12/12/2013 05:19 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

The Power of a Three-by-Five Index Card

"My mom is in the process of divorcing my dad and I have not accepted it yet. Also, I am usually pretty quiet, introspective and a deep thinker" was the handwritten message on the three-by-five index card I read that evening following the first meeting of my Foundations of Education class.

It was the start of my 20th year of teaching higher education and the first day of a fall semester class with 27 "teacher wannabes."

As I sat on the couch reading index card after index card filled with personal information that my students wanted me to know about them, I wondered if they would really get it -- that real learning occurs through personal relationships. The more I know about their lives, what is important to them, the challenges they face -- the better I am able to relate to them as individuals.

Here's the real lesson I taught on that first day, and every day following. If I as their college professor care about the individual circumstances of each student in my class, that connection creates an environment for learning. If they as teachers in their future K-12 classrooms take the time to learn about their own students, they create a better environment for learning.

It is an activity that has as much impact in a college classroom as it does in a K-12 classroom.

There are no complicated directions, no web sites, no links to follow, no tweets, no hashtag -- just one index card per student. Allow time for the students to write a couple of sentences on the index card about anything they want to share about themselves personally. Do they have a parent dying of cancer, dream of playing a college sport, have a new puppy?

When students share a part of their lives with you, they have opened a door that welcomes you into their world -- a world you will spend the coming school year helping to expand with all the knowledge and skill a teacher possesses.

It's as simple -- and as powerful -- as a three-by-five index card.