Exercises to Get to Know Your Students Better and Increase Their Engagement

Honoring the individual identities of your high school and middle school students can help to strengthen connections between them and improve their academic performance.

Teachers are faced with a variety of challenges this school year, including fluctuating schedules and health regulations, which make it difficult for them to get to know their students.

“It’s difficult to get to understand your students through a Webcam,” tweeted @mark Bevacqua, while @cheri chorales expressed her dissatisfaction with seeing students “with only eyes” or wearing masks on her Twitter account.

The first week of school is traditionally reserved for activities that help students get to know one another. However, educators and researchers believe that this is not the only appropriate time for these activities.

It doesn’t matter if they are a baseball fan, have three siblings, or enjoy writing and photography as much as the next person. Recognizing and accepting your

students’ unique experiences can help you build connections

That way, they’ll stay connected and do better in school. A 2014 study by Angela Duckworth and David Yeager found that students with a greater sense of self and purpose are better at defining their goals and staying focused on them.

Interviews with teachers, online resources, and our archives were used to compile a collection of exercises for this project. These will assist students in developing self-awareness, a sense of purpose, and a sense of belonging. As a result of these insights, you will have a better understanding of your students and will be able to respond to their interests even if you are separated by computers screens.


In the early 2000s, educators from a high-poverty urban district in New Jersey assigned an essay assignment to middle and high school students. The assignment stated: “Write about the principles and values that guide you in your everyday life.”

“Laws of Life,” which appears to be a straightforward activity, is based on the work of John Templeton, according to Maurice Elias (a psychology professor at Rutgers University). It progressed to

larger project

that assisted students in developing a stronger sense of self, a sense of purpose, and a sense of possibility for their future Since then, the project has been replicated in various locations around the world.

Elias recommends that students take time to reflect on their lives, as well as the people and experiences that have influenced them. Once key characteristics have been identified, students can write an essay or create a video about the principles or laws that have had an impact on them.

Question prompts, such as “Who do you look up to? For example, students can use prompts such as “Name three admirable characteristics” or “Describe an event or incident in which you had to learn a lesson the hard way” to assist them. Students should refer to their essays regularly throughout the year to reflect on what they have written.

Exploring one’s own identity and one’s perceptions of one’s own identity: IDENTITY CHARTS IDENTITY CHARTS

For her students to better understand their own identities, middle school teacher Shana White devised a lesson plan. White began by explaining the concept of identity, including how it can be visible, such as age, but also invisible, such as a person’s past experiences, in some cases.

Later, White shared six photos of her faces with six of her friends, asking students to guess their “identity traits” based on the photos. A discussion about making assumptions about people based on their appearance or actions took place in class, and she was the moderator. Students created “identity portraits,” which were photographs of their faces, with half of the images depicting visible characteristics and the other half depicting invisible characteristics.

The book Facing History and Ourselves suggests a similar activity titled “Who am I?” in which participants must identify themselves. This is intended for students in the middle school grades. Begin by selecting a few historical or fictional figures to work with. Use a diverse range of people from a variety of backgrounds and ask students to discuss the “factors that have influenced their identities.” Be inclusive and avoid stereotyping (e.g. religion, gender, geography).

Following that, students should read the chapter “My Name” from the novel The House on Mango Street. Esperanza discusses her given name and her cultural background in this video. Esperanza’s personality chart should be created by the students. They will be asked questions such as “How is her family?” and “What is her personality?” “Can you tell us anything about her personality from her given name?”


Student inventories can be used by teachers to quickly identify details and facts about students, which can then be used to help them plan lessons and activities. Inquire students about their favorite songs, sports, games, foods, or musicians, and record them. Alternatively, you could ask them about their culture, family, and memories.

You can also ask students to write 20 sentences answering the prompt “I am someone who …” or ask a list of

the thought-provoking question in one-on-one Dreams and Hopes conferences.



Allison Berryhill taught high school English and literary analysis exercises made her students “frozen.” Free-writing assignments led to difficult-to-read rants. Berryhill was inspired by the book Above Literary Analysis and began offering a new exercise “passion blogging”. is where students can write about topics that are of interest to them.

make trailers

In the beginning, the students create “heat maps,” which are large, brightly colored hearts that contain illustrations and words that reflect their interests and passions. Following that, students select a few topics to further investigate and then search for articles and images that are related to those topics. Berryhill provides accompanying lessons on attribution, texts, quotes, and imagery, as well as mentor texts that students can use to improve their writing skills.

Bloggers from all over the world write about a diverse range of topics, including hunger strikes, pheasant hunting, hiking, and other activities. This gives them the chance to dig into what they are passionate about. As part of this process, students are required to read and evaluate blogs written by their classmates. In Berryhill’s opinion, the low-pressure activity helped her become better acquainted with her students as well as help them develop their literary analysis skills in preparation for more difficult assignments.


Many students and teachers experience a virtual brain drain as a result of this. Digital tools, on the other hand, can provide students with new creative outlets through which they can express themselves and their passions. Students are assigned to teachers.

Ask students questions that will help them understand who they are and what they want to become. For example, “What do you find most frustrating about the world?” or “What inspires and motivates you?”

Find patterns in student responses and use that information to create classroom lessons and activities that connected students’ interests. Rebecca Alber, an education prof in California, says: “Students must see connections between learning, their lived experiences, and the things they have learned.”

and record audio podcasts about their daily lives. The students are also asked to contribute articles to digital school newspapers that are related to the issues that they are passionate about.

Wendy McElfish, a high school teacher from California, was moved to action by the experiences of her students and colleagues during the pandemic in the United States. She gave a presentation on Dorothea Lange’s black-and-white photography from the Great Depression, which she had photographed herself. Her students then documented their own lives by snapping photos with their smartphones and sending them to her. The concepts of “life outside your doors,” “through a window,” “different lives inside,” and “porch photographs of your family” were taught to them by her.

She believes that when children are exposed to traumatic situations, it can be beneficial to use an artistic approach to help them cope. “A lot of kids aren’t good writers, but they have an eye, they have a voice… [and] they can show the world what they’ve seen,” says the author.

Lori Wenzinger (a middle-school social studies teacher from South Carolina) collaborated with a photographer to create “Finding Your Joy,” a multimedia project that was featured on the Discovery Channel.

The photographer had taught two classes on photo composition and mood, both of which were well received. Students were instructed to take photos that “capture joyous moments throughout their day,” share and discuss them as a class and choose their three favorite images to be saved in the class Google Drive as a reminder of their experience.

Have a good time: games, icebreakers, and compliments

Lessons and assignments can also include brief, engaging activities that keep students’ attention and provide insight into their personalities to keep them interested and engaged.

Trevor Boffone works as a high school English teacher in Texas. He asked his students to choose their favorite song and add it to a list that he created at the start of the school year. He is now introducing each virtual class with music that he has created. His picks are incorporated into his style and personality.

Cathleen Beachboard is a middle school teacher in Virginia who incorporates fun activities such as show-and-tell and theme days into her lessons through remote learning. She also instituted the practice of “Three Cool Things I’ve Seen” as part of her staff meetings. Every week, Beachboard selects three characteristics that she has noticed about students in her classes and recognizes them as being distinct from one another.

“I’m aware that many teachers are having difficulty enrolling students right now. Students are more likely to take on more responsibility, according to her, if they receive genuine encouragement and praise. We are living in difficult times. Students, on the other hand, will feel more secure and prepared to learn if they are allowed to express themselves.