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8 ways to connect with your students through writing

Making connections is hard, with anyone really, but even more so with students. When you add a writing task to that for an already struggling writer, it’s a recipe for disaster, right? It doesn’t have to be.

Writing is actually a really great way to build trust and create rapport with your students no matter the level at which they are currently writing. 

Here are 8 ways to use daily writing to connect with your students! 

1. Sharing your own writing- honestly

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Sharing is caring. We ask our students to be vulnerable all day long in most schools. They have to do things that are not comfortable in front of a jeering crowd.

Many teachers are reluctant to be emotionally honest with their students. They often believe that it will undermine their authority. They often have pre-prepared examples without any part of their authentic selves. What’s your biggest fear? “Running out of chocolate.” is such an inauthentic reply.

Kids have an excellent bullshit detector and that manufactured crap will not get by it.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not advocating for over-sharing here. No one (but your therapist) wants to hear about all that fragility and self-doubt you have rattling around in you. But, it is totally ok to cop to some human emotions in the classroom.

When I did mindfulness journaling with my students, I’d answer the prompt with honesty. I let the students know that I did in fact get angry from time to time and sometimes I didn’t handle it as well as I could have. I admitted to making mistakes, but also explained how I corrected them.

I always started by sharing my journal entry. That made it safe for them to share theirs, and I was always as honest as was appropriate.

You can never build a connection with anyone while being distant. Show students you are a real person and they will feel comfortable showing you their real selves. Try it in your class!

2. Mindful prompts

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Mindfulness is having a moment. It has been a big buzzword in education and elsewhere of late. At its core though, it’s nothing more than learning how to live in the moment. It keeps you from being eaten up by all the stress that plagues us day in and day out all the time.

When assigning writing, you can use prompts that get your students to practice some micro-mindfulness. Students can write about the sounds around them. They can focus on an emotion and describe the physiological impacts of that feeling. This can help them to better understand their own emotions and reactions.

When framed this way writing can become a mere way of cataloging these discoveries. It takes the pressure off the writing task. It shows that writing is more than just another meaningless assignment.  

It also builds trust because the student can see right away that you value their time. They see you are using writing intentionally to make them understand themselves better.

Like all the methods on this list, it is most beneficial to model and share this kind of writing in your class. Write along with them and share your own writing. This helps show them their feelings and reactions are universal. Showing them they share experiences with an adult is powerful for adolescents. They often feel that older people don’t understand or minimize their feelings. They perceive that adults have lost touch with the struggles teens face.

Mindfulness shows us that our experiences, feelings and struggles are pretty common. It is a good way to bring about connections.

Having trouble coming up with mindfulness prompts? Use ours! 

August daily writing prompts

September daily writing prompts

October daily writing prompts

November daily writing prompts

December daily writing prompts

January writing daily prompts

February writing daily prompts

March writing daily prompts

April writing daily prompts

May writing daily prompts

3. Partner sharing and reporting

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For students to feel safe enough to take risks in your class it’s not enough that they only have a connection with you. They need to connect with each other.

Writing is a great way to do this.

Partnering students up is always a great strategy to increase their participation and engagement.

For my writing assignments, students were in a group of two. They shared what they wrote with each other before they would share it with the rest of the class or with me. This gives them the ability to make changes or add an idea before they have to take the step of sharing their work.

This also helps them to understand and learn about another person who they may not be friends with. They’re learning empathy and cooperation as well as if that sentence makes sense.

4. Checks and Comments

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There is a right way and wrong way to use checks on writing to connect with students.

The right way is to comment (non-judgmentally) on their content, in a safe, private way. This can be achieved in many different ways but in broad strokes, that’s all there is to it.

The wrong way is anytime you are critiquing their writing, especially in front of peers.

You will likely assign many tasks where the end goal is to critique student writing for technical aspects. This ain’t that.

These checks focus on the content of the student’s writing. They serve for you to know what they have been thinking and learning.

They should be structured as a conversation. You can deliver your feedback to them verbally or in writing. You can give them a participation grade or not. This is a tool to make sure students are writing daily without fear.

This is also your chance to engage more deeply with them. Use this time to ask follow-up questions or check-in emotionally with a student who may need a pick-me-up. They show your students you care about them.

5. Providing door openers

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The hardest thing about writing is getting started. That’s true for even the best writers, but for students who struggle with writing tasks, it can be agony.

One way to get around this reluctance is to give students a door opener or sentence starter. You can make a rephrase of the question and write it on your board. You can give them a handout ahead of time with different ways to start writing a personal reflection.

This little leg up might be the boost your student needs to get going. You can save yourself a world of time, trouble and annoyance simply by offering them a door to step through.

6. Make it a routine

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Brains thrive on routine. Things you make into a habit are painless. I bet you hardly thought about brushing your teeth this morning, but at one time it was painful to get you to do it.

So it should be with writing. When you set up the expectation that students will be writing every day, it primes their brains for the task. Doing it at a certain consistent time further prepares the brain for the task.

Another benefit was that I used this writing time to do all the teacher busy work. Attendance, emails, surprise calls, et all were handled while students were busy writing. The routine of the writing meant that my class was never disrupted by any of this.

My students came to look forward to this time as well. They would be able to focus on themselves and think for a set amount of time during the day. This predictable little stretch of time became a comfort for stressed students. They knew they would have time to decompress. 

Setting timers is a great way to keep the activity on track. I would avoid ones with obnoxious sound effects to mark the end. This is zen time, not roll call in the army.

7. Explain the “Why”

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Many teachers chose this profession because they love school. When asked to go to school, most of the time they just did so enthusiastically.

For many of our students, especially those with disabilities, school is a harder sell.

The activities done in class seem to have no value to them. These tasks, often too difficult for them to complete independently, seem like arbitrary torture.

Your class plan should never be a secret. Tell students what you are hoping to accomplish with this daily writing task. Tell them directly you are building their skill as a writer while helping them to explore their thoughts, feelings and dreams.

I was always explicit in teaching students about growth mindset. I taught them how to cultivate it, but also how it helps. Once they understood that, I could tell them that the writing prompts helped them to further increase growth mindset ideas.

Once students were sure that daily writing was not another useless trap, they embraced it wholeheartedly.

8. Build in Self Esteem and Self Discovery

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Use daily writing and academic tasks to help build self-esteem and confidence. Many of us use bellwork and exit tickets/ticket out-the-door activities.

I embedded those academic tasks with growth mindset and leadership-building questions.

For years, I taught Special Education English. My whole bellwork question goal was for my students to write complete sentences.

Over time I learned more about growth mindset. I reflected on my previous experience working with teenagers. I had been trying to develop leadership and explore their identities with them. I wasn’t happy with my previous use of bellwork. I realized I could use “Bellwork” and “Tickets out the Door” to do so much more than write complete sentences.

I started assigning weekly “Ticket out the Door” questions with a confidence-boosting spin.

I did weekly questions because I felt it leveled the academic and brain task. It also made it a routine for my Special Education students. They knew what the question was going to be for the whole week. This allowed them to craft beautiful, long and expressive sentences by the end of the week.  

I asked questions like: “What is one challenge you hope to overcome this week?” and “Why would my teacher be proud of me?” If you’d like the whole year’s list of exit ticket questions, go here

Their answers blew me away all year long.

At first, of course, they required encouragement. The process made them feel vulnerable, and it was unfamiliar.

But with support from me, and encouragement from themselves they got into it. It feels good to think nice things about yourself, students included.

Several times a week, I’d have students correct errors found in student responses from “Tickets out the Door”. This was anonymous of course.. This worked great since I taught English. It gave them another chance to see a positive message while editing their writing.

Need some prompts that help your students grow? Use ours! We have one a week for the entire school year! 

36 weeks of self-esteem and self-discovery writing prompts

However, these activities could be done with any class content. Questions like, “What is one great thing you learned today?” is applicable to any lesson for any content and helps students to reflect on what they absorbed in class.

Reflection is a powerful educational tool.

I used to joke and say I was propagandizing my students with positive messages. The sad truth is that many of them hadn’t absorbed many happy thoughts about themselves up to this point.  They often heard negative messages about their academic skills. Those, after all, had landed them in a self-contained classroom.

These questions and their answers gave them the chance to appreciate who they were. They helped them strive for who they want to be.

It taught some students new ways to cope with mistakes and try again. It helped others enjoy writing about themself.

Day by day I saw their individual spirits shine, and they became proud of their strengths.

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