I ask big things of my students every single day. I ask them to think deeply. I ask them to stretch themselves in ways they have never done before. I ask them to take intellectual risks and to make mistakes and be OK with that. That is a lot to ask of an 11 year old. If they are going to trust me enough to do what I ask, they have to believe deep down in their being that I really care about them. Individually, not just collectively. That means I need to get to know each of them pretty well, pretty fast.
I want to know them in a lot of different ways. I want to know what they know. I want to know who they are. I want to know how they feel about math. I want to know how they work with other kids. I want to know how organized they are. I want to know what kind of work ethic they have. I want to know all about them.
On the first day of school, sixth graders are completely overwhelmed. It is all that they can do to find their way to six different classes in a new school. They are thrown together with kids from a bunch of different elementary schools so they don’t know about three quarters of the kids in the room. They are managing a locker and a backpack for the first time in their lives. Most of them are so nervous about using the locker (will they be able to get the lock open, will they have time to go to their locker during passing period, will they remember all the right stuff for their class) that they carry their entire lives around with them in their backpacks. They walk around, bowed over like the Hunchback of Notre Dame from the weight of the foty pounds of stuff they are carrying.
To begin the process of getting to know them and to have them get to know one another, I have them make portfolios that will be used to collect major assignments for the course of the year. The portfolio is nothing more than a large piece of construction paper folded to form a file folder. On the front of the portfolio, students create a circle map about themselves.
A circle map is a graphic organizer that is used to define something in context. The inner circle is the topic being defined, the space between the inner circle and the outer circle defines the topic. The space between the outer circle and the rectangle is the frame of reference for the definition. Students at our school use circle maps for academic purposes in all of their classes. This is an easy way to teach them how to make one while also getting to know them.
After I show students the basics of a circle map, I make one about myself as way of introduction. I try to put things in my circle map that tell them a little bit about me and to which they might relate. I am somewhat intentional in including things that were challenges in my circle map. I want them to see that everyone faces challenges and that the important thing is not the challenge, but how one responds to the challenge.
As students begin to make their own circle maps, it is a chance for them to share things about themselves in a creative way. As they work in their table groups, they talk about what they are including and they begin to get to know one another. When they turn in the finished circle map the next day (I let them finish them at home so they can add photos if they want), I have a concrete artifact to which I can refer to help me get to know the whole person and not just the kid sitting in my math class. It also gives me glimpses into their family culture and value system that help me to better understand them.