i love how much you can learn about your students just watching them in the beginning of the year. their simple little actions, comments, and interactions can tell you so much.
in kindergarten we put out pattern blocks for the children to explore first thing in the morning. it's incredible to watch them use these in their own ways when they've been given no instruction on the "right" way to use them.
one little girl lined up all her pieces by color and shape as a way to sort them. one little boy built a 3-d castle, another girl worked on the floor plans of a house complete with a emergency rain drains. one boy stacked his on top of each other to make a tall tower, while another found a way to make a car that really rolled. immediately through this five minute exercise we were able to see who has used these before, who has good spatial relations, who likes to classify items into groups, and who may need some guidance with shapes and patterns. (and equally as important, who already understands how to share, and who may need some modeling...)
in first grade we put the names on the word wall today. just showing the students a name of one of their classmates and asking, "what do you notice?" told us so much about their literacy skills. some children just noticed the first letter (and one little one got that one wrong...), some wanted to connect the names by sounds. other children noticed patterns in their names- and found little words like 'me' and 'it'. some enjoyed just naming letters they could see.
i love picking up these little tidbits on them as i'm getting to know them as people and as learners. it gives me something to tie future lessons to, and let's me see what they're like as learners in a more unstructured environment. where does their mind go when they're given a slightly unstructured task?