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As an educator, you are a community builder. From day one, you getting to know your students on a relational level. It’s often in the little things, like sending an email the first time they miss a virtual class session. It’s what happens when you give them opportunities to pursue their interests and chase their curiosity. As the community builder, you also set the tone for the class culture by facilitating the creation of classroom norms and procedures. On a daily level, you set the tone with your approach to classroom management and in subtle things like language and tone and the sense of humor you bring to the community. You also help teams solve problems and resolve conflict during collaborative work. You find creative ways to develop trust and create a sense of presence for the whole community.

Community building also requires us to know our students at an individual level. In today’s article, I share five ways we can get to know students at the start of the school year.

That group of strangers will become a tight community5 Ways to Get to Know Students

When I taught middle school, I used to begin the first week of school with a History of Me project. I wanted my students to feel known and it seemed like a personal narrative was a great starting place. However, after the second year of teaching, I began to realize that my lesson wasn’t trauma sensitive.

Not every student feels safe sharing their story. Starting with a personal biography can create situations where students must re-live trauma or even experience PTSD. In addition, some students are processing shame connected to their past. While vulnerability is important, it can take months to develop trust as a community. Furthermore, some students don’t feel safe sharing aspects of their identity. This is especially true for certain members of the LGTBT+ community.

However, as teachers, we want to get to know our students. We want them to feel known and respected. This first week can be an opportunity to honor their agency as learners. So, where do we start? One idea is to focus on geeky interests. Everyone has geeky interests and sharing geeky interests allow students to share something personal without centering it on their story or their identity. You can also honor their agency by empowering students to own the creative process. Here, you affirm their creative voice from day one. Similarly, when they own the inquiry process, you are affirming their natural curiosity. The following are a few activities and mini-projects that build on these ideas.

1. Do a quick survey.

There are so many different options for student surveys. You might do an interest inventory, where they rate their interest in certain topics you will cover in class. They might share ideas of topics they like, novels they’ve read, t.v. shows they watch, video games they play, or music they listen to. You might ask students about communication preferences. How often do they want you to email them and do a check-in? Do they prefer videos or text-based instructions? In some cases, you might ask questions about their workspace or technology to help provide additional resources.

While the survey is a one-on-one form of communication, you can create spaces where students share their interests with their peers. The following is a prompt I use:

What are your favorite songs? What's your anthem? What makes you feel nostalgic? What is a song people would be surprised you like?Each student shares their anthem, a song that feels nostalgic, and a song that people would be surprised that they enjoy.

The following are some items you might put on a survey at an upper elementary, middle school, or high school level:

  • Preferred name (you might also have students video or audio record their names so you can learn the pronunciations)
  • Preferred pronouns with the teacher
  • Preferred pronouns with classmates
  • Caregivers’ email address (often, students have an informal caregiver like a brother or sister who might not be listed on the forms in the office)
  • What is your favorite subject in school?
  • How do you learn best?  (Example: quiet, alone, in groups, with visuals, etc.)
  • What is one thing that your teacher should know about you?
  • Do you have any hobbies?  What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
  • What is the best way to train a unicorn?
  • What is one of the biggest challenges that you have faced and overcome?
  • What is your favorite activity at school?
  • What was your best memory from this last year?
  • Fill in the blank: School is a ____________ and I am a ________________

Note that students can fill out as many of the lines as they want. We can honor their agency by allowing students to decide how much they want to share about themselves.

2. Learn each student’s geeky interests with a show and tell.

When the quarantine first began, I want to create a situation where students could share their geeky interests while also processing healthy ways of dealing with social isolation. I began our class video conference with the following prompt:

I then gave students 90 seconds to find an item of their choosing. When that was done, I called on each student using a randomizer and asked students to explain their object. I timed each student for one minute and all twenty-five students had a chance to share their item.

At first, I was nervous about this. After all, these were graduate students in their final course. However, it was awesome. One student grabbed a guitar and played a few riffs for us. Another student grabbed a giant mixer (she probably could have moved her laptop instead) and then explained what it was like to rekindle her love of baking by doing recipes alongside her grandmother using FaceTime. Still, another described getting into painting for the first time ever.

This was also a continuation of something I used to do when I taught middle school. For years, I would take the first Friday of school and have students share an item that represents their geeky interest. They had 5 minutes to describe the item in a small group before later doing a shorter “speed dating” version with an inside circle and an outside circle. This led into our Geek Out Blogs.

Geek Out Blogs are another version of a Genius Hour Project. Based on Google concept of 20% Time, the goal of Genius Hour is to provide students with 20% of their class time to learn what they want. They choose the content while also mastering skills and hitting the academic standards.

With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey. They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditionally academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep sea creatures. They can then match these topics with topic-neutral standards. Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups. In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world.

Geek Out Blogs begin with these questions:

  1. What do you really care about? Why?
  2. What is something that you’re passionate about?
  3. What is something you know inside and out?
  4. What are some things you believe deeply in? What are some convictions you have about life?
  5. What are your hobbies? What do you enjoy doing?
  6. If you could create a class from scratch, what would it be?

I explained that geekiness is a passion, interest, enjoyment and often convictions about a particular topic. I then gave them stems they could use:

  • Seven Reasons Why __________
  • Seven Ways to _________
  • Seven Things to Know About ___________
  • Seven Best _____________
  • The Seven (Adjective) _________ in ____________

They were all over the place. A girl chose Korean pop music while the girl next to her delved into issues of immigration. A boy across the room  chose Minecraft while the kid next to him gave seven amazing reasons why zombies would make great pets. A few kids wrote about their lives, their families or their cultures.

We ended up getting into digital citizenship and digital ethics. We started our blogs and added multimedia elements. We got into visual design and the do’s and don’ts of slideshows (yes, I have them create Keynotes even if that’s considered uncool these days). They learned about copyright and Creative Commons and developed a set of digital ethics in the process.

3. Learn each student’s creative process with a hands-on maker project.

Here’s a small example of a rapid prototyping maker project:

Here’s another option that starts with a scavenger hunt.

Step One: Do a scavenger hunt

Scavenger hunt: you have three minutes to find somehting flat, something round, something sticky

During this phase, students are gathering items from around the classroom in a scavenger hunt. This brainstorming phase is often hands-on. Students might work individually or in a breakout room in the video chat.

Step Two: Students analyze their ideas, combine any that seem similar, and scratch out any that you want to abandon. They might also mash-up any unrelated ideas that might work well together.

Step Three: Students choose one main idea from the list and make a product with it. You might provide a specific time constraint to push their divergent thinking even more.

Step Four: Students go through multiple iterations until their product is done.

Step Five: Students create a video demonstrating how their product works and an explanation of their ideal audience.

4. Ask students what they want to learn with a student leadership team.

Collectively, we can honor student agency by bringing students into the planning and decision-making process. One way to do this is with optional student leadership teams. Think of it as a planning session with your students rather than your colleagues. The process is entirely democratic. Any student is welcome in the leadership team meetings and every student has an equal voice. In some cases, you might even invite a single student from each meeting to attend departmental or team planning sessions.

These meetings can take place before or after school or during a prep period. However, if you have time for it, you can invite the entire class to participate in this type of meeting once or twice a month. If you teach self-contained (all subjects with one group of students) you might launch into this during whole class time in the first or second week of school. You might actually do your first democratic meeting by having students complete the procedure grid or negotiate classroom norms.

Sample Agenda


  • Quick individual check-in: Each student says one high, one low, and one random fact about themselves.

Current Feedback

  • Open feedback on what is going well in the current projects: You might ask specific questions about policies, practices, or lessons. For example, “What is going well with student collaboration?” or “What was your favorite mini-project?” Or, you can keep it open-ended with a question like, “What has been your favorite part of the course so far?”
  • Open feedback on what could be improved: Again, this might be specific, with a question like, “How can we improve the course design?” or “What would you have changed about our last virtual meeting?”

Generating Ideas

  • Set the stage: Explain what the upcoming unit(s) will be. You might need to begin by showing them the curriculum map and having students look at the standards, skills, and topics.
  • Research ideas: Give students the chance to look online for examples of projects that align to the curriculum.
  • Share ideas: In this phase, each group member shares project ideas that they have. To avoid judgment, you might just solicit ideas without getting feedback.

Narrowing Down

  • Ask for feedback on an idea: Here, you might share an idea of something you would like to try with your students. It might be a project or a unit plan. Or, it might be a strategy or a new policy.
  • Summarize and clarify: In this last phase, you summarize key ideas and allow for any clarifications that might be necessary.
  • Decision-making: This is optional, but you might want to make some decisions collectively as a group.


  • Come up with any next steps.
  • Ask students to reflect on the process.


5. Tap into each student’s sense of wonder with a Curiositycast

Students can own their curiosity when we embrace a philosophy of inquiry-based learning.

One way is through a Wonder Day Project.

You can build on this with a Curiositycast.

Step 1: Students begin with a topic. It might be connected to a particular theme or unit of study. However, it might simply be a random topic they choose. In a history class, students might ask questions about the Mayan civilization or they might choose a random topic in history, such as the history of skateboarding or the history of trap music. In science, they might choose a subtopic about weather or they might simply ask any big science questions. Individually, students generate the topic on their own and add it to a shared document. When duplicate topics emerge, students then have the opportunity to work in pairs or small groups (no larger than four). Ultimately, they get to decide on the grouping and on the topic.

Step 2: Students generate a set of research questions connected to their topic. As a teacher, you can provide them with research sentence frames. You might include this on a slideshow or in a shared document that they can copy and paste.

Step 3: Students provide feedback on one another’s questions. Students are looking for the following:

  • This question is specific
  • This question is on-topic
  • This question will allow you to find facts rather than just opinions

The method of feedback can vary depending on the technology and the grouping. If it’s a blended classroom, they might provide feedback in-person. If they’re working remotely, they can choose between leaving feedback as comments asynchronously on a shared document, recorded video feedback, or in an email. They can also give feedback synchronously with a phone call, a walkie-talkie app, or a video conference.

Step 4: Students engage in online research. The beautiful part of working remotely is students can read at their own pace and they’re not tied to a tight class schedule. However, this also means you might have to create some accountability, so you might ask students to find at least 5 facts or answer at least two of their questions.

In this research phase, students can organize their information in whatever style works best for them. They might use a spreadsheet, a table, a set of note cards, or create a sketchnote.

Step 5: Students share their information with a partner or small group. This works well as a video conference, with teachers clarifying expectations and then asking students to move into breakout rooms. However, a quicker option might be a simple email update or a comment on the class LMS. If students are working individually, this is an opportunity to share their findings with someone who has had no background knowledge. It often, leads to better research in the second day. If students are working in teams, it’s an opportunity to share their findings and expand their knowledge as a group.

Step 6: Students go in-depth in research for a second or even third day. The goal is to develop a rich understanding of the topic. You might ask students to create concept maps, which they can do by hand or using an online app.

Step 7: Students share their work in a podcast. They can use a dedicated remote podcasting app (such as Zencastr) or create a video recording and then take the audio out afterward using an audio editor (such as Audacity). If the technology process seems too complicated, you might simply make it a vodcast and have students record their video chat.

If students are in a small group, they can stick to a single topic. If students worked individually, they can share their findings with a partner.

Sample outline: Individual option

  • Partner A and B both introduce their topic and explain why they chose them
  • Partner A introduces the questions and shares the research process
  • Partner B asks any clarifying questions that might guide the story
  • Partner A shares the answers as well as any fascinating facts
  • Partner A and B can have an open discussion about the findings, facts, and other questions they might have
  • Partner B introduces the questions and shares the research process
  • Partner A asks any clarifying questions that might guide the story
  • Partner B shares the answers as well as any fascinating facts
  • Partner B and A can have an open discussion about the findings, facts, and other questions they might have

Although this is a general outline, partners should feel the flexibility to modify this. Fourth or fifth grade students might need to stick to the outline more closely while college students or high level high school students might choose to create their own outline and move in a more free-flowing way.

Sample outline: Small group

  • The group shares their questions and each member talks about why they chose the topic
  • Each group shares what questions they asked and what answers they found
  • As they share their facts, other groups members can add additional facts or explanations. It should feel like a conversation
  • Each member shares one fascinating fact that surprised them
  • They end with each member either sharing a new question they have or why they think their findings matter

Again, the outline is meant to be flexible. If groups do subsequent Curiositycasts, it becomes an easier process.

These are just a few ideas. There are many different options that allow students to chase their curiosity and pursue their creativity. In the process, we can honor student agency and begin to build a classroom community from day one.

This blog post first appeared back in 2014 and I have continued to revise it and modify it each year.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • heidi swift says:

    This article is extremely helpful. I appreciate your advice, suggestions, and ideas. They will definitely help connect with students and help them connect to their own identity!

  • Marcelle Monchanin says:

    The information you present is clear, concise, and relevant…3 things all teachers need more of!

    I also love your statement: “My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.” This is a fantastic way to be!

    Kudos to you for taking the time to help educators such as myself. Your enthusiasm, even online, is contagious!

  • Mia Kleespies says:

    Thank you for providing such rich information! This blog has helped me think about and create new ways to learn about my students and I will definitely incorporate them in my classroom! I loved the idea of a show n’ tell! I have never heard of that idea until reading your blog, but it sounds like a fun way to learn more about your students and also a way for my students to learn about each other.

  • Skylar says:

    Hi Dr. Spencer!
    I wanted to say thank you for this post! I am currently in an educator preparation program and have been spending a lot of time thinking about what my first few days in my own classroom might look like. During my current observations at a local middle school, I am continually reminded of the importance of building real and genuine relationships with students on both an individual and collective level. The more I watch my mentor teacher teach, the more I come to understand that almost all effective learning that takes place in the classroom is built upon this foundational relationship between the teacher and students. One way for teachers to get to know their students that you suggested was to “Learn each student’s geeky interests with a show and tell.” This is something that I hope to try during my first year of teaching. I have never thought of doing a “show and tell” type activity for secondary school students, but the more I think about it and the more I speak with middle school students the more I realize that these students would still definitely enjoy this type of activity.

    Do you have any resources or posts about how to get to know students who are more reserved and seem to be less willing to engage in these types of activities? This is one area that I am hoping to learn more about before I have my own classroom next fall.

    Thank you again,


  • Amazing suggestions. Curiositycast seems an interesting pivot. I usually start with the classroom itself. For example, get the students to solve a crossword, paint something on the board, or simply write about something they love. It gets the activities rolling as whoever is interested in what can do it. And I get a good grasp of who each student is.

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