Saturday, August 24, 2013

Getting To Know My New Group of Students

Apologies for the unexpected blog break. You’d think after eighteen years of teaching I would remember what the first week of school is like. Nope. Fast paced, exhausting, and thrilling would be three ways to describe the past week. I alternated between moments where I tried desperately to remember each students’ name to times where I looked up during independent reading feeling like we had been together for months. The first week back, there is nothing like it.

Trying to get to know my students quickly is always a challenge. When I was self-contained, I felt like I had a good grasp on who my students were in a few weeks. Several years ago we moved to semi-departmentalization and I rotated with two other classes. Trying to get to know three groups was much more difficult. This year our class sizes are even higher – and eighty students concerned me.

What I decided to try this year was reaching out to all of the parents on the first day. Usually I had the parents of my homeroom students write me a note about their child – I asked for any information they would like to share that would help me be the best teacher for their child. I’ve done this for several years; ever since reading Lucy Calkins book Raising Lifelong Learners: A Parent’s Guide. (Side note – love this book as a teacher and a parent.) This year I asked all three classrooms of parents to write me. The emails I have been receiving in return are beautiful. There is no way I could have learned this information within the first week. Some insights I doubt I would have gleaned in a year’s time. An added benefit, I feel like I’ve established a connection with many parents without even meeting them face-to-face yet. (Our Parent Night is next week.)

Coupled with the parent letter, I asked the three classes to fill out a questionnaire for me. In it are your typical questions at back to school time:
·      Tell me three things I need to know about you.
·      What are you most proud of?
·      What is the best book you’ve read?
·      Favorite Author?
·      What is the best thing you have written?
·      Who is a writer you admire?
And so on. With the twenty questions I have learned a lot about these new students of mine.

Last night I sat reading each questionnaire. Since it was lengthy, I didn’t have an easy way to copy it into Evernote. I wanted to have a record of the information in my students’ Evernote notebooks that I use. I had already emailed their parents letters to each individual notebook so I could refer back to them throughout the year. I’ve decided to take the time to type up some of their answers and my own reflection into a new note in their Evernote notebooks. At the top of that note I have written the following sentence:

Recommend ­­­­                                    to them.

After reading through their questionnaire – and reading the letter from their parents – I’m putting a lot of thought into the books they might enjoy. At the top of their note I’m placing titles I think they might like. This way as I conference next week I have some good book recommendations to share with them.

As I read through just the first twenty questionnaires last night I alternated between laughing and crying. Some of these kids are funny, and it comes through in their writing. Some have shared sad parts of their lives, and my heart breaks for them already. And then I read my last one of the night.

This is a student I’ve known of since preschool, they were in class with my son. I know the life is not always an easy one. The first response that made me smile was to “How do you think 5th grade will be?”

AWESOME!!!! Was written two inches high across the page.

To the question of what they knew about me already, the following was written:

She loves to read, loves books. She is nice to us. And I love listening to her read.

Heart melts just a bit.

The one that really made me tear up was this. To the question of “Which writer do you admire?” The response was: You.

I had shared with the students that I’d love to write a book. That I had this blog, that I write for Choice Literacy, and planned on trying to write a book through this school year, but was afraid. Her response let me know that she heard me. So grateful for that act of kindness.

And so I sit today. Reading through sixty more questionnaires. Typing more information into Evernote. With each piece, one more students shares a bit more. It is time consuming work, but so worth it.