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Getting to Know Your Students

"Well the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry anymore." — Robert Hunter, Musician

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 are the hardest to get through. Apart from not knowing the names of the students sitting before me, I'm unaware of their interests, how they like to learn, their work ethic, or what prior knowledge they possess. Curricular responsibilities, faculty meetings, and a host of other back-to-school tasks can often cloud the first and most important order of business in any educational environment — getting to know the students.

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

Even though interest surveys have worked very well, I decided to do something different this year. I call the assignment "The NPR Interview," as it presents a simulated interview conducted by a host of one of the National Public Radio 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 long-term projects, so it was easy to adapt into an introductory assignment.

I like to preface the lesson with time spent listening to a NPR podcast. There is a great variety of programs available. The transcript of the interview offers students a chance to follow along with the text, which comes in handy when they begin to answer the mock questions on the template transcript. Visit the NPR Podcast Directory and you can click on a session to listen and download the transcript.

Once the students have listened to a podcast and viewed a transcript they are ready to start the interest interview form. It is easy to create your own. I start by constructing a series of opened-ended and follow-up questions asked by the host of the program. Each question is followed by blank lines on which the student write 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. You can view my example of a mock Science Friday interview with Ira Flato here.

Finished forms are collected and read, with suggestions and feedback offered individually. I also have 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 a project. I did not have the time to sit and conduct a lengthy interview with each student; this strategy provided a wealth of information all at once. I was even able to infuse some instruction about interviewing skills during the introduction of the lesson.

Click here for my new podcast template, which uses the show Fresh Air as a vehicle for interest exploration. A great start to the school year begins with an enthusiastic outlook, for the teacher and the student, who will, at the very least, feel understood.