"[C]onnecting with your students in authentic ways early in the year is one of the best ways to foster buy-in and get the year off to a energetic, positive start for teachers and learners alike."
Anybody who’s been to school knows that the first week or so of the year is usually used to establish expectations, set the tone for the year and begin the process of creating a thriving learning community. As a teacher, one of your main concerns in those opening days of class is getting to know your students as individuals. In decades past, “I’ll know your name by Thanksgiving” was an acceptable attitude, but in today’s environment with so much content and so many standards for each grade level, you’re setting your students up to fall behind (and therefore creating more work for yourself as well) if you can’t figure out who they are and how they work best quickly.
Increasingly, schools and districts are rolling out personalized learning and competency-based learning initiatives to improve student outcomes and build college-and-career readiness, but those approaches both rely heavily on teachers and students working together to discover access points and refine strategies that work for the individual. Without a strong understanding of that individual (and - let’s face it - those twenty to eighty individuals you might teach each day, depending on your setting), you and your students will never gain the full benefits of the personalized or competency-based approaches.
Here are a few things students and teachers can do in the opening weeks of class to open a dialogue and discover pathways to learning quickly and effectively.
Have Students Create Learner Profiles
A Learner Profile is a living document that helps students discover and articulate who they are as learners while also providing guidance to teachers, administrators and parents when it comes to what kinds of supports or interventions will be most useful, effective or necessary. A strong learner profile invites students to volunteer information about their interests and passions while also using tools like surveys to guide learners toward insights about themselves that they might not know they know.
Many Learning Management Systems (LMSes) come equipped with a built-in space for each student to create a profile or homepage. Not taking time early in the year to transform this space into a thriving corner of the learning space that speaks to each learner’s individual interests, needs, challenges and strengths is a major mistake, as inviting students to volunteer information about themselves in a way they find engaging and authentic is one of the best ways to gain potentially game-changing insights.
Even if you don’t use an LMS with a built-in profile system in your school or district, you can have students create their own learner profiles using any number of pen-and-paper or digital methods. Think of a core group of questions you want to ask students about themselves as individuals and as learners, and then locate learning style or personality quizzes that will help students (and you!) gain an even better understanding of what they need to learn and how they can access that information or skill set.
Begin an Individualized Dialogue with Each Student
If you’re a new teacher - or an experienced teacher who has succeeded in maintaining a certain degree of distance between yourself and your students - it can be really intimidating to consider the idea of actually building a relationship with each student from day one. However, connecting with your students in authentic ways early in the year is one of the best ways to foster buy-in and get the year off to an energetic, positive start for teachers and learners alike.
Online learning toolkits like LMSes, Google Apps and other educational software suites generally feature communication channels that can allow teachers and students to connect in powerful ways. If you think squatting down next to your students’ desks is the most effective way to communicate with them about learning, try opening an online dialogue about work, improvement, and goals - you’ll quickly see how much more comfortable young learners are discussing these issues in the online space.
Making a real connection with each individual student can be challenging using the traditional constraints of the school day, but if you embrace online tools, you can stretch that space and time in highly effective and impactful ways.
Allow Students to Introduce Themselves as Learners
Too often, teachers mistakenly think that the first weeks of school are simply about them getting to know their students. The fact of the matter is that it’s equally important for students to get to know themselves and each other as learners, which is a role they seldom discuss on their own time. Many of your students may have been in class together for years, but that doesn’t mean they actually know anything about each other as learners.
Rather than playing the infamous “Name Game” on day one of class and then shifting into syllabi and content, take a few days at the beginning of the school year to allow students to introduce themselves to you (and one another) as empowered learners in the classroom. That means thinking beyond their names and what extracurricular activities they participate in and asking them to reflect on successful learning experiences from the past, ways they like to learn, and ways their teachers, paraprofessionals and peers can support them as learners. (This can be especially impactful after students have created a Learner Profile!)
This exercise gives everyone a strong, level, empowered base to start the year and provides countless insights that you as a teacher can harness to maximize student success. It also communicates to students that they are there in your classroom as learners - a role they can thrive and grow in with a little hard work and persistence.