This year, I did the best getting-to-know-you activity I’ve ever done. I had my students write math autobiographies, telling me their personal history with math, warts and all. And two days into school, I know more about my students than I knew after 4 weeks last year.

Here’s how I did it: On the very first day of school, I took 5 minutes to introduce the idea of a math autobiography and ask students to brainstorm their own for homework. Then i read my own, which I’ve reprinted below.

The next day, I read a very different autobiography from my colleague, Mrs. G, who teaches Language Arts to all my students. Here is her essay.

I love this essay because it feels honest to me, unlike so much of the motivational stuff that teachers say to students on the first days of school. After I read Mrs. G’s essay out loud, I told my students how much I appreciated her honesty. I told them that all I wanted was their honesty as well. If they love math, tell me why. If they hate it, tell me why.

Then I gave out the prompt below. I didn’t ask for a specific length. I just asked everyone to address all six questions:

Most kids wrote about 3/4 of a page, and I had to cut a lot of kids off after 20 minutes! I never expected so much engagement and enthusiasm from a getting-to-know-you activity.

### What Next?

I asked the kids to be honest, and man, they were. I have a few kids who really seem to love math, but most of my students have had a pretty negative math experience so far. Honestly, I felt a little bit like a trauma counselor reading these. I saw so many stories of teachers yelling at students or shaming them for making mistakes.

I went through each autobiography and made sure to underline and comment on at least one sentence or phrase. I handed the essays back today so that my students know that I read their work. I feel like I asked a lot of them, expecting them to open up to a stranger on the second day of school. I owe them at least a comment.

In fact, I wish I had time to write an essay back to each kid. I already feel more connected to my students than I usually do after one month of teaching. I have a wealth of personal stories that I can connect to each student in my room. I now feel even more committed to making my class a model of engaging, challenging mathematics and conversation.

I can't recommend these autobiographies highly enough. If you're wondering what to do on the first days of school, try this out. You might be surprised what your students write to you.

Below are a few more quotes from my students, which I also threaded throughout this post.