Get to Know Your Students Better: Top 10 Strategies that Go Beyond the Beginning of the Year Ice Breakers
At the beginning of the school year, most teachers spend the first two days on ice breaker games and getting to know you questions. Then they jump into curriculum and forget that getting to know our students is the key to teaching.
Getting to know our students is a key to building positive relations and to being able to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of each student. The more we know about our students, the better we can fit our instruction to their levels, their interests, their background knowledge and their needs. Fitting our instruction to our students - instead of trying to force our students to fit into our instruction allows us to make more of an impact on our students' education and on their lives.
There are so many ways to get to know your students better, not just at the beginning of the year, but all year long. Here are the 10 getting to know you strategies I use every year:
1.) Have conversations with the students and their parents. Especially at the beginning of the year, it's important to start conversations and to listen when the kiddos and their parents tell you stories about their life or giving you little snipets of information. Sometimes these pieces of information will be the key to helping you know how to help your students succeed.
2.) Get to know your students' goals. This year I started out the year with my Long Term Goals Sheet, where I asked students to work with their parents and think about where they want to be in 5 years, in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years. It was a great way to get to know my students on a new and different level. Hearing their college and career aspirations made each of these students so much more real to me. Now the student who wants to fix computers is a "tech support helper" who I have introduced to code.org and the student who wants to travel to multiple countries is reading books about those countries and studying French on Duolingo.com. Knowing who the students want to be when they are an adult, even if they're only in 3rd grade now, allows me to break into their interest levels in a completely different way.
3.) Read their writing. The way that a student responds to a writing prompt says so much about the student. For example my students are currently writing narrative stories about a picture of a girl falling off of a swing. The stories I got range from a first person narrative where the main character helps a girl who falls off a swing and wins an instant friend; to a story where aliens were purposely breaking the swing each time the main character sits on it. In between, I also got a story where the main character's mother fell in love with the doctor who helped her and one story where the girl was pushed on purpose and the pusher got a large punishment. Reading each of these stories with my students helped me to better understand their background knowledge and their viewpoint as well as their writing ability. I often use my Genre Writing Journals as a way to give the entire class the same prompt.
4.) Ask students to visualize stories. Last year I demonstrated to my students how much background knowledge plays a part in the pictures they visualize. I read them two stories that I wrote, which were almost identical, about families that were having dinner. One story took place in Morocco where the family was eating couscous. The other story took place in New Mexico where the family was eating enchiladas. While I read each story, the students drew pictures of what they were visualizing. Then we looked at photographs of a family in Morocco eating couscous and a family in New Mexico eating enchiladas. The pictures the students drew of the family in New Mexico (where we live) were very close to photograph we looked at, but the ones they drew of the family in Morocco were not close at all. Background knowledge affects what we can visualize. So as often as possible let students draw pictures of the stories they read. How they visualize the story will sometimes surprise you, but will often give you good information about their own background!
5.) Use turn and talks about their home life. Morning meetings are a great way to get to know your students. Often during morning meetings I will ask students to turn and talk to a neighbor about a topic, what they did over the weekend, their favorite food, the pets they own, a time they were scared, etc. etc. Then I let the students report out about what their friends told them. You get interesting information about both students this way, because what the person reporting hears as important is often something that relates to their own life!
6.) Allow time for Genius Projects or Passion Projects. Ask your students "If you could learn about anything, what would it be?" Their answers will be telling enough, but then give the students time to plan out and work on genius projects. Watching them work on these projects will tell you a lot about their commitment, their work ethic and their interest level. Genius projects in my room often lead to new read alouds, writing prompts, math scenarios and science experiments because I know better what will connect to my students' learning.
7.) Find Vocabulary Connections. One of my favorite ways to get to know my kiddos background knowledge is to discuss vocabulary with them. When I ask them for a definition or sentence for a vocabulary word, their background knowledge comes spilling out. Hut is a great word for this. Most students will tell me "Oh, like Pizza Hut", a few will say "Like the little houses in Africa", but my favorite was the one student who told me you mean like "hut, hut, hut in football?". Background knowledge, it just spills out, doesn't it? You might want to use my vocabulary graphs as a basis for some of your vocabulary conversations, the connections students make are great.
8.) Challenge students to an activity that you think may frustrate them. Watching students be frustrated can be an eye opener. It's always interesting to me to see "smart" kids hit a brick wall with something new and difficult, while kids who struggle often spend a lot of time trying to get to the answer before they give up because they are used to the struggle. Not only do frustration triggers tell us a lot about students, but watching students handle those frustrations tell us a lot about students. Once we know where students get frustrated and how they handle frustrations, we can better help students manage frustrations. We will also know how and when to support students so that they can either avoid certain frustrations or deal better with frustrations when they happen.
9.) Monitor group work. Students often work differently in a group than they do independently. Some students will automatically lead, some will automatically follow, some are peacemakers and some will respond negatively to other students. As you walk around and monitor your groups you will see how students react to each other. Then, mix up the groups and watch again because students often respond differently to different group dynamics differently.
10.) Incorporate activities that are not "normal" school subjects. Recess, PE, art, music, computer skills, cooking, sewing, nature skills - anytime that I incorporate these things into my lessons I see a completely different side of my kids. Students who often struggle will come out of their shell during a cooking lesson or run faster in the race than anyone else. Students who are the top of the class often get frustrated or scared to try new things. These activities remind us to think about our students as a "whole person" instead of just as a student.
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