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Whether you are starting your new year in-person or online, part of that process undoubtedly involves considering how you will get to know and build rapport with your students. There are endless options to choose from, and if you are like me, you probably implement multiple every year to ease students in the first week in addition to set the foundation for good student-teacher relations. I am lucky to have struck gold early in my career – because I have been having my students create a Life Map ever since I got my own classroom, and I strongly believe there is no better tool to start your year than this. While I know Life Maps are something plenty of teachers do utilize, I think it is still underutilized and often implemented in a lack-luster manner.

The great thing about the life map is it is incredibly easy to adjust for any grade level and differentiate for students who need accommodations. Essentially, you ask students to show you 10-15 significant events from their life and make it into a creative timeline. As it relates to applying it across grade levels, for high schoolers I require each event to have a date, a visual, and a description to explain the event to me in complete sentences. Lower grades can do fewer events, be given more time, and/or subscribe to varying standards for their visuals and descriptions. When I introduce the activity to my students, I always make sure to show them my own. This is a critical step for a couple of reasons:

1. Students thrive when they can see an example of exactly what is expected of them and

2. It makes the activity a two-way street. If students know you are willing to share your life map with the entire class, they will be willing to share theirs with you. 

Now if you want this to just be a fun activity where you find out when kids got their braces put on or adopted their first pet, then you could implement the Life Map as is. However, there is so much more potential for this activity. When I share my own life map with the class, I include a sincerely personal event that was significant in my life. For example, it could be a family death, bad accident, or other personal challenges – the point of this is it sets the tone.

Once again, it communicates to your students that this is a safe place for sharing, and it also lets you be honest with your students about your own challenges. Life Maps are never a collection of accomplishments and celebrations, that’s not what life is like. Secondly, it is critical that you tell students when you introduce this activity that you are the only one that will see it and they will not have to share with a shoulder partner or the entire class. This statement will make them feel even safer to be open and honest in what they produce, which is what makes the activity special. 

As students work on the Life Map, you can walk around and chat with them, but you don’t want to ask questions about specific events they are writing down. Do not put them on the spot around their peers, especially if they are sharing serious events. If students are stuck, list of random ideas of what could be big events without getting too specific: first boyfriend/girlfriend, switching schools, moving, losing a friend or family member, having an accident or breaking a bone, special vacations, the best or worst day they ever had, etc. Allow students to turn the assignment in directly to your desk so it is not sitting in a bin “on display” for the next kid who finishes looking at.

When grading, every student gets a 100% if they tried, but the most critical part is my comments. I make sure to write a comment on every student’s paper that thanks them for sharing their experiences with me and references a specific part of the map (typically, the part that is most personal). Communicating to your students that you are honored they have shared a part of their life with you when they have shown you vulnerability is vital.

I have seen countless Life Maps and 90% of the time there is at least one event that I feel fortunate a student has shared with me. Some events will be forgettable, but you may learn about students who have attempted suicide, come from broken homes, are treating addictions, struggle with body dysmorphia, or have lost someone important to them. In my short time teaching, I have learned of heart-breaking abuse, unimaginable misfortune, and things I cannot even fathom happening to someone under 18. These Life Maps are always a lesson of resiliency to me, and I like to remember that when these same students tell me weeks later that they “can’t do it.” But besides the tragic side of this activity, I also have found out where students work, what sports they play, how much they care about the people in their lives, and so much more that is critical to me knowing who they are.

Last week was the first week back for my school and we started virtually. I was a little worried about assigning the Life Map this time around – the students wouldn’t be able to see my welcoming classroom environment, and the virtual meeting wouldn’t be as personal as standing in front of them. I figured my students – who are incredibly marginalized and take a lot of effort to get on your side – would not take the activity to the same place I have seen it go in the past. Boy, was I wrong! Honestly, these Life Maps were some of the best I have ever received. I still learned so much about my students’ experiences, and they were willing to share it with me despite my not standing in front of them. While virtual teaching is new and unfamiliar, I know now that one thing will never change: relationships are everything, and they can still be built virtually. 

Power of Life

Madison is a former alternative school teacher now working in the EdTech industry. She remains an...

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