Featured Community Nov 14

Making a difference one question at a time: a Middle School story

When is the last time that you called anything “life-changing” and truly meant it? For educator Jenn Carlson, who teaches computer science at Mesa View Middle School in Farmington, N.M., that moment happened at the start of this school year when she struck up a conversation with a student whom she’d had a difficult time working with in her first-period class last year.

As Carlson describes it, this student had ongoing behavior problems, and she felt anxious knowing that he was again assigned to her first-period class this year. When she encountered him at the start of the fall semester, she decided to ask him a question she had initially posed to him last year through Along, the teacher-student connection builder. The question was simple – “Tell me about your plans this summer.”

“I said, ‘Hey, how were your plans this summer?’ He looked at me, and then he went on for 20 minutes. This year, we’re 11 weeks in, and he hugs me good morning every morning. He is working hard, he’s asking questions, and he’s turning in his work,” said Carlson. “He’s polite, he’s kind. This is not the kid I knew last year. He is a different child because I knew that about him. Everything about that relationship changed. There’s no other tool in my life that could do that. It was a life-changing event for me.”

Just by remembering a question she’d asked in Along, Carlson’s relationship with her student dramatically improved. “I credit Along for that,” she added. “If I hadn’t asked the question, he would never have answered it, and I would never have had a connection with him. If they see you as an actual person and not as some authority figure, it changes the dynamic.

Breaking the ice with middle schoolers

On Mondays this school year, Carlson has been asking her students an Along question as a “bell ringer” to kick off the week. She first shows her own response to the full class, and then gives students about 10 minutes to respond directly to her within the platform.  

Middle schoolers, in particular, may be tight-lipped to share about themselves, but are more likely to respond when it’s not shared in front of a whole class, said Carlson.

“I have so many shy, quiet kids. And at the same time, this age group is so egotistical – it’s their driving force,” she explained. “Along plays into that a little bit. They may say they aren’t into it, but then they are sitting down to type an answer and they’re opening up.”

It helps that she is sharing her own stories using Along. This year, she has 8th graders in her class who she last saw in 5th grade. She used Along with those 5th graders, and they are still making connections with her based on what she previously shared. 

“The students come ask me, ‘How are your dogs?’ They know so much about me,” said Carlson. “I have an 8th grader who just told me that he won an archery championship, and the only reason he took up archery was because I told him I was an archer in Middle School.”

Creating a safe space at school

At Carlson’s school, building connections with students is a cornerstone of the 2023-2024 philosophy. Through a program they call “Engaging the Heart,” Mesa View’s administration has tasked its staff to learn about students to help address attendance and behavior challenges.

“We are the lowest income school in our district, and a lot of students come and go,” explained Carlson. “We are trying to get them fired up about school by getting to know them better and to make these connections so these kids really understand that there’s a lot of people in this building who care about you. We want you to have the best possible time here and know you are cared for.”

As a computer science teacher, Carlson particularly understands that technology tools can offer a solution to help educators and students connect. When she started using Along a few years ago, it helped to change her perspective and understand her students better.

“Along took that surface level stuff about this student, liking to watch game shows or this student liking horses, to a whole new level for me,” she said. “I get to know them on this more personal level, but I also know when I need to change my expectations a bit to make them feel better here in my room. I tell my kids that this is personal and private. I’m a sounding board, and if you need someone else to talk to, I’ll get you more help.”

This year alone, Carlson said that she’s helped numerous students connect with a social worker or school counselor after engaging with them on Along.

“Here’s the telling thing about how Along works,” she explained. “The first question I asked this year was, ‘What is one thing you are looking forward to, big or small? I thought the answers would be fluff and happiness, but many shared tough stories with me. A lot of times we think when we have a problem that we’re on an isolated island and no one understands us. When I answer the question first on Along, they see that I’m also sharing personal things and this allows us to build a relationship and to know that I’m trying to understand and help them.”

At the same time, Carlson said that classroom management also comes much more easily now that she has built stronger relationships with students. “They respect me more and they stay on task” through the connections built on Along. “The payback is worth every minute,” she said. “The more you get to know your kids, the more they are going to work for you.”

We love to hear from educators who are using Along this school year! If you’d like to share your story, reach out to media@gradientlearning.org.

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