As the new school year approaches, we’re all eager to meet our new students. But—if you’re at all like me—you might fumble through this start-of-the-year, get-to-know-you-phase like you’re on 30+ awkward first dates all at once.
“No. I’m Mikayla, Mrs. Beaton. She is Mikaela.”
Regardless of the stumbling through, we know the importance of building a strong classroom community, so much so that we lay in bed on July nights restlessly thinking about new seating arrangements that will best support student talk.
What Does Research Say?
Building a connected community that supports our students’ success, however, is heavily dependent on our students’ belief that they truly belong. Last year, my colleague and work-brother Dave Stuart pushed our teaching team’s understanding of character to accept that “belief drives behavior.” His research into Camille Farrington et. al’s studies show,
“Belonging affects everything from the amount of days that our students come to school to the degree to which they identify themselves as the type of person to do the work our classrooms require.”
- come to school (Yes, this is a “duh” point but often easier said than done, especially when working with an At-Risk population)
- engage in our work with genuine drive
That drive comes from a number of components, some that we as teachers have influence over, like belonging.
The thing is—we all recognize—getting to know students doesn’t happen all at once, even more so when you have 30ish kids on your class roster. And albeit it might take me a few days to figure out which Mikayla/Mikaela is which, it takes more time to learn the background and needs of each young lady.
What Does It Look Like In Practice?
Students want to be heard, but, in the first week of school, we don’t always have the opportunity to sit down and chat with everyone. To remedy this early on in my career, I started crafting a start-of-the-year “Who Are You? Questionnaire.” With adjustments and additions each year, I’ve learned that this nosy, six-page survey invites kids to share in ways that I never could get them to do early on in our relationship.
The questions offer check-boxes and fill-in-the-blank lines with some of the following headings:
- YOU AND YOUR FAMILY
- PRAISE & ACCOMPLISHMENTS
- ACTIVITIES AND INTERESTS
- FUTURE ASPIRATIONS
- LEARNING PREFERENCES & SUPPORT
Some helpful questions:
- I live with my _______________ ❑ everyday ❑ throughout the week ❑ on weekends ❑ seasonally ❑ rarely/never
- Are you new to our school this year? ❑ Yes ❑ No; If yes, where were you before? What brought you here?
- What do you imagine yourself doing ten years from now?
- Do you like this class as a subject in school? ❑ Yes ❑ No ❑ Sometimes; Why or why not?
- I might need support with/when…
While I joke with my students that some of these questions may seem nosy for our first introductions, students still have the choice what questions they want to answer and how much they want to reveal. I’ve found that more often than not students just want someone to ask, to know that someone is listening, to have a chance to share their story.
So even though, I could have learned about these things over the course of the semester, this questionnaire helped me quickly learn about
- Jake’s dirt bike racing sponsorship
- Bri’s mild hearing impairment
- Melanie’s dad’s death last November, which brought her and her mom to town this school year
- Chris’ 3am before-school farm chores, which was why he was often tired and still warming up his hands when 1st Hour began
- Julie’s brother’s imprisonment
Now I’m not saying that I’ve found a way to totally eliminate the strangeness early on—I still shake their hands and stare into their eyes until they blush when we first meet—but having an extra glimpse inside my students’ lives gives me an idea of what they think is funny, what holidays they celebrate, how to navigate possible class discussion trigger warnings, and hopefully how to help them feel like they belong in our academic community.
Your Turn . . .
How do you quickly connect with your students at the beginning of the school year?
What questions do you pose that offer the most insight?
Thanks . . . to Kathleen Cushman’s Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students (2003) for inspiring some of the content in this questionnaire.
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