Before developing unit plans, I like to get to know my students. Because class sizes are so incredibly large (I have classes ranging from a modest 22 to a hulking 36 students), it is impossible to hold individual conferences without chaos ensuing between the other 35 students, so I get to know my students through their work.
There are a few ways to do this — journals, essays, projects, classroom discussions — I like to do a little bit of everything in order to see which mode fits my students best. Now that I am a collaborative teacher, I have to make sure these activities work for both myself and my team teacher.
One of the assignments we came up with was an introductory narrative essay. There have been three prompts over the last two years: “What three songs are your most favorite and why?” “What three songs define your personality best and why?” and “What are the three most important things to you and why?”
These questions purposely set up a five-paragraph essay in order to test students’ initial writing ability, as well as whether they, without prompted, follow a structured five-paragraph style or create their own unique structure. From a teacher’s point-of-view, this assignment works because it gives initial writing data as well as a peek into the lives of students.
From this one essay assignment, I can create a standards-based writing unit that begins where my students are in their writing. I can also create topics that pique my students’ interests, as those topics are pulled from their own essays. And, finally, I can begin to chip away at the wall students initially put up when they walk into my class, and get to know who they are, however complicated they may be.
Why should I get to know my students before I teach them? Well, while I have standards I’m forced to follow, I do not believe my students can be standardized — no one can. However, by getting to know my students, I can better create lessons that teach to their individual needs. To me, that’s teaching social justice and doing justice by my kids.
Another way to learn about my students is through compiling a “Personal Legend Project.” Originally developed by a colleague, Dana Richardson, to accompany The Alchemist, this project allows students to look at themselves and their futures, as well as learn about different ways to use technology to present information. Here is a link to the project assignment and rubric: Personal Legend Project.
About 18 months ago, when my position at Athens Community Career Academy dissolved due to funding (which prompted my change from English teacher to Special Education collaborative teacher), I assigned this project to all my classes. I presented mine first, to give them an idea of what they could do, but I told them to run with it:
Jennifer Whitley’s Personal Legend Example
Many things have changed since then, but my personal legend has not. As you can see from my example, these are meant to be personal, but students could share as much (or as little) information they wanted. Here are some student samples:
**For some of my classes, I also had them do a brief culture study and relate it to them as well, as you can see in Chris’s project. Here is Ivey’s culture study (which derives from her own heritage):
These are only a few examples of the hundreds I’ve received over the years, but you get the idea — not only does this project allow students to research their own goals and interests, but it also give me, the teacher, an idea of what is going on in their heads and what makes them unique in their own right.
So, when lesson planning, I encourage you to look at your students as individuals — which I’m sure you already do — and teach them that way. In a world haunted by standardization, test scores and scholastic funding, it is easy to forget we are teaching humans, not statistics, but when we attach a face, life details and personal legends to those names, we begin to teach social justice and with a critical lens.