Why Telling a Student That I ALSO Binge Watched Ted Lasso is One of My Best Teaching Moves

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Donald Graves once said that you can’t really teach a kid until you know ten things about them. I think even one thing can make a difference—if it’s something you have in common with your student. A few years back, I was came across a research study that has stuck with me.  Harvard professor Hunter Gelbach ran an experiment where he sent out a survey to a group of students about their interests, likes, and background.  A standard “get-to-know-you” kind of survey we might have all done before.  But what he did next substantially impacted student engagement.  He had the teachers fill out the survey, too, and for half of the students, he told them a few things they had in common with their teacher.  They both loved the same pizza topping, or both were only children.  What happened? Those students—especially minoritized students—suddenly started performing better.  Almost half of a letter grade better than the control group, in fact.

I think, as writers, we kind of get why this works.  There is something powerful about that thrill of connection that happens when you recognize yourself in someone else’s writing. So in an age when students might feel increasingly distant from their teachers, due to factors that range from demographic divides to decreased time for relationship-building, knowing there’s something in common starts to shift the dynamic. And who knows, maybe it impacts the teacher just as much or more than the student.

So one of my hallmark teaching moves now is that I invite students to send me an email at the beginning of the semester, listing details about their background, hobbies, and interests.  I write back, pointing out anything we have in common.  I also copy their responses into a spreadsheet that I have bookmarked, and I pull it up occasionally before class or before responding to a student’s email, so I can check in about our shared interest. While there are important and needed conversations we need to have about our differences, there is also something powerful about finding a thread of connection. 

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