The first weeks of school are winding down. The weather is cooling off and academic work is heating up. This is a great time to reflect on the relationships you’re building with your class. How well do you know your students? How well do your students know that you know them? I’d like to share a simple activity that will help you assess both of these important questions.

Years ago I had the privilege of attending a workshop with Don Graves, an early pioneer of the writing workshop approach. He was talking with our group about the importance of knowing our students so we could help them grow as writers, and he used the following activity to help drive home the point.

A note to school leaders…. This is a great activity to facilitate with a group of teachers to help people reflect on how well they know their students. Avoid the activity in the first few weeks of school (as teachers are still getting to know their students) and during the last few weeks of school (when the chance to build relationships is fading).

Step 1: Name Your Students.

Take a blank piece of paper or start a simple computer document, and number the left-hand margin with the number of students you have in your class. (If you have 25 students, number the paper 1-25. If you have more than one class, just choose one group of students for this activity.) Then, write down your students in the order in which you think of them. Try not to go in alphabetical order or write down all of one gender and then another. Just write them down in the order they appear in your mind.

Just this part of the activity can be interesting. Who comes to mind first, and why? Likely they are the ones who command your attention, either because of their strengths or challenges. Who do you struggle to remember? Why do you struggle to remember them? Are they quiet, compliant, or withdrawn?

Once you have all students listed, move to the next step.

Step 2: What Do You Know about Your Students?

Next, jot down something about each student that you know about them that doesn’t have anything to do with schoolwork. Tory likes horses. Macy’s grandmother owns a quilting store. Rico lives with his dad. Andrew is into dirt bikes. Kody loves to skateboard. Are there students who you know well? Do you struggle to come up with anything for some? If so, you now know who you need to connect with a bit more.

Step 3: Do Your Students Know that You Know Them?

In the final step of this exercise, make a check mark next to students’ names if you have talked with them recently about that piece of personal knowledge. Why? Knowing your students is important, but just as important is making sure that your students know that you know them. After all, when students know that they are known by their teachers, they are more connected with school and will be more ready to learn.

Now What?

Don’t feel badly if you had some blank spaces on your paper.  Even though I thought I knew my class really well, when I first tried this activity I was surprised at how much I struggled with a few students. This activity isn’t supposed to be a “Gotcha!”—where you feel awful for not yet knowing all of your students. Instead, it should be formative. It gives you valuable information. Once you know that you haven’t connected enough with several students, it’s time to get to work. Here are a few ideas for making those connections.

  • Casual chit-chat: When students enter the room, when they’re in the hallway, or when they’re in-between activities, strike up a quick conversation. “Jenny, what are you up to this weekend?” “Mark, you’re into sports, right? Are you playing anything right now?”
  • Morning meeting or advisory: If you run morning meetings or advisory groups, use this as a chance to get to know students. Have them share about their hobbies and interests. Later on, follow up with a conversation so you can learn more.
  • Take notes: Especially if you have multiple classes of students, keep track of what you learn about students. Keep a simple list of information, organized by students’ names. Even if you don’t go back and look at the notes, the act of writing them down will help you remember them.
  • Games/Activities: As a part of academic work, play some games and activities that help students share about themselves. For example, in the game Would You Rather, students respond to the prompt, Would you rather read fiction, or would you rather read non-fiction? Students then move to one side of the room or the other, depending on their preference. Warm up for this academic game with some non-academic topics. Would you rather go to the beach or take a hike? Would you rather listen to rap or rock? Would you rather go for a long bike ride or play a board game?
  • Use Your Commute: As you’re heading to school in the morning, spend some time running through your students in your mind. Who should you touch base with? What might you talk about? A little bit of mental preparation will help you be ready to connect with your students.

A Few Final Thoughts

In his wildly popular book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, Eric Jensen sites relationship-building between teachers and students as a make-or-break factor for students of poverty (p. 92-94). Some research has indicated that when teachers find out what they have in common with students, the achievement gap between white and minority students is reduced. In Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, John Hattie and Gregory Yates site research that shows that establishing positive relationships with teachers not only benefit students in that year but up to a decade later (p. 20-21). Clearly, getting to know our students is more than just a frivolous “feel-good” activity. It is a critically important part of building classroom cultures where students are ready to learn.