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Getting to Know You

In my previous post, I encouraged teachers to take the time, and to make the concerted effort, to begin the year with a focus on establishing a relationship with each of their students. I advocated the use of the five "what" questions outlined in my book: what?, what if?, so, what?, now, what? and what does this connect to. (Please refer to my post titled Going Beyond Hello to refresh your memory.)

Knowing how busy teachers are in the opening days of the school year (you're still trying to remember kids names, after all), I thought I'd offer a few suggestions on how you might manage the second of the "what" questions: What if I devise some enjoyable, nonthreatening, strategies that might assist me in discovering their backgrounds and interests? Upon examination, there are a plethora of ideas out there. Here are some decent places to start.

Scholastic does a remarkable job building resources to support teaching. I refer you to three specific sites.

For elementary classrooms, 10 Fun Back-to-School Activities and Icebreakers,

Select "Teachers Home" and search for blog posts by Genia Connell

A good resource for middle school classrooms is Classroom Activities: Welcome Back Middle-School Students, again at and entering the title in the "Teacher Home" search bar. Activities include Author Your Own Book and Celebrity Interviews.

For high school, look at Critical First Week of High School School, in the "Teacher Home" area of

I was genuinely impressed by the depth of the suggestions offered in the Positive Behavioral and Interventions and Supports (PBIS) handbook authored by the Milwaukee (WI) School District (2012) in support of effecting positive and meaningful relationships between teachers and their students. This is the rationale stated in the summary purpose statement: "It is essential to create positive relationships with all your students from day one and keep those relationships strong throughout the year. Contained within this document are strategies for getting to know your students and to strengthen your personal relationship and connection with all students. Some of these activities are used during the first few days of the school year, and some can be used throughout the year to continue to get to know your students." This document is rich with ideas and practical strategies. I would like to borrow a couple of their ideas in offering the following suggestions.

There is tremendous power and opportunity when schools embrace "writing across the curriculum" as an instructional approach. Within this structure, causing students to create written responses to specific prompts can reveal a great deal about what they value and who they are. What insights might their responses to these prompts show and how could they inform instructional decisions?

1) What is one thing you are really good at outside of school?

2) What is your best subject in school?

3) What accomplishment in your life are you most proud of?

4) What do you want to be remembered for?

5) What are you best at in school or outside of school?

6) How do you feel when you are successful at something?


Here's another suggestion from Milwaukee's work that I would be eager to try if I was still working within a classroom. It is Peer Interviews. The suggested format is: Students interview each other about how and why they are going to be successful in this class allowing students to practice their interviewing skills and get to know each other. Have students line up by birthday or height (easier) without talking; only communicating by hand signals. After they line up, divide the line in two and have them pair up with a person across from them. (This way you avoid friends interviewing friends.) Provide each group with the interview questions. They interview their partner and take notes. Have the students introduce each other by reading the interview and posting it on a bulletin board. Sample questions:

What is your name?

What is your biggest strength that will help you in this class?

What is your biggest weakness you will have to overcome in this class?

What is something you will have to do to get an A in this class?

What is something the teacher will have to help you with to get an A in this class?

What is something you want to learn in this class?

What is something you are excited about this school year?

What is something you are worried about this school year?

Finally, in a recent opinion piece for Education Week Teacher, Dr. Sean Arthurs reflects on how he customarily begins each school year with a clear goal of building trusting relationships with, and among, his students. He begins by telling them about himself, his life path that lead him to become an educator and why his work continues hold importance to him. Following that, he asks each student to find a meaningful photo on their cell phones and share them with each in small groups, explaining why they selected the particular photo.Then, with permission, the photos may be shared with the full group. He states "the first story exercise serves as an ice-breaker and accomplishes the important objective of getting every student to talk on the first day. But, it's also much more. It helps the student get to know and trust me and, equally as important, it helps them get to know and build relationships with one another." Of course, there is an added benefit for the teacher. By leaning in and close listening, the teacher gets a peak into the hearts and souls of each student.

Obviously, there are literally thousands of strategies and approaches one could pursue toward building quality relationships with, and among, one's students. It doesn't matter which method you take. It only matters that you do it! It's all about building personal worth and value, trusting that each student is known and seen, and creating a safe environment within which to work and grow while constructing a truly relevant educational experience. (I'll discuss safety and relevance in greater detail in future posts.)

It was the Greek philosopher Plutarch who first advised "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." The deliberate fostering of a trusting, informed and mutually respectful relationship within, and among, a learning community may be the needed tinder to allow a spark to take hold, inviting every student the opportunity to construct meaning and relevance in their education. Every classroom is full of fascinating people. Get to know, and value, each one.

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