Tell Me About … / How You Get to Know Your Students - ASCD
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February 1, 2012

Tell Me About … / How You Get to Know Your Students

Your Story Is Important

After watching Steve Jobs's 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, in which he drew lessons from three pivotal events in his life, I wanted my students to do something similar. So I created the Three Crucible Events assignment for my sophomore English students. Each student had to tell (not read) three stories of events that shaped the trajectory of his or her life. Students had five minutes to tell the stories and tie them all together in a culminating takeaway.

After a couple weeks of prep work on storytelling and public speaking, we spent four emotionally draining, but class-unifying days listening to students enlighten their classmates on what made them who they are. In the realm of high school, usually filled with artifice, these students were authentic to the core. Since then, we've been the closest classroom community I've ever experienced. Discussions, debates, roundtables, group work, Socratic seminars, and daily volunteering all work better because of the connections built during those four days when the students held the stage.

<ATTRIB>—Steve Schultz, English teacher, Fountain Valley High School, Fountain Valley, California</ATTRIB>

I Know Your Name

My favorite part of the job is getting to know my students. As a high school and formerly middle school principal, I take pleasure in learning students' names so I can connect with them. During lunchtime in the cafeteria, I introduce myself to the students and have them introduce themselves to me. I use mnemonic devices to keep the hundreds of names straight. The fact that I can address students by name, have real conversations with them, and greet them when I visit their classrooms or pass them in hallways means something to them. I believe this knowledge has increased students' learning: They know I care about them, and they want to live up to the high expectations I have for them.

<ATTRIB>—Pam Davidson, principal, Bert Church High School, Airdrie, Alberta, Canada</ATTRIB>

You're the Top Card

When you're a secondary teacher, it can seem impossible to ensure that you're connecting with every one of your 150-plus students. I asked each student to provide information on an index card at the beginning of the year: birthday, interests and hobbies, school activities, out-of-school activities (such as jobs and volunteer work), and other conversation starters. Every day, I paid special attention to the student in each class whose card was at the top of the deck. For example, I would greet these students at the door, call on them for an answer or to share a thought, ask them to be the assistant who wrote announcements on the board, or talk with them during seatwork. In a little over a month, I had interacted with each student in a way that made him or her feel special.

<ATTRIB>—Mary L. Bigelow, retired secondary teacher, Middletown, Pennsylvania</ATTRIB>

You Have a Choice

I had a 5th grader who had a tough home life, constantly shuffled among family members. Because she had little control over her own life circumstances, she didn't like being told what to do. One morning, as students worked in collaborative groups solving math problems, she sat on the table refusing to participate. When I asked her how her morning was going, she said she had moved to another relative's home the previous evening. We chatted about her new living arrangement, and then I asked her about the math activity. She told me she didn't want to do the work. I told her I respected her decision not to participate but explained that these activities were not designed for my benefit: "After all, I can already solve these math problems. It's your choice whether to participate, but please don't tell anyone that you never had the opportunity to learn these important concepts." With that, I walked away. A few minutes later, she was engaged in solving the exercises.

<ATTRIB>—Sue Valdes, president, Valdes Educational Services, Minnetonka, Minnesota</ATTRIB>

I'll Be There

I attend every event, school and otherwise, that my students are a part of. I cheer the loudest, and I sit where they can talk to me. When I was able to go on a weeklong bus trip with the music department, it solidified how important students are to me. Going to so many events is time-consuming, but it saves so much time when I deal with discipline issues during the day that it's worth it!

<ATTRIB>—Sarah Updegraff, principal, New Hampton High School, New Hampton, Iowa</ATTRIB>

Your No. 1 College Booster

In our community, many students are the first in their families to plan to attend college. For many students (and their parents), the admissions procedure can be daunting, so I invite families to my house to get to know them, discuss the college entrance procedures, begin the online work, and coach them through the process. And yes—sometimes I even do house calls! This is my way of paying back educators who did the same for me more than 40 years ago. My wish is that someday my graduates will pay it forward.

<ATTRIB>—Jacquelyn Drummer, gifted and talented coordinator, School District of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin</ATTRIB>

We're Listening

About a year ago, my principal came back from a professional development experience excited about a new idea—student panels. Administrators would meet with all students in the school in groups of 10–15 students. We would talk with them for an hour about their experiences in the classroom, the kinds of teaching that worked for them, and how they used technology as a learning tool. At first my head spun; I couldn't imagine finding time to speak with so many students. But I soon found that listening to these students was more helpful and productive for our school than all the other things I could have done during that time. Our students know what helps them learn, and they were ready and willing to share that. This time investment will help us decide how to use our time better in the future.

<ATTRIB>—Christopher Julian, assistant principal, R. L. Turner High School, Carrollton, Texas</ATTRIB>

You Are a Part of Things

During the 1980s, as dean of discipline at an urban junior high school, I initiated a noontime sports league called the Five-on-Five. Students formed their own five- or six-member football teams, basketball teams, softball teams, and soccer teams. Each team was guaranteed a minimum of two games, and each tournament continued until I declared that we were in the playoff round. Despite skepticism from other teachers who warned that it would never work, we soon had 40 football teams and 40 softball teams. Little by little, some of the teachers even got out on the field with their students.

My Five-on-Fivers felt proud to belong to something. Their attendance improved because they didn't know if they had a game until that morning when I posted the schedule. To get students to a mental place where they can learn, you have to make them feel they're a part of things, rather than "apart" from things.

<ATTRIB>—Ron Klemp, CSUN adjunct professor, Santa Monica College, Los Angeles, California</ATTRIB>

Computers Make Literacy Personal

I teach literacy at a vocational/technical high school where we have access to computers and the Internet in every classroom. When I began making almost all of my literacy assignments open-ended and had students do them on the computer, I saw two important benefits: (1) Students' completed assignments told me a lot about them as individuals; and (2) While each learner worked at his or her own computer, I was able to move around the classroom and have one-to-one and small-group conversations. The result was a more personal relationship with each student and more in-depth awareness of how to accommodate each student's learning preferences.

<ATTRIB>—Jason Renshaw, literacy teacher, Geelong Technical Education Centre, Geelong, Victoria, Australia</ATTRIB>

It's Your Birthday

I create a birthday section on a bulletin board, and I make a poster celebrating each student who has a birthday that month. Among my 90 students, we usually have between four and six birthdays a month. We sing "Happy Birthday" and share our favorite birthday stories. I teach grades 9–12, and the students love seeing their posters as well as those of their friends.

<ATTRIB>—J. B. Mahli, teacher, Princess Margaret Secondary, Surrey, British Columbia, Canada</ATTRIB>

The Name Game

At the beginning of each year, I spend time going to each table in the lunchroom learning the names of new students. I try to have fun with it and go back and forth testing my memory while talking with the students. It is a little thing that can garner big results in creating an atmosphere where everyone feels respected and well-known.

<ATTRIB>—Christopher Chew, headmaster, North Middlesex Regional High School, Townsend, Massachusetts</ATTRIB>

Math—It's About You

The first day of school sets the tone for the rest of the school year. Because I teach math, I start by having students do a "Math About Me" activity. The students fold construction paper into eight rectangles. In each rectangle, they create a math equation using addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division, and they write a statement about how it relates to them on the back of the rectangle. For example, the equation on the front might be, "2 x 1 = 2"; and the student might write on the back, "I have 2 pets." Students enjoying sharing their sheets and solving one another's equations.

Throughout the year, I create story problems that involve things my students like or problems that incorporate their other teachers. For instance, when we were learning about making change, I gave the students six word problems in which each of their teachers went to the concession stand at a baseball game, spent a certain amount of money, and gave a certain amount to the cashier; the problem was to figure out how much change each teacher received. Students were careful with their answers because they didn't want to give the wrong change to their teachers, even if it was just pretend!

Getting to know each student individually enables you to find ways to connect and help that student. You find out you have more in common with them than you may think!

<ATTRIB>—Stephanie Ramsey, 4th grade teacher, Washington, Illinois</ATTRIB>

Your Principal Checks In

In our school of 850 students, monthly Student-Principal Powwows are a great way to regularly check in with my students by grade level. Classroom teachers send one representative to each powwow each month. We work to include each of our students throughout the school year.

<ATTRIB>—John D. Ewald, principal, College Gardens Elementary School, Rockville, Maryland</ATTRIB>

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