“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
What a lot we can learn when we walk in the footsteps of others, especially those of the students in our schools. I recently shadowed a student in Arlington Public Schools, Virginia, as part of the Shadow a Student Challenge. Phew! By the end of the day I was quite tired, but energized by this informative, thought-provoking, and action-inducing exercise. I realized it was not sufficient to just gain knowledge and empathy for students, or to reflect on the experience; action is vital. Here are my reflections on what I learned, as well as action steps and resources for school leaders to help them listen to kids and create a nurturing and successful learning environment.
What I learned:
You’ve got to WANT to shadow! It seems obvious to state, but it’s important to want to shadow a student. You have to be willing to learn from students, to engage with them, listen to them, and take their comments seriously. I was fortunate in that the entire leadership team at Arlington Career Center was committed to having students shadowed in various programs at the Center. I was interested in joining them, as I wanted to learn more about how students were experiencing Arlington Tech, a new project-based learning program situated at the Center. The leadership team had already engaged in shadowing exercises the previous year, related to gaining student input on architectural changes to the school. Based on that input, they had moved the location of some classes. They also gained a deep appreciation for the importance of school culture and started prioritizing paying attention to and improving the culture.
Culture is Critical! Immediately upon starting my shadowing journey (with some students thinking my student was being joined by a bodyguard for the day!), it was clear to me that students and teachers cared about one another. The focus on improving the culture was evident as students asked one another whether they were OK during gym activities; whether they understood what an assigned project was about (regarding a heart health project in PE); or whether they needed additional clarification as they started work on a project in Auto Collision Repair. Similarly, it was evident that teachers cared about their students. As the student I shadowed noted, she is comfortable talking to her teachers and asking for help when she needs it. Teachers took the time to take student questions seriously. In one class, the teacher used the question posed by a student as a teachable moment to help other students learn how to listen well (to figure out exactly what was being asked) and to provide thoughtful responses. Teachers also encouraged students. As they worked on a mural project, the teacher reassured some worried students that there are no failures or mistakes in art and that everything could be fixed. He shared examples from his own life of taking risks, and as students worked collaboratively on the project, they worked to the beat of a sound-track emphasizing “I know I can, be what I wanna be, if I work hard at it, I’ll be where I wanna be.” Even once the music stopped, kids were still chanting as they left the classroom, “I know I can …”
Listen to student feedback on instruction! During our debrief following the shadowing experience, the adults all commented on the project-based learning (PBL) at the school and what student feedback was encouraging them to think more deeply. We noted that students were excited about being at a school with PBL as the instructional focus. Many loved the hands-on learning they were experiencing. The team shared that they will need to get more explicit about helping students articulate what skills and content they are learning through the projects. Students readily recalled projects they found challenging. Their eyes lit up with excitement once they recalled the successful projects and were eager to share their learning experiences. Students made astute observations on PBL and commented on the need for teachers to provide more clarity on project guidelines and rubrics. Students also told us that experiencing so many projects in different classes led them to sometimes feel overwhelmed. They have a tough time keeping track of their different roles in various projects. Perhaps, the leadership team reflected, they could help teachers do a better job of collaborating with one another on various projects.
Pay attention to physical AND mental needs! As we debriefed, the adults reflected on needing to pay more attention to students’ physical and mental needs. Regarding the physical environment, think about whether the allocated classrooms match student need. Is the most appropriate room being assigned to a given class? Teachers may consider providing more transition time and warm-up activities for students as they switch from one subject to another. They may consider the fact that oftentimes students are sitting for long periods of time and how movement may help students with increased engagement. When they do head to lunch, a fair amount of time is taken up in line at the cafeteria, leaving little time to eat. Some students also longed for a change of scenery at lunchtime, rather than just eating in the cafeteria. During reflection time, the leadership team also noted that it’s important for students to have time to check in with adults to address any immediate concerns they may have.
What can educators do? Resources abound to help you ACT!
- Calendar it! Commit to continuing to gain insight and information by shadowing students on a more regular basis. As we concluded the day of shadowing, one of the team commented, “As coordinators, we need to do this every quarter!” I’d go so far as to suggest encouraging not only school leaders to shadow a student, but working towards making it possible for teachers to do so as well!
- Check out follow-up ideas to the shadowing activity at schoolretool.org/big-ideas. These include bringing a student to a teacher interview; inviting a student who seems to be struggling to breakfast or lunch; asking a student to ‘consult’ with you on a project you’re working on, etc.
- Consider improvements to your school culture by reading the chapter, Connect: Create a Community of Learning, in Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century, by Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath
- Explore ways to improve project-based learning through resources from the Buck Institute for Education
- Consider attending a deeper learning conference, such as the one hosted each year at High Tech High school in San Diego, CA
- Learn more about how to serve the social and emotional needs of traditionally underserved student populations, such as students with disabilities and English learners
- Don’t forget about youth involved in the child welfare and/or juvenile justice systems.
Once you’ve shadowed a student, it’s hard to just return to your office unaffected. You don’t have to wait for this challenge to come around each year. If you missed the challenge window, you can still commit to gaining insight from seeing the world through the eyes of a young person. Who knows what you’ll learn – and more importantly, what you’ll then resolve to DO based on that new knowledge…