As a teacher, when the college semester is limited to 25 classes or the middle/high school marking period is ten to twelve weeks, I found it crucial to learn as much as I could about each student as early as possible. Here are some strategies that I used for all ages.
- Name That Face Before classes begin, review class lists, get student photos to be able to match the face with the name. Have index cards and markers so each student makes a name card to place on his/her desk; that facilitates you learning names and the students learning each other’s as well.
- Intro Letter and Task Also before classes begin, send a short, pleasant letter/e-mail to each student introducing yourself, reviewing the agenda for the first couple of days and asking them to collect a small number of items for a local homeless shelter (3 toothbrushes or 3 bars of soap or 3 pairs of athletic socks). Tell them to be prepared to discuss how they managed to get these items. This task serves as an icebreaker and gives insight about each student solved the problem of procuring the goods.
- The Questionnaire During the first class, I hand out a questionnaire that is somewhat lengthy. It’s due at the beginning of the next class. I ask what they liked best and least about English class. Also, what do they think is important for me to know about them in order to better teach them? What books have they read recently? What do they think makes a person a “good reader”? What do they think makes a student a “good writer”? I ask them to tell a little about the best paper they ever wrote. What is unique about their style of learning that would be helpful for me to know? What do they want to be doing in four years? What makes them happy? What scares them? They are told to write in complete sentences and answer each question fully.
And lastly, most importantly, what questions do they have for me… and I leave a large space for them to write as many questions as they want. I promise to answer their questions promptly. I pour over the surveys once they’re submitted and make notes in my grade book regarding anything I can glean from the student’s responses that will help me teach them. For example, next to StudentX’s name I might write: says hates English, has ideas but can’t write, likes to read books she chooses herself, not assigned ones, many mechanical errors. My work is clearly laid out for me.
Knowing that information on Day Two is an incredible asset. I make time to meet with each student and address the issues that jump out at me. It’s an open discussion and a friendly, professional way to start the semester. It diffuses problems before they begin. Students are often surprised that a teacher would care to ask these questions and begin to see that this learning process is a two-way street requiring effective teamwork between teacher and student.
- Define Your Recipe for Success: I clearly list what I believe is necessary to succeed in my class in the class syllabus. Here is a sample of the ingredients:
-Show up on time and fully prepared to work and think hard.
-Mistakes are not signs of weakness. They’re data to use and an opportunity for learning. Don’t be afraid of them.
-Good students ask for help and for lots of feedback on their work.
-If you try hard, learn from your errors, and persist, you can succeed.
-Consistent effort and effective strategies are the main determinants of success.
-Writing is rewriting.
-Reading for pleasure results in improvement of many skills: vocabulary, comprehension, synthesis. Get addicted to reading.
-Ask questions—of yourself, or your textbook, or others.
-Push beyond the obvious.
-Be invested in your own education.
This “recipe” eliminates ambiguity about my priorities. I want them to be fully engaged and fearless. I make that clear.
5. Office Hours and Scheduled Appointments: During the first two weeks of classes, I make it a point to meet individually with each and every student. It gives us an opportunity to review what is expected and to address any questions or worries. We also map out a game plan of what specific goals the student has for this class and what particular skills need special attention. It’s a way to catch and eliminate problems of the past and move forward as a successful student. Yes, this is time consuming, but it is well worth it; it thwarts problems that most likely would have surfaced later in the semester when there might not be time to handle them.
What I like about this whole “ramping up” process is that it significantly shortens the time we need to get acquainted and hastens the time we get to start working on class work. It also makes the teacher aware of information that either wouldn’t be known or would take valuable weeks to discover.
And I do love the questions they ask me…some of my favorites:
Why do you teach?
Do you always have so much energy?
What is your favorite book, TV show, movie, ice cream?
Are you really going to answer my questions? Really?
P.S. If you have already started classes, it’s never too late to put any of these practices into action.