What can I do, as your teacher, to help you learn best?
  • If you are struggling in this class, what can I do to help you?
  • If you are struggling in this class, what will you do to help yourself?
  • What languages do you speak at home?
  • What do you like most about yourself?
  • Tell me about something you’re good at UNRELATED to science.
  • What do you think of when you hear the word science?
  • How do you think physics might be useful for your future goals?
  • What’s the last idea that fascinated you?
  • Who is your favorite teacher and why?

Why a letter?

It turns out that writing a letter is often the key unlocking incredible opportunities in your life. It might be an interview, internship or just a cup of coffee, but the simple act of writing a letter to someone can change your life. Sadly, we don’t write many letters anymore, and sometimes, students don’t even know how. So consider this practice for the letter you will write sometime in the future that will change your life.

The responses to this assignment turned out to be incredible. Students wrote thoughtful letters that gave me real insights into their personality, motivation, interests and more. In general, I would say students had the hardest time responding to the “if you are struggling” questions, and I often didn’t get much more than “you should be available for extra help” and “I should work harder and come to you for help.” Both of these responses are a good start, but make me thing there’s a way I could ask this question to get students to be a bit more specific and also to see all the possibilities for help that exist beyond just setting up a meeting with your teacher (which many students seem to see as a very drastic step they are reluctant to take). To that end, I really like this much more specific survey Brian Frank (@brianwfrank) shared on Twitter earlier in the year.

In trying to build a conversation, I responded to each letter at length, asking follow up questions, trying to answer their questions and foreshadow what’s ahead. Though I had no expectations busy students with lots of homework to complete would follow up or even read my feedback on this non-graded assignment, a number did reply, leading to some great conversations and deepening connections.

If I were to do this again, I think I would add one thing—I would require all of my students to set up a 5 or 10 minute meeting with me after I’ve responded to their letter. This is something I definitely couldn’t do if I had a 100 student course load, but even with the small teaching loads, I’m lucky to have, some students still go all year without ever meeting with me outside of class. I think setting this requirement would go a long way toward building trust and giving students the comfort of having already met with me if they find they need to seek out extra help in the future.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Krista Gates permalink
    August 9, 2018 9:08 pm

    I like this idea! May try it this year! In my experience, most of my physics students have never REALLY struggled in a class to the point where simply working harder wouldn’t solve the problem. So they don’t really know what to do when things aren’t going well. I have always viewed the challenge of physics as a chance for students to learn those skills before they need them in college! To that end, this past year I set up individual conferences with students midway through first semester (after their first test, so they had an idea of how things were really going) I tried to set it up as a “How are things going” meeting- are you satisfied with your grades, what is going well and what are you enjoying, what is not going well and what resources could you use to improve those areas. Many kids were intimidated, but a few great conversations resulted and I think the kids felt better approaching me as someone with whom they could discuss problems!

  2. Meg Tredinnick permalink
    September 7, 2018 7:13 am

    Thank you for this suggestion. I normally would have my students complete a Google Form with a few questions, but I am asking my students to write their letter this year and I am so excited by the ones submitted so far. I am so hopeful that this will help my all female students feel more confident about me and their own capabilities in Physics this year.

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