I follow a number of educational blogs regularly (Tricia Ebarvia, Moving Writers, and Three Teachers Talk just to name a few) and have gained phenomenal ideas, fantastic models, and vetted best practices that I employ with success. Most recently, Amy Rasmussen of Three Teachers Talk authored a post that absolutely changed my classroom and my first day activities. She described having students write a Personal User Manual: precisely the writing that establishes classroom community. I share a piece of myself with students, and they share pieces of themselves with me.
I created this quick set of directions, using the mentor text Rasmussen referenced: Abby Falik’s Personal User Manual on LinkedIn. Since I have students complete a Reading History at another point in the year, I remained faithful to Falik’s categories, saving questions about favorite books and reading habits for later. I asked students to write about:
- Their style
- What they value
- What they don’t have patience for
- What they do in their spare time
- Qualities they look for in a teacher
- What they’re passionate about
- One BIG question they have for this year
- Their strengths
- What success at the end of the year looks like for them
- How to best communicate with them
- What people misunderstand about them
- How to help them
I gave them a copy of my Personal User Manual to refer to both as an example and so they would learn a bit about me. Then, I gave students the weekend to collect their ideas and commit them to paper. The responses were enlightening.
This student chose to place small sketches in the margins of her work (an artist!) and asked a question that absolutely floored me: “What does it mean to grow up and how do you do it without letting go of childhood?”
Wow. This is where I began to feel really inadequate.
This student’s idea of success is something that we can all learn from:
This student’s touching response talks about the importance of family and her love for her brother:
I can’t help but smile at the voice that shines through here (and is strong throughout the rest of her piece):
This student was so open and honest from the start – this is his opening from the “My Style” section – and we had been acquainted with each other for a total of an hour and half when he turned this is:
But my favorite of all would have to be this response – both for the voice and the witty way in which this student conveyed ideas. This is from the “What I don’t have patience for” section:
This student took creative risks that paid off because the assignment allowed for and encouraged it. The informal tone allowed her to express herself fully and I learned more about my students from this one assignment than I have from any assignment EVER over the course of my teaching career.
If you think those examples are good – wait for this “mind-blown” moment I’m about to drop on you: every one of my students turned the Personal User Manual in on time. You read that right. That sentence above was not a series of typos in italics. I will repeat: EVERY SINGLE STUDENT TURNED THE ASSIGNMENT IN ON TIME. They WANTED to write this!
I know it’s past the beginning of the year for most of us, and we’ve moved past introductory activities. However, this assignment is so revealing that it may be the single best thing you do this year. In fact, you probably want to stop whatever you’re doing and plan this in for next week.
It’s worth it. I promise.