Getting to Know Our Students

A successful school year starts—and continues—with knowing well the students we serve

By: Rick Wormeli


One of the highest forms of respect around the world is to prove to someone that we really know them, and that we see them as worth knowing. We can connect with the grumpiest of individuals when we prove such things, and, of course, we can respond thoughtfully to their challenges as well. Instead of generalizing widely, then, effective middle level teachers honor their students by getting to know them well, and they respond to them instructionally and successfully based on that knowledge. They don't limit students to the contours of last year's class, nor do they coast on stock lessons from years gone by. Instead, they tailor lessons and interactions to the unique learners before them, and they do it all year long.

That's the key, though: It's all based on extended efforts to know our students, for we can't teach blind to the students we serve. Beginning-of-the-year success as well as success throughout the year is based on diligent awareness of our students, including knowing them as they change throughout the year. So, let's build that capacity.

Eight Beginning of the Year Ideas

"The Best Way for You to Learn" Cards (Or done online via Google Docs or individual email before students arrive on the first day) — When students enter your room on the first day of school, they find an index card on their desks. They are asked to describe on the cards how they best learn your particular subject. In my classes over the years, students have been insightful: "Give me a lot of examples. I don't get ideas without examples," "If you write it on the board, can I get a copy?," "I need to see it, don't just tell me it," "Don't always ask me to do it online because we only have one online machine and it doesn't always work and my brother hogs it when it does," and, "Speak slowly, I get confused with a lot of noise and fast talking." To get the full picture, send home a card (or email request) with a similar prompt to their parents, asking them to reflect on how their child best learns the particular topic.

Letters to the Teacher from Students as their own Parents – Students write letters to the teacher describing themselves and how they best learn, but they do it under a pseudonym, their parents. Pseudonyms like this can be freeing: Looking through the lens of how they think their mothers and/or fathers see them, students have deeper insights and are more honest when describing themselves. Be sure to ask them to include only those things that would provide helpful insights in successfully teaching their child, not anything that is a private family matter. Most of the pseudonym parent letters include things like: weekly babysitting responsibilities for younger siblings, religious schools/martial arts schedules, students' interests/hobbies/passions, favorite foods, the degree to which they get along with siblings, the recent death of a family member/pet, they are brand new to the school this year, requests for teachers to be funny or let students be funny, books they love/hate, shows and games they like, and aspirations for future careers. Quite often, though, they describe previously unknown talents in music/gaming/arts/sports; regrets from the previous school year; deeper worries; allergies; things teachers do that they find uncomfortable, embarrassing, or frightening; concerns about the earth and politics, a book they are writing, that their grandparents live with them, they have their own YouTube channel, and more.

"In a Million Words or Less, Tell Me about your Child" – Offered to the www.middleweb.com community by educator, Deb Bova, 16 years ago, this classic technique resonated with my own students and still does to this day in middle school classrooms around the world. We recognize that parents are experts on their own children, and those insights are valuable to their children's teachers. So, we ask parents to describe their child in a million words or less, which is really saying: We recognize your expertise and love for your child. Share as much about your child and what affects his/her/their learning as you are willing to share from your unique perspective.

We learn a tremendous amount of information from these informal essays from parents, fully "dimensionalizing" our students as individuals instead of seeing them merely as one more project to grade or slotting them prejudicially into societal stereotypes. There's a real person there, full of connections beyond what they present in our classrooms! In addition, parents are grateful for the opportunity to express how they see their children as well as that their children's teachers are interested in the observations. They become an important part of their children's education team here, which is always a plus. Interestingly, many parents have never had to sort through their thinking about their children, and as one parent put it, they find the activity "cathartic." Education World wrote about the positive impacts of the Million Words activity here: www.educationworld.com/a_curr/profdev/profdev080.shtml and the original conversation back in 2003 that explores the idea and how it helped teachers teach more effectively is archived here: http://www.middleweb.com/wp-content/uploads/
2012/08/MillionWordsActivity-MWx.pdf
.

Interest Surveys – These can be done online or on hardcopy, of course, but the point is to fill out our perceptions of the individuals in our classes. The prompts or questions must not be invasive, of course, and students always have a right to skip any prompt if they don't feel comfortable responding to it. Prompts might include:

  • Favorite book from childhood
  • Farthest point you've traveled away from home
  • Recent movie you enjoyed and what you liked about it
  • Favorite place to be and why
  • Favorite food/music/sport
  • Organizations/Teams/Clubs to which you belong
  • Someone you admire and why
  • Two common activities you do after getting home from school
  • A responsibility you have
  • A wish you have for someone else
  • What you want to do for a career
  • Describe yourself as a friend for others
  • A health or academic goal you are setting for yourself this year

You can also add some more creative prompts to help students express a bit more of themselves:

  • If you could swap places with any animated, Marvel, DC Comics, Anime, Manga, or gaming character, who or what would it be and why?
  • List at least 20 things/characteristics that don't describe you. Start with, "I'm not…."
  • Compare a teacher from your past in terms of a particular food. For example, you might consider your fourth grade teacher as being like a pepperoni pizza because…, or that your kindergarten teacher was mango because…
  • What is something you've always wondered how it works?
  • Describe something about which you hold two different opinions – You can see it one way, but you also see it another way.
  • If you could write a book about your life, what would the title be?
  • What do you find impossible right now?
  • If you could go back two years ago and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
  • Which book character would you most like to meet and why?
  • Which book character is most like you and why?
  • Name something in your life, small or large, that surprised you.
  • Describe something about which you daydream or are curious.

Learner Profiles – Ask the guidance department, team, or school to maintain a hardcopy or online, password protected folder on each student. As information about students is gathered by teachers during the year, they post it to the folder. Most student management records systems and gradebook software have this capacity. This is almost a crowd-sourcing approach: The English teacher finds out a student is interested in dance, dirt bikes, or Fortnite, and the physical education teacher finds out the same student has a strong affinity for one political party, social justice, or has a brother with muscular dystrophy. These insights are added to the student's Learner Profile as they are discovered, and any teacher challenged by how to make the instructional process more meaningful and effective for the student can draw upon this information to adjust learning as needed. If anything is truly confidential or private, we can keep that in a separate folder housed in an alternative and secure location.

The Learner Profile includes any factor that affects students learning positively or negatively. These might include: family dynamics, frequent moving from town to town, socio-economic factors, IEP or 504 considerations, equity challenges, English language challenges, learning disabilities, gifted/advanced designations, physical health, emotional health, nationality, diet, religious affiliation if important to the child, technology access/comfort, multiple intelligences, comfort/proficiency in the arts, level of self-efficacy, personal background or experiences, leadership qualities, ethics, gang affiliation, personal interests and passions, sports or music participation, sense of humor, small group work success or lack thereof, weekly schedule, social media footprint, politics, pregnancy, Anthony Gregorc Scale findings, Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory findings, adults in the building who seem to have a good relationship with the student, home and work responsibilities, ADHD, Tourette's Syndrome, Asperger's Syndrome/Autism Spectrum, hearing impaired/auditory processing challenges, visual impairments, sexual identity/orientation, speech and Language Issues, behavior/discipline concerns.

Reading Autobiography (Or an autobiography for Science, Math, P.E., Art, Writing, Coding Gaming, World Language, Social Studies) – Ask students to prepare a Reading Autobiography or one regarding the subject you teach, telling the story of how they learned it (to read, in this case) from the earliest to the most recent memories, from the smallest moments to the most profound, who guided them, favorite and not so favorite moments, and the insights discovered along the way. Imagine such a story revealed in mathematics, art, learning to play the drums, how to code, or in the study of science or history. Every time I've done this with students and no matter the subject I teach, I find out more about my students than I do from typical autobiographies.

Six Word Memoirs – Gosh, there are books, websites, articles, Twitter chats, and memes dedicated to this simple, yet intense technique. The basic idea is to write the gist of a memoir regarding something in only six words as Ernest Hemingway reportedly did: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." We can't use five or seven words; it has to be six. Other samples include, "Need more friends or more hobbies," "My entourage asleep in his crib," "Some shoes will take you anywhere," "My greatest ideas involve duct tape," "Books. Music. That's all I Need," and, "Hobby became job. Seeking new hobby." For more of these and ideas, check out: www.sixwordmemoirs.com/teens/. Once you're familiar with the way of thinking, write some of your own. Then imagine students writing the six-word memoirs for how they feel toward anything important in their lives, how they learned a particular topic, how they felt last year as a student, as a musician or performer, as a writer/reader/scientist, or as an American or whatever culture they are.

The interesting part of six-word memoirs is not the memoir itself, as clever and insightful as it may be. It's the students' elaborations upon them, explaining them in writing or orally to others that is the most expressive element. Be sure to leave time, structure, and facilitation for that component.

Problem-Solving Tasks - Give students tasks to solve that require collaboration with others. It may be as straightforward as building card houses with playing cards, building the highest tower they can using only 20 straws and 10 inches of masking tape, or. solving complex puzzles together. We can also use those Project Adventure and Low Ropes Initiatives tasks, such as working together to move a coffee can full of water from one X to another X without spilling a drop, and without touching the can, working in a group of eight, with each person holding a different piece of fishing line tied to the can's rim circumference. We also have all those great warm-up activities, like asking students to line up in ascending order according to birthdays without talking and perhaps, while blindfolded. In each of these, there's a lot of give and take, problem-solving, initial frustration, listening (and not listening), risk-taking, leadership/follower behavior, and more. We learn a lot about our students.

A Caution on "Get to Know" Activities and the Beginning of the School Year

I stand by what I wrote in a 2002 piece about the first weeks of school in this same publication:

Our students enter our classrooms in the first month of school with the inclination to do well, to think in a scholarly manner, and to produce great thoughts and works. They are a grade higher, they reason, more advanced. Things will be challenging, and this is a fresh start. As their teachers, we need to ride this momentum wave as far as we can. The expectancy and ability are there; all we have to do is get out of the way.

With each period during the school day of nothing but endless school forms, get-to-know-you activities, and reviewing classroom protocols, we kill that excitement. Students grow increasingly disillusioned. We've missed a golden opportunity for them to dive into the subject material with neurons firing on all thrusters. It's probably the most significant time of the year to hardwire students' minds to embrace our subjects, and we don't want to miss it. We still have to get to know the students, ask them to fill out those forms, and teach them classroom protocols such as where to turn in projects and where to go during a fire drill," but we need balance.

So, mix academics with Get-to-Know-You activities. Each day of the first weeks of school, make sure students learn something brand new in your subject area, not just something they are reviewing from last year. Add to this one or two new forms to complete, one get-to-know-you activity, or one or two new classroom protocols and you'll have a pretty good period…They may never admit it publicly (though many have privately), but after two months off from anything cerebral, students welcome the mental engagement. They're doing something purposeful. Teach from the very first day.

Way More than Eight Ideas for Getting to Know our Students throughout the School Year

We can keep up with students via their online portfolios and social media presence as appropriate. We don't want to invade their out of school private space, but it IS a source of information when necessary. Many students have their own 6-second vines, YouTube channels, Instagram accounts, and websites.

Particularly helpful in getting to know students, though, is time together working on something important or tough to do. For examples, I have found more about individual students when collaborating with them on one or more of these activities than I did with months with them in the classroom:

  • Hiking a mountain together from early morning until dinner time
  • Doing a full-day or longer service project together
  • Co-authoring an education article or two for publication
  • Building and maintaining the school's website
  • Becoming a sponsor for students' clubs, sports, or extra-curricular activities – School newspaper/literary magazine, Odyssey of the Mind, debate club, sleepover Science Night, sports intramurals
  • Participate in an extended, outdoor, environmental education experience
  • Planting and tending to a school garden or farm
  • Building and maintaining a program of recording children's books with middle school readers for the local elementary school students

Robert Sternberg's Intelligences – We can also assess students throughout the year in terms of Sternberg's intelligences: Being creative, analytical, practical, and wise. It's amazing how much we come to know about students when we're purposefully seeking evidence in each of these areas. For more, start here: www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/
dec07/vol65/num04/Assessing-What-Matters.aspx

Myers-Briggs Personality Type Inventories – Based on the theories of psychological types described by C. G. Jung, these inventories help teachers and students understand how they are processing and interacting with others and their own schooling. We find out if they lean more to extraversion or Introversion, if they focus on sensing information or intuiting information, if they like to emphasize logical thinking or to prioritize people's feelings and circumstances first, and whether or not they prefer to decide things right away (judging) or to remain open and fluid with new ideas (perceiving).

Some middle schools don't want students to get hung up on labels at such a young age, and there is merit to that argument. I've seen the inventories facilitated thoughtfully in some middle schools, however, and they've become a helpful tool not to label students, but as a source of knowledge for generating effective responses to challenging students. There are dozens of books on the connections between learning and MB Personality Types, even one on how best to teach writers depending on the dynamic between a teacher's type and that of his students. Check out www.myersbriggs.org

Reflective Coaching Questions – Similar to Cognitive and Instructional Coaching questions, these are open questions designed for students to reflect and share their thinking, not for teachers to judge or telegraph their opinions to students. We're trying to build their ownership of their learning, but also find out where they are in learning process. Here are suggested questions and starting stems:

  • How's [X] going? You were concerned/happy with _____ last time.
  • How do you think it went?
  • What was your goal there?
  • What do you mean by….?
  • Tell me more about…
  • What have you done in the past, and what was the result?
  • Why did you choose….?
  • How does that further your goal?
  • Describe a time when this was successful for you.
  • Tell me what excites you about this.
  • When you do this again, what will you change?
  • What does that tell you? Is there anything to that?
  • How will you begin? What will you need for that?
  • Can you give an example of….?
  • Imagine yourself at that point in the project – What will be going through your mind?
  • What have you tried?
  • How would you like this to be different?
  • What did you see classmates or the teacher doing (or hear them saying) that made you feel that way?
  • What do you recall about your own behavior during the lesson?
  • How did what you planned compare with what you did?
  • And what else?
  • Was this effective – How do you know?

Paraphrasing Students' Thinking Back to Them for Response – If we want to find out more about where students are in their learning, we can paraphrase what we heard them say or record and ask for confirmation or clarification on whether or not we heard correctly. This often develops into a great back and forth that helps us truly see where students are regarding their learning. Paraphrasing prompts include:

  • What I hearing you saying is…is that correct?
  • Let me make sure I have this correct…
  • In sum, then, you are worried that…
  • Do I have that right? Did I hear that correctly?
  • It sounds like you're saying that…

Get up to Speed on the Unique Nature of Young Adolescents – Middle schooler are unique: They are not elementary school students, nor are they high school students. So, what do we know about their differences from these other groups that affects how we facilitate their learning? We might identify wonderful student interests, strengths, preferences, and more, but it's not worth much if we are developmentally inappropriate with the young adolescent mind and how it works. Let's keep up professionally with what we know about middle schoolers as a group. Start with these sources:

  • "Middle School, not Junior High" published in the January 2016 issue of this magazine
  • This We Believe Publications
  • Research Summaries from AMLE
  • Middle School Journal
  • RMLE Online (Research in Middle Level Education
  • Middle School: A Place to Belong and to Become by Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney
  • Research to Guide Practice in Middle Grades Education edited by Gayle Andrews
  • What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know, Third Edition by Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles
  • Anything written by John Lounsbury, Carol Ann Tomlinson, Nancy Lesko, J. Howard Johnston, Paul George, Kenneth McEwin, Nancy Doda, Mark Springer, Gordon Vars, Jack Berckemeyer, William Alexander, Vince Anfara, Jim Beane, Sue Swaim, John Swaim, Tom Gatewood, Kathy Wood, Kim Campbell, Debbie Silver, Dedra Stafford, Monte Selby, among others.

By the way, this element also includes getting up to speed on the specific nature of students with unique needs. In order to really know a student identified as gifted, for example, we have to develop a mini-expertise in gifted students and their education. We do the same when we have students in our classes who are autistic, have learning disabilities, are struggling with depression or panic anxiety disorders, are children of alcoholics or parents addicted to opioids, are homeless, have Tourette's Syndrome, are English Language Learners, or any other element of their lives that may affect their learning.

Make Assessments Revelatory, i.e., Disaggregate to Reveal Story – Disaggregate test, quiz, project, and performance grades and scores into individual standards. That's right, provide a separate score or grade for each standard or proficiency. Students can demonstrate very different proficiency profiles across multiple standards, yet all end up with the same mathematical average or score based on how the teacher aggregates them all into one mark. These students are telling very different stories about their learning, however, and as a result, teachers should respond differently to each of them. They can't do that, though, if the input data is not disaggregated. If we want to know our students, our assessments must reveal their story with the content.

Technology Apps and Programs – There are many apps and programs that can really help teachers know their students. Some will help provide students with clear feedback as well. A starting list includes: Google Docs, Socrative (www.socrative.com/), ScreenCasting, and any audience response system in which students have the capacity to respond electronically to prompts.

Self-Monitoring Techniques that Show Teachers where Students are in the Process – When students complete self-monitoring tasks, they reveal quite a bit about their thinking and feeling regarding the classroom experience and their learning. To find out more about how our students are doing we can:

  • Use a Likert scale (Place an X on the continuum: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Not Sure, Agree, Strongly Agree) and ask students to explain why they feel as they do.
  • Video students working or demonstrating their proficiencies and ask them to analyze what they see in relation to the instructional goals.
  • Ask students to reflect on, "I used to think…, But now I think…" Examples: "I use to think "fake news" was a modern invention, but now I think it's been around since the first Continental Congress." "I used to be suspicious of anyone who wasn't from my culture, but now I think that people in other cultures have the same fears and hopes as me and my culture. Maybe I shouldn't be so nervous around them."
  • Fill-in-the-blank or responding to self-reflection prompts. These are done in an effort to get students to recognize when they do and do not understand content:
  • Reflection Letters -- Student completes work in class or at home. An exemplar of the assignment is placed on his desk or shown at the front of the room or on his Chrome book. The student then writes a letter to the teacher (or his parents) comparing his work to the exemplar, noting where it matches and where it does not, or in some cases, where it exceeds the exemplar.
  • Ask students to maintain reflection journals or learning logs, asking them to respond to prompts like:

Besides informing our instructional decisions, knowing our students provides other benefits: First, it's more meaningful for us as we work with real and fleshed out individuals, not assumed caricatures. Superficial black outlines become richly colored and textured portraits, and this is simply more compelling. Second, it's hard to dismiss those whom we know well, they fire too many neural networks in our brains to be avoided. While it's easy to be indifferent to people and circumstances with which we are unfamiliar, we gravitate readily towards complex, multi-dimensional humans we understand, and this summons within us strong compassion and advocacy for each student. It's more than finding agency, it's experiencing joy.


Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His new book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal (second edition) (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in 2018, and his other new book, Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, (second edition) (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra Stafford, was just released.
rick@rickwormeli.onmicrosoft.com
@rickwormeli2
www.rickwormeli.com

Published August 2019.

 
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