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New Teacher Diaries

Connecting with students’ values boosts learning

New York Teacher
Connecting with students

Some students become more engaged and productive when given the option to draw the key moments of their stories and plan their writing through images.

One of the most significant challenges I’ve faced as a first-year teacher has been figuring out how to connect with my students to help them learn more effectively.

In September and October, I approached my lessons for my 5th-grade integrated co-teaching class with a one-size-fits-all mentality. I planned lessons based on the curriculum and my own interests, without considering my students’ individual needs and values. My students were bored and disengaged, and at the end of the day, I felt defeated.

It wasn't until my experience with one particularly challenging student that I realized I needed to change my approach. Alex had a reputation for being difficult, disengaged and a bit of a troublemaker, but I still wanted to help him succeed.

In November, I had a one-on-one conversation with Alex and asked him what interested him. To my surprise, Alex had a keen interest in art. I decided to incorporate this interest into my lessons. For example, my students were working on writing narratives, and instead of using a generic graphic organizer, I gave the students the option to draw the key moments of their stories and plan their writing through images. Alex — and many of his classmates — became more eager to do their work.

The results were remarkable: Alex became more excited about learning and began to participate more in class. He was eager to share his ideas and perspectives, and I was thrilled to teach writing lessons in which the children were engaged and productive the entire time.

Over the winter, I made a point of having one-on-one conversations with all of my students during breakfast and in free moments. Having these talks helped me learn more about them, their preferences and what they love to do outside school.

I found out that many of my students wanted to move around the classroom, have projects and talk more with their peers. I began to incorporate more interactive and hands-on activities, provide more opportunities for collaboration and discussion, and give students more autonomy.

A breakthrough came on a day in February when the students lit up during a class discussion about issues happening right in their community. They wanted to share their stories about feeling unsafe on the streets. The conversation became a catalyst for real change in our classroom. We began to talk more about how to make sure our school is a safe place for everyone, and the students drafted ideas to share with the principal.

Being a teacher is not just about teaching academic content. It is also about developing a sense of purpose in our students. That happens when our students feel connected to the work they are doing and are able to see their own interests reflected in the lessons. Alex felt his writing was more purposeful when he had the chance to incorporate art, and other students began to feel a greater sense of purpose when they were able to share their stories.

When we as teachers take the time to get to know our students’ needs, interests and values, we create a learning environment that is more meaningful and relevant to their lives.

Mrs. Grace is a first-year teacher in a 5th-grade integrated co-teaching class in Queens.

Related Topics: New Teachers