Getting to Know Each Other
Strategies and Activities for Beginning a New School Year
During the first days of school, getting to know students is critical for educators. Of prime importance is attaching names to faces. Teachers can have up to six or seven classes of students, with some students having the same name, and all expecting to be recognized as individuals. Remembering a student’s name is the first step in building a relationship that can make a year successful.
Learning something about each student’s biography, interests, or achievements can be just as important. Details, especially those that students consider defining, round out a teacher’s initial impressions and aid in name learning. In addition to the start of the school year, the start of a new semester provides a logical opportunity to update student information. Students change. Just because Phil liked SpongeBob in September doesn’t mean he still does in January.
Below are some aids and activities to help teachers learn student names and to help students learn their classmates’ names in the busy first days of school.
Having a photograph with a name goes a long way in speeding the process. Attaching student photos to seating charts will help the regular classroom teacher connect names to faces during the first days of school and substitute teachers during the rest of the year. For a sub, knowing a name trumps “you” any day.
If you send a letter to your incoming students during the summer, you can ask them to bring a small photograph on the first day of school. Students can grow over the summer so last year’s school photos are not always the best choice. A recent snapshot works.
Alternatively, you can make photo-taking part of the opening day’s activities. Digital cameras make photography easier, faster, and cheaper. Having students photograph each other makes the process seem less like a police booking, though this might not be sensible with the youngest students.
For a non-departmentalized classroom, a student card with a photo (a copy will do) and notes of observations during the year makes sense, though such a scheme can become burdensome when teaching more than a class or two.
In a departmentalized setting, homeroom teachers can help subject teachers by providing copies of photos, though photo-taking can become part of the getting-to-know-you process in all classes.
Other Aids for Learning Names
Other aids for learning student names include name cards (make sure they are large enough to be read across the room), desk cards, class passports (with a photo and information), and dividing the class into smaller teams.
You can become familiar with the class list before the start of school, ask students to give their names when asking or answering questions, and play different variations of the name game.
Admitting and dismissing students only after using their names will also help you connect names to faces. For the tech-savvy teacher, flashcard apps can be used. Include a photo, name, and notes and quiz yourself.
Some schools post large photos for each student in the corridors near homerooms.
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Many of the preceding activities and aids will help students learn each other’s names as well. Primary students, especially, may not know any of their classmates when the year begins, and it’s not unusual to discover that some students don’t know all their classmate’s names long after you do. As students progress through grades, this is less likely.
Projects and Activities for Students
Primary students can interview one another and decorate the classroom with posters including biographical information and portraits or illustrations of relevant biographical details.
Each student can present an assigned classmate and everyone, including the teacher, can hear the information in addition to reading it when it’s posted. An advantage to students presenting each other is that no student needs to talk about themselves, an act hard for some and all too easy for others.
As a follow-up activity to the presentations and interviews, students can work with a partner to make classmate flashcards and quiz each other, or, fun quizzes can have students match classmate names and biographical facts or interests.
Teachers can help students get to know each other by assigning small group projects and activities in subject areas. Mixing up the groups during the first weeks will give students a chance to work with all their classmates.
Older students can conduct, write up, and present more extensive interviews. Introducing a fellow student can serve as a warm-up oral presentation, and the written product is an indication of writing skills.
Classes can build presentations for Open House using PowerPoint, or even better Prezi, which can combine words, images, and videos. Prezi allows the presenter to zoom in and out to emphasize or to provide the big picture. For an example of how effective Prezi can be, see James Geary’s TED lecture on metaphor. Students 13-18 years old can use Prezi with the consent of a parent (or other guardian), teacher, or school. Completing a class project like this guarantees teachers and students will remember names and faces and learn something of each other.
All these activities reinforce identity. No one wants to be just another face in a crowd, and with some effort and some fun they won’t be.
About the Author
Phil Nast taught his Ohio sixth graders all subjects, though his favorite periods were language arts and social studies. Two of his language arts classes staged versions of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One year, his social studies students covered the classroom walls with glyphs from Mayan ruins. Nast has been a freelance writer for educational projects in print and on the web. He has an MFA and has been published in obscure poetry magazines.