Teacher's Corner: Getting to Know Your Students

The start of the school year can bring about feelings of exhaustion, apprehension, confusion, and difficulty for teachers and their students. I know for me the first two weeks of school always prove to be the hardest to get through. Apart from not knowing the names of the students sitting before me, I’m unaware of what their interests are, how they like to learn, what their work ethic is, or what past knowledge they possess. Curricular responsibilities, faculty meetings, and a host of other back to school tasks can often cloud up the first and most important order of business in any educational environment, getting to know who the students are. 

In past years I have issued interest-a-lyzers, or brief questionnaires intended to have the students reflect upon their own passions and interests, and in turn, allow a teacher to learn about them in an informal manner. You can read about this helpful method of questioning by visiting Student Interest on the University of Connecticut’s gifted website.  

Even though interest surveys have always worked very well, I decided to do something different to start the year. I would like to pass along the idea to you. I call the assignment The NPR Interview, as it presents a simulated interview conducted by a host of one of NPR’s shows. I have been using podcast recordings and associated transcripts for years in my science classes, mainly as a vehicle for assessing student progress on a long term projects, so it was easy to adapt into an introductory assignment. There is a link to the document pdf at the end of this column, but first let us look at the basics. 

I like to preface the lesson with time spent listening to a NPR podcast. There is a great variety of programs to listen to and by downloading a transcript of the interview you can offer students a chance to see the text of it, which comes in handy when they begin to answer the mock questions on the template transcript used in class. Begin by accessing the NPR Podcast Directory. Simply click on one to listen and use the transcript link to access the pdf.  

Once the students have listened to a podcast and viewed a transcript they are ready to start work on their own interest interview form. It is easy to create your own. I start by copying and pasting the logo from NPR and the associated show into a word document. Then, I construct a series of opened-ended and follow up questions asked by the host of the program. Each question is followed by a series of blank lines intended for the student to write in their responses. More advanced interviews can include callers to the show and offer a chance to change the topic a bit. I usually close the document with a copied disclaimer from the printed template of an NPR interview.

Once completed, finished forms are collected and read, with suggestions and feedback offered individually. You could also utilize Google Forms to create an online system for responses. I have also used this transcript as a way for students to conduct interviews with each other, with one student taking on the role of the host, and the student answering his/her questions.  

Never have I received such insight into my student’s progress on an assignment.  I did not have the time to sit and conduct a lengthy interview with each and every student, and this method provided me with a wealth of information all at once. I was even able to infuse some instruction about the skills related to interviewing during the introduction of the lesson. 

I have come to realize that by using an interest form such as the mock NPR interview, one can assure a great start to the school year, with an enthusiastic outlook for both the teacher and the student, who will, at the very least, feel understood.

Be sure to check out the NPR Interest Survey template, which uses the show Fresh Air as a vehicle for interest exploration.  Feel free to edit and use for your educational setting.