Hidden Menus: What we should uncover about our students

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.10.37 PMHave you ever heard of a hidden or secret menu?  I had not until recently.  I didn’t know that some restaurants offer items that are not advertised and only available if you know to ask.  Isn’t that like our students?  Some of the things we need to know about them are readily observable, but other things (maybe the most important things) require more effort and deeper searching to uncover.
My daughter is a middle school-aged digital native and has essentially built herself a full class load of YouTube videos on subjects ranging from make-up application to school supply organization tips.  I’m guessing this is how she learned about the Starbucks secret menu.
On our way home one day, she asked me if we could stop by Starbucks.  As I pulled up to the drive-thru window, I asked her what she’d like.  Her response was that she’d like to try the Cotton Candy Frappuccino.  I looked all over the menu for this drink and didn’t see it anywhere.  When I told her there was no such drink at this particular Starbucks, she assured me that if I asked for it, the person taking the order would know what I meant.  So, I did; and out came this lovely pink drink that completely delighted my daughter.
Later, she showed me the extensive menu of drinks people have created and Starbucks regularly produces.  I guess I understand why restaurants don’t list every option available.  It would take forever for people to read through the menu and make a selection.  Similarly, students don’t preface all of their interactions or learning experiences by listing their idiosyncrasies.  Yet, this information is critical for those who support student growth and development.  This is why, as teachers, we must be willing to search for each student’s hidden menu.

Top 3 Hidden Menu Items

Learning preferences

We are at a point in education where our understanding of teaching and learning has led us to adopt best practices such as “learning by doing” and ongoing formative assessment.  These practices have resulted in engaging learning experiences and real-time information about where students are in their knowledge and skill development.   Just as important as the methods and status of student learning, are the processes and habits of student learning.  Student learning preferences is a hidden menu item that is important for teachers to know about students and for students to know about themselves.
  • Is it important for the student to understand the big picture, or the why, of a concept before going into the details of what and how?  Or, do they prefer to just get started and work through the details in order to see how all of the parts come together?
  • Do they need individual think time? Or, do they benefit from talking out an idea with others?
  • Must they have a highly organized space to work?  Or, do they thrive in dynamic workspace?

Social-emotional learning skills

Research has clearly shown the importance of social-emotional learning and the connections to achievement.  Social-emotional skill development is critical for individual self-regulation and growth.  Plus, it develops the skills necessary to maintain healthy and productive relationships in a world where people are highly interconnected.  Building student social-emotional awareness and interpersonal skills promotes the ability to successfully navigate various environments and situations.  Are we looking beyond how well students conform to rules and more carefully observing the hidden menu information about how our students interact?
  • Are they able to see another perspective when confronted with potential conflict or an opposing idea?
  • What role do they prefer when working in a group?  How does this impact their contribution?
  • Are they comfortable asking for help with something they don’t understand?


We are all products of our experiences and environment.  Where students are from and their families (structure and beliefs) influence how they behave and learn on a daily basis.  In order for us to make the meaningful connections with students necessary for productive learning, teachers must seek to understand and acknowledge each student’s personal story.  What is on the cultural hidden menu?
  • What are the family’s implicit and explicit expectations for learning, and what is considered “smart”?
  • How does the student spend time outside of school (time is treasure)?
  • How is behavior managed at home compared to what the child is experiencing at school?
Like the Starbucks Secret menu, the hidden menu items of students are extensive.  Those listed above are only a few to consider when trying to understand and support the students in our care.  What is your favorite student hidden menu item?  How does it help you connect and support your students?
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