Thursday, June 7, 2018

7 Ways to Get to Know Your Students

As teachers, we know the importance of building relationships with our students. How can we teach them unless we know them? They have to trust us, and it's impossible to trust someone who doesn't know who we truly are.

As I make plans for this upcoming school year, where we will be blending together four different, diverse schools, I know that building meaningful relationships with my students will be a key to making this a smooth transition.  Over the years, I've honed my practices to things where I felt everyone could be successful and no one would be embarrassed. While this includes our ELLs and ExEd students, it's also important to remember that for some of our students, time away from school is a nightmare. Writing prompts asking them to share about their summer break shines a spotlight on the fact that they may have spent the time living horrors they don't want their peers to know about. 

With that in mind, here are my top 7 ways I use to get to know my students.

  1. Student Survey & Parent Survey: On the first day of school, I present my students with the opportunity to answer a few basic questions about themselves. It's similar to an interest inventory, but I also include things like their learning preference and favorite school memory to provide me a peek into their perceptions and expectations for learning. Also, I send home a "Welcome to Sixth Grade Letter" inviting parents to take a Parent Survey. Who knows the students better than their parents who have been with them for the duration of their lives? Both of these are simple Google Forms that do not take much time for them to complete. Typically, I get almost 100% of my students to complete their form, and I usually get about two-thirds from the parents. This provides me with valuable insight to begin shaping my instructional strategies from day one.
  2. Self-sculptures & Name Game: On the second day of school, students find Play-Doh waiting
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    for them at their seats. They are challenged to create a sculpture that represents who they are within seven minutes (I've found that five is too short, and ten is too long). Then we take turns sharing our sculpture and naming each of the people who went before them sharing what they sculpted and how it represents that person. I make sure that I also sculpt something because I want them to know that we are all a part of this learning community together. I share with my students that learning names is VERY challenging for me, but that I am going to challenge myself to know all 100 of my students' names by the end of the day. I strategical position students for when they take their turn based on the information I collected from the surveys from day one. I take a turn periodically throughout the activity so that students get to hear the names and information repeatedly. It's funny, students periodically bring up the different things they learned about each other throughout the school year. (Check out this video where my turn was captured on Twitter by one of our district admins last year.)
  3. True Colors Test: Five years ago, our sixth-grade team went through an intensive journey of self-understanding and characteristics of how to communicate effectively with one another. We took several researched-based personality assessments. Through those conversations, we came to the conclusion that our students needed to be empowered with this knowledge about themselves, their peers, and their teachers. About a week into school, all sixth-grade students take the True Colors personality test. Once they have the results, we discuss learning and interpersonal communication strategies they can use to advocate for themselves as well as effectively communicate and collaborate with one another. This year, the entire school participated, and students received rubber wristbands to identify their True Color. As their teacher, it gave me pertinent information on how best to reach each student and the types of challenges where they would thrive.
  4. Passion Blog Post: Our first assignment is for students to write about one of their passions. They are challenged with choosing something that most people may not know about them. It can be a hobby, a favorite, or something they collect. As we move through the writing process, I meet with each student one-on-one. This gives me the opportunity to have an individual conversation with each student on a topic that they chose and that they love. Not only do I get to know some academic strengths and weakness as well as one of their personal interests, I have the opportunity to work at strengthening our relationship and building trust.
  5. Tagxedo Dots: Every year, my students participate in International Dot Day, a day devoted to focusing on how students can make a mark on the world based on Peter H. Reynolds' book The Dot (see this).  One of the activities in which each of my students engages is to create a word cloud comprised of 40+ words that describe her/him. I encourage them to dig deeply into their unique qualities. They print these out in the shape of a dot using Tagxedo and we hang these up around the room for the entire year. It's a piece of them that always stays in our learning environment. Because students have been with me for about a month, they feel more comfortable opening up and sharing pieces of who they are through these dot word clouds, which provides me a different look into the unique individuals they each are.
  6. Teacher Feedback: If you want to know how well you are reaching students, why not ask them? Four times a year, I ask my students to write me a letter, blog post, or email telling me what I've done as their teacher to help them find success. I also ask them to share some strategies, tools or activities I could implement to further support them as a learner. I encourage honesty; I let them know that I need their honesty to become the best teacher for each individual. Yes, sometimes you need a thick skin. Yes, sometimes you need a tissue because you laugh so hard you cry. Ultimately, I've found these messages from my learners to be the biggest catalyst for my professional growth.
  7. Outside Events: Our learners need to know that we care about them as individuals. This stretches beyond the classroom walls and dedicated school hours. They need to see us at their community theatre and dance productions. They want us to cheer them on at athletic events and competitions.  For many of our learners, we may be the only person in their lives who truly care about what happens to them. And while it's not possible to attend everything, our learners need to see that our concern for them is truly genuine and not limited to a few moments during one part of their lifelong journey.

What have you found is an effective way to get to know your students? Do you have a favorite activity or strategy that you use? I'd love to grow my "Get to Know You" repertoire. Be sure to leave a comment below or hit me on Twitter (@JulieDRamsay) or on my Facebook page.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Using a House System to Build Community

Teaching in middle school can be tricky. Students still want to get prizes, stickers, and wear silly costumes, but they also want to be treated as a grown-up. They become hyper-aware of their peer's opinions; the interactions between classes can often resemble a Greek tragedy (at least in their estimation). So as their teachers, what can we do to provide each student with an advocate since the middle-level learner will rarely ask for help?

This is the question that the faculty and staff at Rock Quarry Middle School began asking over three years ago. We had tried out different advisory models and had mediocre success. Several of us had done some reading and attended some professional development sessions on building community, and we discovered the potential of creating a  house system...yes, like the one in Harry Potter series. Being a HUGE HP fan (Go, Gryffindor!), this really appealed to me as we dug into the nitty-gritty of what this would look like for our learners. A House System would give every single student a group where they belonged and an advocate that would see them in a small "family group" every week. Furthermore, it would allow us to put emphasis on the areas where we needed to grow (PBIS, character education, service learning, growth mindset, etc.) while still putting students in the driver's seat.

After many planning sessions, for this to become successful, we knew that we had to go BIG to get buy-in from the faculty and students. We created a list of roles that each teacher could fill in his/her house and each teacher could apply for those roles. The teachers and faculty were sorted first with a big surprise during class with balloons in their new house colors to announce their house. This also built anticipation for the students who would be sorted a few days later.

Our mascot is a Jaguar. When it came time to choose names for our houses, I found a listing of the different subspecies of Jaguars. Our administrator, Lynda Ingram, coined the phrase: Virtus in Unum Pulsatio (Strength in One Pulse). While students, faculty, and staff would all be a part of one of our eight houses, we wanted the focus to be that we are all part of one community.

So what do we do for our sorting ceremony? While having a sorting hat would have been fun, we are not Hogwarts. We are the House of Jags. We make it a BIG production. We have an enormous sorting basket that glows. I composed a sorting poem that Mrs. Ingram reads, and we have sounds of jungle music playing to set the stage. The first year, all of the students were sorted. Now, each new set of 6th graders are sorted about a month into the school year.

Students earn house points for anything from random acts of kindness, good citizenship, reaching academic goals, or classroom successes. They can also earn house points for participating in school clubs or events like Scholars Bowl, Battle of the Books, Geography Bee, Spelling Bee, Robotics Club, Canstruction, All-State Band/Strings/Choir, or one of our many athletic teams. We want to put an emphasis on being an active part of the community and representing RQMS outside of the school walls. So, students can earn house points for things like being in a community theatre production, a community athletic team, or Girl or Boy Scouts. And because we work hard to develop empathy in our middle school students, they also earn house points for participating in any service-related activities.

We meet weekly in family meetings to engage in activities and lessons that empower students to build a relationship with their housemates and their house leader (who becomes their advocate) while also developing characteristics and tools to become a stronger version of themselves. Whole houses typically meet quarterly and YES...we do have House Games where houses can earn additional house points while going head-to-head in games (sometimes they are minute-to-win-it games; sometimes they are games like Ultimate Frisbee, Ga-Ga Ball, or Kickball). At our annual Awards Day, the House Cup is awarded and my students go into that program anxiously awaiting that final announcement. (Go, Veracrucis!)

A House System. Does it work? Absolutely. Students' school spirit and morale are high. The number of behavior reports has dropped significantly. Bullying reports have drastically declined. Our middle school students are more active in the community. However, like any new practice, each journey requires ongoing reflection and adaptation to meet the needs of our students. But, when you walk down the halls and you see housemates throw up their house hand signal or do their secret handshake, you know that you've hit upon something that's truly worth the journey.