Know Thy Students
Knowing your students is mentioned as a tenant of good teaching, but as it is not an academically rigorous goal, it is not something I often hear discussed as a topic at educational conferences, in school meetings, or even remember discussing much as a student teacher. Teachers know it is important, but I think it seems so obvious, that it is sometimes paid less attention than it is owed. It is easy to see how it can become just another thing among many; with high stakes testing, social media posts, lesson planning, test grading, meetings, phone calls, data sets, etc, etc, etc, there are a lot of balls to juggle, and knowing your students can seem like one among many.
After 14 years in the classroom however, my belief is that knowing our students is one of the MOST important parts of being a good teacher, and that this can both help students reach greater understanding of material, and also decrease the need for discipline in the classroom. There is science to back me up too!
Why We Like to Talk About Ourselves and Why it is Important
A Harvard study shows we talk about ourselves 60% of the time in conversations and 80% of time on Social Media. Scientists watched people in an fMRI machine talk about themselves and found that talking about yourself lights up the reward centers of the brain releasing dopamine (much the same way eating good food or chocolate would). Even better, if you talk about yourself to other people (instead of just thinking about yourself in your own head) the pleasure centers light up even more. Talking about ourselves to others feels good, and letting our students talk about themselves in class, feels good to them too. We want our students to feel good in our class, it is in a happy, safe, and inspired state that our brains function best, and our students learn best!
I'm not just in this for the dopamine release though! When teaching any subject, but especially a language, no two students will ever be in the exact same spot, ready to learn the exact same thing. This is not something teachers can fix over night, but a reality we must accommodate. Some student in front of us will come to school with homework done, a great nights sleep, a healthy breakfast, a great conversation with a caregiver in the morning, ready to learn. Some students will come to us without a backpack, no breakfast, a fight with a parent on the way to school, and unsure of where they will spend the night. We will teach to these students, and every other type of student in between. I do not say this in judgement, as we all have our own struggles to overcome., I say this in support of knowing your students.
Early in my teaching career I had a middle school student that always used to give me the hardest time. Any time I had a lesson running smoothly, and an engaged group of students, he would do something to throw me off my game. Finally, I pulled him in the hall one day, and rather than lecture or give consequences, I sat on the ground with him and asked him to tell me what was going on, and how I could help him. He instantly turned into a different kid, and told me all about his dad yelling at him that morning. I quickly came to realize that each time he acted out, he just needed to talk. We came up with a signal so he could let me know when he needed to talk, without acting up or asking for help in front of his peers.
Not all of your challenging kids will be that easy. Some of them will test you again and again. Try to remember that the ones that push hardest, have probably been pushed hard in some way or another in their personal life. They need us to see their potential even through the pushing.
Getting to know your students will bring so much richness to your classroom. When you know who likes Star Wars, who likes sharks, who likes Minecraft, and who likes llamas, you can weave incredible personal details into stories that will make students feel like stars, and sear the language you want them to acquire into their moldable brains! Knowing a student's dog ran away can lead to an interesting story about the missing dog, and support from their peers. When students hear that another student is ill, or has an ill family member, the class often closes around these students in support. The simple act of getting to know each other helps turn my classroom into a supportive and creative learning environment for all learner who cross the door.
Teachers have a lot of students, and a lot of curriculum to cover over the year. Every minute counts, so how do we take the time to get to know our students, while still taking care of our curricular responsibilities? I try to talk to my students in the halls, and at recess when I get to sneak out, but I have a few specific activities that help me the most.
Class Meeting is one of the most useful things that I have done in every class I taught in various ways. It is a specific, set amount of time each day, where I just sit and talk with my students (I time it so we don't get too carried away). This is my LONG get-to-know-you activity, and it starts with my Kindergarten students. All students sit in a circle and we pass around a stuffed animal. Only the teacher and the person with the stuffed animal get to talk at the start of the year (we add rejoinders as the year progresses). I start by asking each student '¿Cómo estás?/ How are you? in Spanish. At the start of the year when they are just starting to acquire, students show me with their face how they are feeling (happy, mad, sad, etc). I confirm with them how they feel in English. 'Happy', and then say the same word in Spanish back to them 'feliz'. I have different reactions for each answer. If they say they are 'mad'. I say 'Tengo miedo/ I am scared' and act scared. I then follow up with '¿Por qué?/why? to give them a chance to explain. When they say they are sad I say 'pobrecito/a' and explain the meaning. I then ask 'why' again for sad. If the student has something truly sad going on, we send them an 'abrazo/hug' by hugging ourselves, and then flinging our hands towards the student and shouting 'abrazo' (I have yet to see a student, even a genuinely sad one, not smile when we throw the hugs at them).
After a few weeks students start to answer me verbally. When the first few answer me in Spanish I get excited and give them an air high five. This is a big deal to them (don't ever miss if you start this procedure). As the year goes on we add more emotions (excited, jealous, sleepy, bored, nervous) to our meetings and more rejoinders (me too, congratulations, etc). We even make an imaginary 'ball of luck' that we 'throw' at students who have games, contests, or meets coming up. The 'receiving' student catches the ball of luck and eats it. Starting with your lowest class, and building up these routines and procedures through class meeting is a great way to create a system of support, introduce lots of useful words right when they are needed, and establish classroom routines.
In my older grades (1st, 2nd, 3rd), we still do class meeting, but since I spend Kindergarten creating a meeting that everyone understands and can respond to, it is much quicker. As students enter my room they must greet 4 other students, ask them how they are and listen to their response before taking a seat. I 'ban' some responses sometimes if students get lazy and start all saying 'good' in response to 'how are you?'. Anyone caught using English (unless they are new or have other extenuating circumstances) or not listening to responses gets to take their seat last. If I hear students asking good questions or having a more thoughtful conversation they earn class points.
After the students greet each other (1-2 minutes tops) they all sit down, I set my timer for 3 minutes. When I call on a student I first ask them 'How are you?' in Spanish, and then expand questioning from there. Students already have the language they acquired last year, in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade I get to dig for more. If they got a new pet, I can ask if it is big or small, what it eats, and what it is called. If they have a birthday coming up, I can ask when. If they have a party to go to, I can ask where and if I can come (and act sad or happy and express it in the target language depending upon their response). Students in my older classes, also earn points (that I keep track of quietly on a clicker) towards class parties for answering in Spanish. Class meetings in my older grades are full of Comprehensible and Compelling input for the entire class, plus gold for me to add to my stories, and help for me in understanding which of my students are struggling and who needs support in what way.
I haven't experimented as much with class meeting with my older students, but I think I saw Christy Lade post about how she had different evening activities posted around the room, and her older students wrote their name by activities they had done during the weekend. Bryce Hedstrom, and Grant Boulanger also have lots of good stuff on talking to older kids!
I am, I want, I can, I need, I have...
All of the above words have a few things in common, they are all high frequency words, they are all interesting conversation pieces, and the way people finish the statement tell us a lot about who they are. You can learn more about your students any time of the year by putting one of these sentence starters in the middle of a large sheet of paper (for example: 'Soy/I am') and having students write their answers all around the paper. You can do this in a few different ways to add variety. You could have students write their answer and their name next to it (interesting reading). You could have each class write their answers in a different color marker, and you could guess who written what for each class. You could have students draw their answer on a sticky note, place the sticky note on the paper, and write their name underneath the sticky note (so students can read, guess the answer, and see if they are right). All of the above activities are great, low-prep ways to get to know your students better, while practicing compelling comprehensible input.
Begin and End of Year Survey
My last two easy, get-to-know you tricks (practically cheating) that help guide my teaching both during the year, and into the next year are an 'All About Me' page at the start of the year, and a 'Student Survey' at the end of the year.
At the start of the school year I do a 'All About Me' page. This asks students to describe themselves, share their birthday, likes and dislikes, where they went, and then a bunch of favorites (movie, book, food, sport, music, etc). These worksheets are all in Spanish, and vary in difficulty depending on grade level. When students fill them out, I tour the room and chat with them. They get their second round of usefulness when a month into school we cover up the names on the worksheets, read about the student as a class, and then guess who it is in the room. The All About Me page is most useful to me later in the year, when I need inspiration for a round of Bad Unicorn (AKA Mafia) or a way to pull back in a student who hasn't been quite as interested. You see, I keep these All About Me sheets ALL YEAR LONG. That means any time I need to know about a student, I can pull these and have something interesting to talk about or add to a story. Students can NOT believe you remember so much about them, and you don't even need to remember it all!
My last get-to-know you trick sets me up for the coming school year. I let me students grade me every year. These End of the Year Surveys give me important info to guide next year's teaching, on what works and what didn't, what helped them learn, and what was just boring...but my favorite question isn't even academic. My last question on the survey simply says 'Tell me anything else you'd like to tell me'. Some answers are silly (I want to eat ice cream for breakfast tomorrow), some answers are informative (I have 3 kittens) and some answers are incredible (this is my favorite class, and it helped me when we learned about Day of the Dead because it was the first time I felt like I could talk about death). In an anonymous end-of-the-year survey students can tell you things they might not have been able to otherwise, and help remind you why it is you teach how and what you teach.
Every student, every day. Right before I began student teaching, I sought out my favorite teacher as a kid, 5th grade, Mr. Miracola. I'd always been a good student, but something about my year in his classroom lit a love of learning in my heart that has continued to burn these many years. When I saw Mr. Miracola (he said I had to call him Frank) he told me that on his desk he had always had a plaque, and that it said ESED. He asked me if I remembered it (sadly I didn't). He told me that was his motto as a teacher, 'every student, every day'. He said it was always his goal to make sure he checked in with each one of us each day, individually in some way. I couldn't say why my year in his classroom was my favorite, but maybe it was the simple act of being acknowledged as an individual. We may have anywhere from 12 to 500 students, but each one of these students is a unique individual with unique gifts. Spending time getting to know them makes you a better teacher and person, and them better students and little lights of love and learning that we can put out into the world.
If you have other ideas to help us get to know our kids add them in the comments!
Entering my 13th year in the classroom; I am a TPRS/CI Elementary Spanish Teacher. Passionate about TPRS/CI, Brain based learning, and using technology to bring the world to our students, and our students to the world.