One of the most important factors in student achievement is a positive connection with the teacher. You probably already know how important it is to build that relationship early in the school year. An easy way to bond with kids is through writing. Let’s take a look at two specific activities that help you get to know your new students.
First, consider using vision letters. Ask your students to imagine it is the last day of school. Being in your social studies class, for example, turned out to be your (the student’s) best year ever. What happened? What made it the best year? What did you do? What did your teacher do? Why was sixth grade social studies the best year ever?
It’s amazing what students will write. Of course, you’ll get the standard “it was the best year ever because there was no homework”, but you’ll also get some answers like “it was the best year because I passed” or “it was great because I learned that I could do math” or “it was great because I finally learned to like school.” Each of these tells you something about the student. Ultimately, you learn about their goals and visions for their lives.
One note—if you and the other teachers at your school like this activity, don’t make the students write a letter in each class—it dilutes the effectiveness. Have them write one in the first class, and address each individual class in a paragraph.
“Where I’m From” Poems
Another excellent strategy for getting to know students is a “Where I’m From” poem or rap. It allows students to share their lives with you, which will create a strong connection. (Here’s how one school district presented the activity. And here’s another strategy. Read about the original “Where I’m From” poem here.)
A great way to start these poems is to first have students organize their thoughts about “where I come from” through simple pre-writing techniques like brainstorming, freewrites, or completing a graphic organizer. They can use the following headings to begin to brainstorm ideas: location, favorite foods, memorable moments, important people, hobbies, and favorite music.
Once the students have come up with a few thoughts per heading, they can begin to put their poem together. Stress to students that perfection is not the purpose; the purpose to allow others to see you differently from what they may normally see or to learn more about you. Here’s an example by a colleague of mine:
I Am From
I am sweet dark caramel.
I am from royalty, strong backs and bones.
I am Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Barack Obama.
I am the creator of a legacy for which my mother and father laid the foundation.
I am from struggles and despair.
I am love, peace, strength, courage.
I am from a place deep within my soul that makes me smile.
Let them know you care
Connecting with your students is a critical part of your job. After all, the old saying, “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is true. These activities move beyond the traditional “write what you did over summer vacation” into more authentic writing, which will let you build a stronger relationship with your students. And be sure to write your own and share it with your students; it will help them see you as a “real person” too!
Barbara Blackburn is a best-selling author of 14 books, including Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word. A nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website or her blog. She’s on Twitter @BarbBlackburn. See her other MiddleWeb posts here.
Barbara’s latest book, Rigor in Your Classroom: A Toolkit for Teachers, was published in May 2014 by Routledge/Eye on Education.