I'm always a little stuck for gift ideas when my kids go to their friends' birthday parties. "What is Cal into these days? Is Phoebe still reading Jerry Spinelli books?" Invariably, the friends who end up with the best gifts are those who my own kids know well. When they have an inside line on what will really delight the birthday boy or girl, we are able to make a well suited choice.
The same is true when we think about the choices we make for our students in our classrooms. "If I place Eli in a group where he does not need to read aloud, he will engage better. Maybe if one of the stations includes that YouTube video on Avogadro's Number more students will remember it." These good choices we make can sometimes be fortuitous, but more often than not, they come from us knowing our students well. Presenting these well appreciated gifts gives us a chance of better maintaining student interest and therefore improving the learning. And while improving their learning is really the holy grail for education, the real perk to knowing students well is that they feel valued by and often more at ease with the teachers who find out who they are and how they learn. They are dignified by our efforts.
I see this process of getting to know my students taking two paths. The first is the path that helps me know them as learners. It often involves careful observation, but in my experience, a few really well designed inventories or questionnaires can provide me with a lot of useful information. One of my favorites is Dunn and Dunn. I find it gives me insight into things like who needs a silent room to complete tasks and who will always want music playing. It helps me see which students prefer to work independently, with a partner, in small groups, or as a full class. Another one of my personal favorites is called a sociogram. The sociogram I created for each of my middle school classes helped me see which students would need my help in connecting with their peers as well as which students were seen as anchors by the others. They also pointed out trusting relationships between certain students that I might not have been aware of. When I collected this data, I liked to display it several ways for myself. These multiple displays each helped me make quick decisions for partnerships and small groups. Regardless of the survey I used, I always modify it in some way, depending on the age range of my group.
The second path for getting to know my students is the more personal one. Challenging school schedules, busy lives outside of school and the sheer weight of the professional demands on all of us sometimes make finding time to just talk with kids seem impossible. I am certain, though, that when I ate lunch with Corey, asked about Kelsie's soccer tournament and swapped photos of our beloved dogs with Abby, that I grew just a bit closer with them, built that invaluable trust and saw a little better how to help them be successful in school. Maybe the next time, I would encourage Corey to bring a friend to lunch. I could include a word problem on our up-coming quiz based on the velocity of a ball Kelsie kicked. Who knows, maybe Abby's dog, "Willa" might appear as the "energetic hound" in a series of sentences designed to review adverbs.
But how did knowing my students impact their learning? I am pretty sure it enabled me to more gracefully move them toward mastery of the targets I had set forth for them. When I knew how they learned best and who they were as people, I was more nimble in differentiating my instruction and my assessments. I was better tuned into how to teach for mastery since I understood who I was teaching.