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NYC Helpline: How To: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Knowing Your Students as People  Lisa Peterson

When I first started teaching, one of my favorite things was sitting and talking with small groups of students after school.  I was really floundering in the classroom, but focusing on my students as people helped me remember why I loved kids so much and gave me the energy to keep trying in the classroom. 

However, these after-school chats had another benefit as well.  Because I knew my students better, I began to connect with them better during lessons.  Skeptics may tell you that your job is to teach content, but knowing your students as people can help you relate the content to their lives.  For example, because I know my students' favorite T.V. shows, I can cite them as examples when we study literary genres, or use them to suggest books the students might like.  You can use your understanding of your students to motivate them, or to help them deal with personal problems that might be getting in the way of their schoolwork.  In my action research, I made an in-depth assessment of one student's abilities in language arts and social studies, but I would have missed important clues if I hadn't gotten to know that student as a person first.  Knowing kids on an individual level can help you understand their academic issues better.

Some ideas for getting to know your students as people:

Conversation:  This is the simplest way to get to know your students, and it can be as easy as making the effort to talk with kids during downtime (such as homeroom).  Some teachers try to eat lunch with a small group of students once a week, either rotating the whole class through a schedule or taking the time to focus on particularly needy students.  I find that students as old as eighth grade enjoy helping the teacher with tasks like putting up bulletin boards, and we can have interesting conversations while working.  I have also had good conversations with students when providing them with extra academic help.

 Journals or letters:  Whether you assign topics or have students choose their own, you can learn a lot about them from personal journals.  Usually, students don't mind teachers reading their work, but if your kids do want to keep an entry private, they can fold or staple the page closed. 

 If you don't have the time or inclination to use personal journals, you can try a strategy I used as a social studies teacher.  I began having students write me a personal letter for homework once a month.  I told them that they could write about anything - it was their chance to communicate with me.   Some kids kept the letters casual - what they did over the weekend, their favorite T.V. shows, their experiences playing basketball; other kids used the letters to let me know about serious personal issues. 

Surveys and interest inventories:  These are terrific for finding out information that is easily expressed in short answer form - favorite musicians, favorite movies, number of siblings, etc.  You can also give kids simple sentence completion activities to get an idea of their personalities.  Here are a couple of junior high school activities that can be adapted to any age:

Self- Reflection: Who Am I?  [MS Word File, PDF File]
Getting to Know You  [MS Word File, PDF File]

Curriculum projects:  In any curriculum area, you can create projects that help you know your students better.  For example, math teachers can develop their class surveys into a data analysis project, in which students develop questions, survey their peers, and then graph and analyze the information.  English teachers can begin the year by having students write autobiographies or personal memoirs.  In social studies, I had students create timelines of their lives before we analyzed timelines of ancient civilizations.  I also had them use personal "artifacts" to draw conclusions about their peers before studying the conclusions archaeologists drew from ancient artifacts.  Whatever you teach, you can usually create a project that will allow you to get to know your students as you teach required skills.


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