As a 5th grade teacher, I have the benefit of knowing a little about my incoming students from hearing about them through discussions with the 4th-grade teachers. However, over the years I have found that other pieces of information are useful in understanding my new students better, and could save me some time (and headaches) down the road. Using surveys for both students and their parents is a great way to do this. By having a printable form that can also be sent electronically using Google Slides makes it adaptable for both in-person as well as virtual learning scenarios.
A few years back, I took a continuing education course that included an assignment to create surveys that could be given to students and their parents at the start of a new school year. We were given suggestions of questions to include but could add others that we thought could be useful. After a few tweaks each year, I came up with a pair of surveys that I refer back to time and time again throughout the school year.
I assign the Student Survey as homework on the first day of school. When I first announce this to them, there are usually looks of panic and disappointment, and even some who call out, “Homework on the first day?!” But then I explain to them that it is the easiest homework ever because they know all the right answers since every question is about themselves. That always elicits smiles all around!
The survey starts with the basics, asking for their address and phone numbers, as well as their nickname if they wish to be called by one. I always find it interesting when a student who has always been called by a nickname by their previous teachers now wants to be called by their given name instead. Fifth grade is definitely the year that bridges the gap between childhood and the teen years, so I suppose this is their way of shedding their nicknames in favor of something that sounds more mature.
I included questions about activities that they have participated in the past, as well as which ones they would like to join this year. This is particularly helpful if you have a new entrant who is interested in joining the band or orchestra, as you can give the music teachers a heads up.
In the next question, I ask the names and ages of their siblings, and if they attend this school, the name(s) of their teachers. This is that time-saving question I mentioned earlier. If my student is ever absent, and I need to send home any work, I just peek at this survey and I know right away which classroom to send the work to, rather than relying on the other students to figure out which grade the sibling is in, or having to bother the main office to ask this information. Sometimes, they will voluntarily write down the names of the cousins that live in their same house, which is also very helpful.
The survey asks if they have pets, which can become a great conversation-starter. If someone has a unique pet, I tuck this tidbit of info in my brain and use it as part of a lesson later on. Watch the student’s face light up when you ask a math question involving an iguana named Ziggy!
I ask if they have ever lived in a different house. Sometimes they will list several different places they have lived. If the student is a new entrant, we might only receive documentation from the most recent school, but it is possible they have moved around several times and could even have gaps in their education that would not be apparent from their records.
Next, I ask about where they do their homework. While this seems like an odd question at first, it is useful to know if they do their homework at a babysitter’s house, or at an after-school care program, because it could explain why their homework will often be incomplete.
I ask them about their favorite subject, and which subject is hardest for them. I purposely do not ask about their least favorite subject, because that will automatically give it a negative connotation in their minds. Sometimes their favorite subject is the hardest for them, but they are up to the challenge of putting in the effort to get better at it.
When I ask them what they would like to learn about this year, their answers are all over the spectrum. Some will mention topics that they know are covered in 5th grade because their older siblings told them about it. Other times, they will list a topic that is “out in left field,” but I can weave it into conversations about middle school later in the year, to let them know I acknowledge their goal.
The last question gives them a chance to share anything else they think I need to know. I have had students write how they split their time between two houses since their parents do not live together. Sometimes they will write they are shy about raising their hand, yet like to be called upon. Most just leave this one blank. But, again, you might gain some insight into what that child is experiencing outside of school that could impact their ability to focus in the classroom.
The other survey I send home on the first day of school is for the parents to fill out. The students usually are excited to hear that their parents have homework as well!
It would be a good idea to send two surveys home, one to each parent, for students whose parents do not live together. Often, one parent gives me all of their contact information, but I am left with no current ways to contact the other parent.
I staple a white, standard-sized #10 envelope to the parent survey, so that they may send it back to me sealed if they wish. Sometimes, they want to tell me about their concerns without their child seeing it, or let me know about an upcoming family situation that the child is not aware of yet, such as a family member who is about to have surgery.
I ask for more than one phone number and email address. The emails came in particularly handy this past year when we were suddenly thrown into distance learning, and needed to remain in contact with each family. I found that what was listed as the primary email address in our school’s database turned out to be an old email or one that is not checked regularly. So I added the email question this year to make sure I am getting the best email addresses for each parent or guardian.
At the end, I ask for the signature of BOTH parents or guardians. This has been a huge help in verifying signatures when the child brings back signed tests. At least once each year, I have had a student who brings back a test with a low score, with a suspiciously “childlike” signature on it. If it does not look remotely like the signatures on this survey, we end up having a little chat and a phone call home to check if a parent really did sign the test. One year, we even had a student forge a parent’s signature on a check for a Scholastic book order. More often than not, the child admits to forging the signature before we even call the parents.
Electronic Surveys Using Google Slides
This year, since we don’t yet know in my state whether we will be starting the year with in-person classes, virtual instruction, or a combination of both, I updated the surveys so that they can be completed electronically via Google Slides. We use Google Classroom beginning with the 3rd graders in my district, so by the time they get to 5th grade, they should be able to navigate the Slides. I inserted text boxes for each response.
I chose to use Slides instead of Google Forms, so that they can be easily printed and copied as is, in the event that I want to give out hard copies. For parents who do not have a Gmail account, you can also save the file as a PowerPoint and attach that to the email. Another option would be to save the parent survey pages as PDFs, attach it to an email, and then tell them to print out the PDFs. They can then hand write their answers, take a photo, and send it back to you. This would be best for parents that are not computer savvy.
However, if the survey is done electronically, chances are the parents are not going to sign their actual signature, but instead will type their names on the lines. So I will most likely send a hard copy home at some point to get their signatures to keep on file.
What other types of questions do you ask your students and their parents at the beginning of the school year? Share them in the comment section below.
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