Sean Slade

The Unknown Students

How well do you know your students? How well do you know each student? Many schools use the following activity or something similar as part of professional development.

Step 1: Arrange all the students' names by either year level or in the whole school, depending on size of the school, onto a large wall.

Step 2: Give all of the adults a Post-It note and ask them to stick it next to each student they "know." Knowing can include knowing what sports the students play, what their interests are, or how many brothers and sisters they have—in short, knowing each student as a person.

Step 3: Step back and look at the wall. What do you see?

What typically happens is that there is somewhat of a bell curve represented across the wall. Then there is silence as the adults realize what they are looking at.

  • There are 15–25 percent of students that everyone knows. These may be the outgoing, exuberant, or popular students. They may also be the more disruptive students. They are the ones that make themselves heard and seen.
  • Then there is a large proportion of the student body that some or many adults know. These may be the students who answer in class, are involved in extracurricular activities, or make themselves known every now and then. This group may be half or more (50–75 percent) of the student body.
  • But that leaves another group, sometimes as many as 15–25 percent of students. There is always a group that no one—or close to no one—knows. These are the kids with one or two Post-Its, or even none, next to their names. Staff may know their names, but they don't know "them." They don't know who they really are. More often than not, these kids are the quiet, nondisruptive ones. They don't make noise, cause disruption, or make themselves heard. They may succeed in school or they may be a ghost in the school—no one really knows for sure.

These "unknown" students are the ones we need to make sure have connections with qualified and caring adults. We know from resiliency theory that children need to have a responsible adult they can connect with, turn to, and seek support from. We also know that students succeed more in school with these supports, relationships, and connections. Students perform better, are absent less, and are more likely to graduate. Maybe these students haven't had the need for support yet, but we need to make sure they have supports so when they need them, they're there. A supportive voice of calm or reason can frequently turn what may appear to be a disaster into a discussion. In fact, just knowing that someone cares or is there for you is frequently all that students need.

What most schools do after seeing this bell curve distribution of students is allocate an adult to each unknown student to make a connection, get to know each other, and show the student that he is known and supported by the adult.

Comments (11)

Joan Kerr

June 1, 2012

Thank you for this good suggestion!  Making a personal connection with each child in your class can really make the difference!

M Cramer

June 1, 2012

There was a powerful film in the 70’s about this very issue.  A student died as the bus stop and no one from the school knew anything about him.  Does anyone know the title?

A Rowland

June 1, 2012

Cipher in the Snow.  That’s the film.  I remember it from 8th grade.

Sean Slade

June 1, 2012

I’ll have to look it up - interesting. One thing I didnt put in the piece (which may be another blog) is that is has to be from the students perspective. It’s their understanding or perception that a teacher “knows” them, not just whether or not the adult assumes it.

Gail Greenbaum

June 1, 2012

Excellent topic of discussion.  But there is another aspect of the problem that I have never heard discussed. Students in low performing schools often do not learn the names of their teachers.. I spent 20 years teaching in a very high performing public school. I taught 5 classes a day, all of which had 34 students each.  We also changed students at mid-year. Yet, most of the time, because my classes were based on discussions and conceptual learning, I was able to learn all of my 170 students names within a few weeks. From my students’ papers, I learned something about their personal lives and their ways of thinking as well.  I also made sure my students knew my name by the end of the first day of class.
I spent my final year of teaching testing my learning theories of how to turn around low performing students. One of the most surprising things I learned was that many of the students persisted in calling me Miss—as opposed to Ms. Greenbaum—even several weeks into the term. I soon learned that this was the norm in the school. It was only because of my insistence that my students eventually learned my name and then slowly began to call me by it. To me, this was very indicative of the students’ desire to keep their distance from the teachers and their whole learning experience. Part of making a connection with your students is to make sure they call you by name and know something about you as a human being.

M Cramer

June 1, 2012

Thanks for the film title!  I found it, of course, on YouTube!

Sean,  I think that we need to look at much of what we do through the eyes of our students!  Good point!

M Cramer

June 2, 2012

Found an article that deals with college students and brief social-psychological interventions that reduce the achievement gap.  It connects with the strategy that Gail used.

Rachel Nowling

June 3, 2012

As a teacher, I do try to go out of my way to speak to the children that might get left behind. I enjoyed this article, because I think that it is important for teacher to be aware of these issues.

Rusty May

June 4, 2012

Thank you Sean. Great suggestion and a wonderful professional development activity when the new year begins.

Cindy Hall

June 6, 2012

I can see this happening in high schools where teachers do not have contact with students and information on their family.  I had a situation this April where I learned one of our senior, who I had in class for over 2 years, did not have any family members but was living with a friend.  I accidentally learned this
after his glasses were broken in class and the secretary informed me he did not live with family.  I visited with him about graduation needs and learned he did not have family,but was living with a friend.  Since learning this we have helped him is small ways financially, but more importantly he knows we care about him.


October 11, 2012

I would love to know some of the schools who have used this or a similar activity to identify unknown students. The blog references that some schools have done so, but by a brief internet search I was unable to find any examples.

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