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Getting to Know My Students – My Most Important Research Project

By Alycia Zimmerman on August 22, 2012
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

On the first day of school, I begin with a list of names, some vague hunches, and a stomach full of butterflies. Over the next few weeks, my most important job is becoming a first-class expert on the 28 little strangers in my class – learning how to motivate them, discovering their personal passions, and understanding their prior academic and personal experiences. You might call this formative assessment, but for me this getting-to-know-you process feels much richer. Here’s a look at four of the ways I “research” my students, from parent questionnaires to student essays.


Going Straight to the Source – Parent Questionnaires

I like to send home a family questionnaire, either during the first week of school or even better, over the summer. This questionnaire is useful, both for learning about my students through their parents’ eyes, and in beginning to unravel the intricacies of their home lives. To be honest, I learn at least as much about my students’ parents as I do about my students from these questionnaires – and this information provides important insights about how to build strong parent partnerships.

I like to give families two options for filling in the questionnaire. I print out this version (attached here as a PDF) for parents who would prefer to handwrite their responses. Alternatively, I email this version (attached here as a word document) for parents who would prefer to type their responses. The e-form version has text fields that expand.


From the Horse’s Mouth – Student Letters of Introduction

For their first homework assignment, I always ask my students to write me a letter telling me all about themselves. I share a letter that I’ve written to the class about myself to give them some ideas and to emphasize that sharing goes in both directions. I make sure to let my students know that I really want to learn about them so that I can best help them learn this school year.

Download a copy of my letter writing assignment.

In addition to loose-leaf paper, I like to give my students other choices of lined paper for this assignment. Even with a small gesture like providing stationary choices, I am letting my students know that I value them as individuals. Here are some sample stationary templates from The Big Book of Classroom Stationary.

Stationary Choice 1

Stationary Choice 2

Stationary Choice 3


Decorate your Door with Personal Pizzazz

My dad always told me that first impressions are important, so I take the time to decorate the door to my classroom with some extra flair. I want the door to be welcoming, to let everyone know that this is the entrance to a serious academic realm, and to deliver the clear message that this is my students’ classroom and their thoughts matter. 

In keeping with my door-decorating ethos, I try to put another bit of my students’ all-about-me writing on our door.  Not only is this yet another chance for me to learn more about my students, it gives them a chance to share more about themselves publicly with the school community.

For my college-themed door, I had each of my students write about their five, ten, and twenty year plans. Their parents particularly enjoyed reading the plans when they visited school. You can download a PDF with my speech bubble writing templates here.


“Three Points of View on Me” – A Multiple Perspective Essay Project

While I am learning all about my students, I want my students to discover a bit more about themselves too. I guide them through the writing of their very first highly-structured essay. They begin by writing a simple paragraph about themselves, focusing on their personality, talents, and feelings. Then they ask a friend and a family member to each write a profile about the student on a template like this one. (Template reprinted from Persuasive Writing by Tara McCarthy.)

Many of my beginning third graders are unaccustomed to the idea of multiple perspectives, and they are surprised to learn about how their friends and families see them. I ask them to write paragraphs reflecting on what their friend and family member wrote, sharing what they agree with, what surprised them, and what they feel is plain wrong. With a simple introduction and conclusion, my students have a successful essay writing experience, and they have begun to tackle the challenging concept of point-of-view, a recurring theme throughout our school year.

To “illustrate” their published essay, the students create personality trait word clouds using the free web-based program Tagxedo. They plan their word cloud using this outline (PDF) and follow the directions to build and customize their artwork.

Katie chose the colors and fonts when she created this personality trait word cloud.


Let the Research Continue …

Even with the many “getting to know you” activities I plan at the beginning of the school year, this is really a year-long process for me. Here are even more ideas for learning about your students inside and out.

  • Every student can be a successful writer with the Six Word Memoir. In her blog post, Christy Crawford walks you through the steps for this creative and easy tech/literacy project.
  • Check out my “What’s in a Name” mini unit that I blogged about last year. I love using this project to introduce my students to research while they learn about a very close-to-home topic – their name!
  • Use a ready-made All About Me template when you have a few extra minutes to fill during the first days of school. Try this Newspaper Template from Scholastic's Printables for a quick writing activity.

What activities and projects do you use to get to know your students? Please share your ideas and suggestions in the comments area below!

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