One of our primary tasks as teachers is to create engaging learning opportunities so that every student feels as if you have designed learning specifically with them in mind. Students who feel acknowledge, seen, heard, respected, and cared for will engage with learning in ways we might never have imagined. When students know we have invested ourselves in the process of designing learning that is tailored to their unique life experiences, we are more likely to captivate their interests because they know we have spent time preparing extraordinary learning journeys unique to each and every one of them.
HEARTS before Heads
One of my favorite activities for connecting learning to students' lives was created by Dr. Lindsay Portnoy, author of the book Designed to Learn. In this activity, teachers invite students to share important details about their lives so that you and your students can learn more about each other. The wonderful thing about this process is that it has the potential to help build strong classroom connections as well as provide you with helpful information that can be used to tailor learning activities to each student's unique needs and lived experiences. In this process of self-exploration, Dr. Portnoy provides "a visual sketchnote as the prompt when asking learners about their lived experiences in order to connect each dynamic individual to the exciting learning" she has designed for them:
In my classroom, we complete this activity together at the beginning of every new school year, and it's purpose is deep and wide. Students complete this reflective process digitally using a mini Google Slides deck, then they share it with me, and I also share my own completed graphic organizer with them via the Google Classroom assignment, too. We usually spend a full class period completing the organizer and a second class period discussing the impact of this process and sharing our stories with one another. This kind of relationship-building at the beginning of the school year is foundational to designing a culture of inclusivity and belonging that has the potential to transform the way kids see learning and one another.
Click on the links below to download the digital activity template or a printable copy, if you'd prefer to complete the activity with students on paper:
This process not only allows me to create deeply personal connections with my students, but it also allows me to find ways to creatively design unique learning experiences that invite students to tap into their own lives. It also gives students a place to look for ideas when they are asked to write or create in my classroom. This tool is a living document that students can add to, take away from, and that I can tap into all year long when striving to create engaging new learning experiences for students!
Check out Dr. Portnoy's fantastic book Designed to Learn: Using Design Thinking to Bring Purpose and Passion to the Classroom and "learn to support students as they implement five elements of design thinking: understand and empathize, identify and research, communicate to ideate, prototype and test, and iterate and reflect."