Back to School: Learning about Students

I love the beginning of school.  August and September hold new possibilities full of hope and promise, a chance to start fresh, to learn from last year’s failures as well as successes, and to build something even better than the year before.

I didn’t always look so excitedly toward the beginning of another school year. When I was new to the field, I taught the prescribed curriculum that was handed to me.  Although I was “teaching by the book,” my students were struggling. I came to realize they were struggling precisely because I was teaching the prescribed curriculum.

It was obvious my focus had to shift from teaching curriculum to teaching students.  But to do so meant I first needed to learn about them, who they were as readers and writers, as senior students in my composition class, as young adults with interests and passions that exist outside my classroom walls.  My new belief:  An effective teacher does not begin the year by teaching.  She begins the year by learning.

Just as physicians must examine and question their patients before diagnosing their conditions and prescribing a course of treatment, we teachers must examine and question our students before we determine a course curriculum.

What follows is my “Learning To-Do List” completed before or at the beginning of the year to help me determine how best to select, scaffold, sequence and pace my curriculum. 

Learn about students’ performance

The beginning of my school year actually starts in May.  Before students leave for summer break, I conference with their current English teachers to get their perspectives on my future students’ skills.   These teachers are also generous enough to lend me their students for two class periods during the last few days of school, so I can introduce myself, answer questions they may have about the course, and have them complete a written assessment that will help me learn about their current English skills and abilities. I assure them the assessment is not for a grade.  Reading and analyzing their responses on this assessment is my summer work. 

Learn how students perceive themselves as readers and writers

On the first day of school,I ask students to write me a letter explaining how they currently see themselves as readers and writers and how they want to see themselves in the future.   

This assignment asks them to consider some of the questions below:

  • Are you satisfied with yourself as a reader/writer?
  • Is there something you would change about yourself as a reader/writer?
  • What reading/writing will you be expected to do in your future career?
  • Do you feel prepared to successfully read/write for your future career?
  • What could I do to help you become the reader/writer you want to be?

Below the assignment directions, I stress that “together, we will work from today until the last day of class to get you where you choose to be” as a reader and writer. 

Learn about the students from their parents or guardians

I send a letter to my students’ parents or guardians inviting them “to help me learn more about your child and tell me anything you think I should know to help me teach your child more effectively.”  While not every parent sends a response, those who do often provide me with important information that the students have not volunteered. 

Learn what students expect of me as their teacher

My favorite beginning-of-the-year activity is asking the students to write my job description.  They must come to consensus about what they expect of me as their teacher.   

Learn what students expect of themselves as learners

This activity is exactly like the job description they write for me, except this time, they detail the specific “dos” and “don’ts” they will expect of themselves.

The completed teacher and student job descriptions become posters that hang in the front of our room.  We refer to them often, and from time to time throughout the year, I will have them evaluate the job I am doing and evaluate the job they are doing.   

Learn about students’ interests and passions

After reading Gerald Graff’s “Hidden Intellectualism” excerpt from his book They Say/I Say, students write a short essay explaining their hidden intellectualism, when and why they became interested in this particular area and what else they want to know about this topic.  Learning my students’ areas of interest allows me to apply the work we do in class to their hidden intellectualisms.  I invite students to bring their interests and passions into the classroom  in order to, as Graff says, take students’ “nonacademic interest as objects of academic study.”  Throughout the year, they will read and write about their own areas of intellectualism.  Knowing my students’ passions also helps me connect with them.  This year, students will share with me and each other their expert knowledge about topics such as softball, dirt bike racing, photography, reptiles, and multiple sclerosis. 

Taking the time to learn about my students early in the year helps me provide a solid foundation upon which my curriculum is built.  That being said, the more I learn about my students as the year progresses, the more my plans are altered.  So while the foundation is firm, what ends up getting built above it is a continual work in progress.  But as experience has shown me, no matter what form the finished structure takes by the end of the year, it is always beautiful.

Jonna Kuskey is a National Board Certified Teacher at John Marshall High School in West Virginia, where she has taught English for 14 years. She writes a monthly column for the Wheeling Intelligencer, and is a 2018 winner of the Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award and the 2017 recipient of the CEE James Moffett Memorial Award for Teacher Research.

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