Reflections on Shadowing a Student
Earlier this school year I made the commitment to report back on what I had learned as a consequence of my “shadow a student” experience. Listening to students has been a key part of my practice over the last few years, and shadowing a student is the most recent iteration of this learning journey.
Prior to this year, the practice involved meeting with a diverse group of about 10 students, typically in grades 10-12 and asking them a variety of questions to get a picture of their experiences. I would ask them to describe their school experiences, asked about the best and worst things about school, the qualities of (anonymous) teachers who deeply engaged them, the number of caring adults within the building, their sense of being prepared for the future, and whatever else they wished to discuss. While it was sometimes tricky to get the conversations going, working with a diverse group provided a broad snapshot of the student experience. However, at an even higher level as you looked across all seven of our high schools, I was able to aggregate the information being shared and felt I got a reasonably accurate picture of student experience in our district.
Shadowing an individual student is a distinctly different approach to the same question, and of course has a number of advantages and limitations. The obvious disadvantage is that no single student can provide a full picture of the tremendously diverse student populations we have in our school, and by extension, the dramatically different experiences. This was borne out in my previous meetings when some students described very positive experiences about school, while others shared the very opposite. Going from ten students per school down to one certainly limits my ability to extrapolate from that single experience in that one day. The other downside is the various criteria used by the administrative team to select the student. My two criteria were that the student was somewhat representative of the school and could handle having me follow them around for the day. It goes without saying that the principal would also be mindful of the teachers’ classes, as they too would have to feel comfortable having the superintendent sitting at the back of their class and taking notes!
The wonderful advantage, however, was firsthand observations and a depth of experience that could not be approximated with a group interview. Engaging with students from the time they get off the bus in the morning to classroom experiences to classroom passing time, to hanging out at lunch, I get a firsthand look at how these students are experiencing school. So, what I might lose in terms of breadth, I gain in terms of the depth. At the end of the day, these experiences are moment in time snapshots which afford me the opportunity to live them with students as they unfold.
Some might be wondering where this idea came from, and so I am compelled to let you know that I first heard of it from a teacher (turned high school learning coach, researcher, author) Grant Wiggins. The other genesis of the idea rests with the vision we have for the district and the need for me to model the approach of really listening to students as a way to authentically engaging them in learning. We know so much more meaningful learning, and am curious to see how it plays out for students. It is a deluded business owner who designs and sells products without a care for whether the clients appreciate them or find them truly beneficial. Just because our students are (somewhat) captive does mean that we should not commit to captivating them each day. It was about ten years ago now that Wiggins followed two students for two consecutive days and posted his reflections much like I do now. After the experience, he shared several reflections which if you are interested you might read the full version here. He identified three big takeaways:
- Students sit all day and sitting is exhausting.
- High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.
- You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.
My Aggregated Classroom Schedule
I shadowed three students (Angelina, Adrian and Kyra) from three different high schools, and only for the morning part of their schedule (Try as I might it was too difficult to get away for a full day). Even with the half-day and despite a dire warning to my team members, I was still interrupted a few times (for legitimate reasons) when I was in class. The courses across the three schools with my three students looked like this:
- Earth Science
- Career Life Connections
The three students valued their school’s learning experiences.
High schools in our district starts early, too early if you ask me. Two of my students took the bus to school each morning and spoke about having to get up for school too early. This was compounded by their evening study regimen and part-time work schedules. Despite that, each of them greeted me warmly and were ready to start our morning classes.
Each of them spoke about enjoying school, their teachers and learning in general. I queried each about the utility of their courses, and while some of their courses were not what they had expected, they all seemed to carry a joy for learning. As mentioned above, none of the three students could be classified as shy, so their general interest in learning about the subject matter was a thread that connected all the experiences. I asked each of them about their future goals/plans and not surprisingly they were at various stages of exploration. Angelina was interested in nursing, Adrian in automotive, and Kyra was curious about culinary arts. The key observation here is that all three of them seemed to have a love for learning that was in part nurtured by the teachers. Even in the classes where the dominant delivery method was didactic, the level of interest in the subject matter was such that they felt they were learning something of value.
Students were actively engaged.
Unlike Wiggins, I did not observe a lot of sitting. True, students all started their classes this way, but the activity level was elevated soon thereafter. My snapshot into their days showed evidence of pre-thinking, active engagement, group work, hands-on activities, and reflection. A skeptical view of this might be that the teachers changed their instructional practice because “the boss” was in the class, which I will not entirely discount. I did ask each of the students about their previous classes, if they enjoyed the content and the manner in which they were learning. Each of them said they looked forward to their classes and enjoyed learning from their teachers and with their peers. Even in classes where there was more seatwork, it seemed to be offset by hands on group work and peer to peer conversation. I suspect that, like theirs, my energy would have waned in the afternoon if I had stayed for the full day, but based on what students told me, their afternoon teachers consider student energy levels and adjust accordingly (all three schools tumbled their timetable to ensure a balance between morning and afternoon instruction).
Learning is a social enterprise.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the visit was spending time at lunch with Angelina, Adrian and Kyra. It was dedicated to their social circles. Each had friends with whom they connected, be it just hanging out in a special place or playing ball, something which Adrian and his friends were all too happy to have me join. I spent some of the time talking with each of them about the importance of friendships, and their friend group in particular. I noted that two of the students had selected their classes with the hopes that friends would be enrolled with them, peers they often had since middle school. I will point out that all but one of the classes I attended had students working in small groups for a significant portion of the time. Friendships and social learning was another thread connecting all their experiences.
Did I Feel Like a Nuisance?
It was not lost on me that it was awkward for the students, the teachers, and the admin team to have the superintendent wandering the halls and taking classes like Thornton Melon in Back to School. Adrian, Angelina, and Kyra were charming, their friends were welcoming, and their teachers were gracious and warm to both me and their students (it does help that I have worked in the district for 25 years and know many of our staff). Sometimes I did feel like a nuisance, especially when the rest of the students would occasionally glance at me with curiosity, wondering why on earth I was sitting at one of their desks and taking notes, interjecting during group discussions, or collecting note sheets for homework. Honestly, I just felt fortunate to spend the time in our classrooms with these amazing young people, and watching their teachers do their thing. I loved going back to school.