In 1996 I began student teaching at Buchanan High School in Clovis, California. I was playing basketball for Fresno State University at the time, and for my students and I it was a surreal experience. Their teacher would be on TV playing basketball by night, then teaching them history first thing the next morning. Obviously this made for some interesting conversation as my curious students wanted to know about the game, ask me about Coach Tarkanian and various teammates, or tease me for screwing up in some capacity. Needless to say I got teased a lot.
Bob Ulrich was my mentor teacher. He had many nuggets of wisdom that helped shape me into the teacher I’d become, but one challenge he gave me would plant a seed that has now produced fruit for close to 25 years in many classrooms even outside of my own. Bob recognized that although my students had a visual glimpse into my life outside of school, they didn’t truly know me. “Brandon,” he said, “until they really know you... the real you… the person inside… you will never get them to learn at their highest potential.” You are not just Brandon Bakke the basketball player.” I didn’t fully understand why this might be so, but I trusted his wisdom and thought intently about how I could somehow open myself up a bit to my students...True Story Friday was born.
“Until your students really know you... the real you… the person inside… you will never get them to learn at their highest potential.”
Sometimes the best strategies are the easiest, and in some ways I’m embarrassed that the very best thing I ever implemented in my teaching career happened in the third week of my student teaching and was so simplistic. On Friday I announced to my students, “Today is True Story Friday, you give me a topic, any topic, and I will tell a true story about it from life.” As I explained it to my students I was curious what the response would be, would they care enough or be interested to the point where anyone would even suggest a topic?
“Any topic?” one student asked. “Any topic” I affirmed. I was shocked as multiple hands shot up. The first ever topic for True Story Friday was, “pranks,” and so I took five minutes at the end of the period and told a true story from my life about a prank I once pulled. I didn’t end up having enough time to finish the story so I told them they’d have to wait until next week for the exciting conclusion. On Monday eager students wanted to know the end of the story, “Nope, you will have to wait until Friday.” When my story finally ended the following Friday you could hear laughs, see smiles, we could all feel a connection. I heard one student from the back of the room say, “Oh I got a great topic for next Friday Mr. Bakke!”
As the semester progressed, one story at a time, I opened up my life to my students, often having to stretch myself to be vulnerable. Though stories centered around topics of their choice, at a time that I designated, one story at a time, my students heard about my family, old escapades, and relationships. While my stories tended to be funny they also learned about my failures, regrets, heartache and shortcomings. I discovered my students beginning to find times to share with me some of their interests, family dynamics, and their vulnerabilities. In being intentional about wanting them to get to know me, I really got to know them. This allowed me to reach my students at a much deeper level.
I still laugh when I think about the first Friday in my second school year teaching when I introduced True Story Friday to my students. When I asked for topics, one of my students immediately blurted out, “My sister told me to get you to tell the horse story!” Haha, my stories started to become mini legends! One year I had a class make me sign a pledge that I would never be sick on a Friday because they argued they were being robbed. Since 1996 I have former students of mine who reach out to say hello, when I ask them about what they remember, the first thing they say without fail…True Story Friday. I have former students who are now teachers, all of whom have told me they use True Story Friday, and that their students are loving it. I had a student teacher in 2001 who for the last 16 years has been using True Story Friday, as other teachers we have come into contact with have heard about it, they too have employed it… and no matter the school, no matter the year, it continues to be be a conduit to help teachers and students build relationships.
When my mentor teacher first challenged me to open up to my students I wasn’t sure why this was so important, I totally underestimated the most important ingredient for fostering learning: building a relationship with my students. Over 50 percent of the academic outcomes of school-age children stem from what the teacher does in the classroom (Hattie, 2008), and teacher-student relationships have a 0.72 effect size when it comes to student achievement (Hattie, 2008). It is truly the master teacher’s secret sauce, for as the legendary Pacific Lutheran University Football Coach Frosty Westering reminds us, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
"I totally underestimated the most important ingredient for fostering learning: building relationships with my students."
Teachers all tell stories, but giving the event a formal title and specific time slot made it way more effective, memorable, and fun.
Always end the Friday period with True Story Friday (you will inevitably spend way more time than you want to if you start the period with it).
It's ok to stop before the story is done, it adds to the dramatic climax when the story takes a few Fridays.
Stay disciplined to Friday only. I found I actually saved a lot of class time when something would come up in a lesson and the urge for a tangent would come up and I’d say, “that would be a good topic for true story Friday.”
The secret is to have really good stories ready to go. When they give you a topic, you will be surprised how you can find a way to connect it to one of your own legendary stories.
Be vulnerable, you will gain strength from being able to share your weaknesses. Students can relate so much to your own struggles. I found that many really important conversations stemmed from something that was heard during True Story Friday.
Keep it school appropriate. My first “prank” True Story Friday story inspired a student to pull a prank that eventually got him in trouble with school. I felt terrible. I learned I had to start some of my stories often with the “don’t you dare try this” disclaimer.
Most importantly, be responsive when students begin to open up to you. They listened to your stories, now you listen to theirs.
Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
(Jensen, 2013). Understanding Effect Size
Under 0.00 = negative effect
0.00 - 0.20 = marginal effect
0.20 - 0.40 = positive effect
0.40 - 0.60 = substantial effect
0.60 - 2.00 = enormous effect
- Character Education
John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.