English teacher Renee Moore shares her methods of "pre-assessing" and getting to know students at the start of the year. Analyzing test data doesn't hack it for her:
All that sounds impressive, and may actually be of some value to somebody, but I found most of it useless and even inaccurate when it came to planning for instruction in my classroom. Most of the test data was too general (e.g., "Johnny needs help with grammar.." well, duh!).
Instead, she has her students write a free-form letter about themselves:
These writings are intentionally raw; I give very little instruction or guidance on either content or format, except for the topic on the board. I want to see what they will produce left to their own sense of what writing should be. First, I want to know who they are; what are their dreams, goals--do they have any? Next, I want to see for myself what their writing skills are. While they're composing, I'm taking notes on how they write: Who is making notes or lists; who is balling up paper because their handwriting isn't neat enough; who's drawing pictures; who looks terrified. This is a timed writing, so that I'll have time to introduce myself and give them the opening day talk and walk through procedures.
But it's what comes next that's the impressive part. Moore says she spends "hours, even days" reading the letters and writing personal responses to each student.
Students are used to us reacting to how they write, but not many are used to someone (at least not a teacher) responding to what they said or felt.