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Lessons Learned from Shadowing Students--Three Years Later

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This post is by Alexis Wiggins, director of the Cohort of Educators for Essential Learning (CEEL)

Three years ago, I had one of the most transformative professional development experiences of my life. I shadowed two high-school students over several days, and the experience changed me forever. I blogged about it at the urging of my dad, the late education reformer Grant Wiggins, and the original post went viral. It was reprinted in dozens of media outlets around the world, translated into several languages, and racked up millions of views within a few weeks' time. Clearly, something about the experience of being a student had touched a nerve.

When I first wrote the blog post, I never could have imagined the number of people that would read and share it. It really caught my dad and me off guard. Due to extenuating circumstances, I wasn't able to give any media interviews or follow up on the shadowing experience in the promised "Part 2."

Fast-forward three years: I find myself living back in the U.S. and teaching at a new school, The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, TX. And, as luck would have it, I am about to engage in my second shadowing experience thanks to Stanford d.school 's K12 Lab  Shadow a Student Challenge and my new school's second annual commitment to this initiative. The Shadow a Student Challenge aims to get educators all over the world to sign up and put their school on the map as they invite educators to walk in the shoes of a student for a day.

As I gear up for my second shadowing experience at the end of this month, I'd like to share some of the takeaways I had from my original experience that I wasn't able to blog about back in 2014. In revisiting them, I think they are still relevant as ever. So here are my "shadowing takeaways part 2," published here for the first time ever (if you want to revisit the first three takeaways, you can see them here):

I am an educator and care deeply about my teaching, my students, and my colleagues. I saw wonderful teaching and learning throughout my days shadowing, but my intent wasn't to focus on the teaching, the curriculum, or the system while I shadowed. My only goal was to report what it felt like "being" a student, moving from class to class, subject to subject, and trying to do all the work in those classes. The blog was not intended to be a critique of teaching, parenting, state standards, or any other hot-button political education issue. Nor do I think that I have any answers; I wasn't trying to prescribe sweeping reform for anyone. I just wanted to share what the experience felt like for me and how it helped me reflect on my own teaching.

Paradoxically, by being a student for four days, I feel like I have a much firmer grasp on my teaching, and I think most teachers would feel the same way. So if you have strong opinions about the original shadowing piece and have access to a shadowing experience, I encourage you to try it. I'd love to hear what your experience was like.

Here are my final three key takeaways from shadowing two students over four days.

Key Takeaway #4

Students who aim for success too often get burned out.

At the beginning of Theory of Knowledge class, my host student Kinan turned to me and said that if I really wanted to experience what it was like to be a student, I needed to actually follow him home and hear all the pressure his parents put on him and spend a night doing all the homework he does into the wee hours to be ready for the next day. Both of the students I followed are solid, hard-working students who have high standards for themselves, but neither is a straight-A student. Both say they love school, but neither gets more than five or six hours of sleep a night.

At the beginning of this year, I was asked to cover a colleague's six English classes for three weeks while he waited for his visa, and I decided to take a risk and try "mindfulness" for the first time. My plan was to do five minutes of mindfulness practice (eyes closed, deep breathing, paying attention to the present moment, non-judgmentally) at the beginning of each class for one day, and encourage any student who wanted to do so to try it on her own thereafter. But I was shocked that every single of the six classes begged for it on the second day, and every day after. When I asked if they wanted to continue with five minutes, they asked for ten. When the permanent teacher arrived, he asked the class what things they liked from my classes that he should continue with, and the students told him the number one thing was mindfulness.

The students are switching rooms, subjects, and gears constantly. In one day, I went from collaborative problem solving in math class, to a Spanish test, to a history lesson on designing my own government, to a lecture on photosynthesis. There is almost no transition or time for reflection at any point; it's jarring and stressful--not because the teachers are doing anything wrong, but just by nature of what a typical high school schedule is--a lot of shifting gears from one subject, room, and teacher to the next. Something like five minutes at the beginning of each class allows for students to settle, take stock, and reconnect with themselves before transitioning to a new subject and lesson.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

-       Do 5 minutes of mindfulness at the beginning of every single class

-       At the end of every single class that wasn't a test, I would build in five minutes for reflection/de-stressing--a little bit of social time, Nerf basketball, or sharing out on their day, frustrations, and challenges. I saw a teacher do this on my second day of shadowing, and the student feedback he received was overwhelmingly positive. It was really heartening to see how much the students benefited from the reflective time.

-       Figure out how to give less homework. I am not sure how to do it in English, where reading is still at the core of what we do, and much of it needs to happen outside of class, but I'd make this a top priority. I always felt guilty not assigning homework, and I feel a little bad about that now. More homework does not equate more learning. Even though I know this, it is a hard habit for me to break.

Key Takeaway #5

I thought I knew my students...

Math was never my strong suit and I worried that I'd be able to keep up in IB SL II Math (fyi, thanks to a dynamic, problem-solving-based class and excellent tutoring from Kinan, I was able to follow the whole lesson, cosines and all!). But the most interesting thing that happened in math class that day was seeing my former student Michael. In my class last year, Michael struggled. Literature was not his strong suit and he worked hard for average grades. I had pegged him as a certain kind of student, perhaps one that wasn't all that serious about studies in general, given that he didn't seem to have much "grit" in our IB English literature course.

So it was a surprise to me when the teacher gave back the recent test and announced that Michael had gotten the high score. He was invited to the board to show the class how to solve one of the most difficult problems, one that my host student had gotten wrong. I realized to my delight that I had unfairly pegged Michael as a certain kind of student based only on his performance and effort in my subject, but that he was highly motivated and competent in another subject. I just hadn't ever seen it in the year I taught him. This was a good reminder that students are round, three-dimensional characters (like all of us), and that how they perform or act in our class may not be a good indicator of their overall performance, interest, or aptitude.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

-       Try to keep this firmly in mind and not let it color my thinking about my students overall.

-       Survey students on their interests in both subject matter and learning style to better gauge how to reach them in my own course. If I had seen Michael's enthusiasm for competition and solving equations while I was still his teacher, I might have been able to design some assessments or activities that would have spoken more to him and the handful of students in my class that seem to really respond to that kind of learning style.

-       Try to touch base more with my students' other teachers to fill out my understanding of what motivates them and makes them tick. I might have tried to design an interdisciplinary assessment (something like writing equations to represent complex character relationships in Ibsen's Ghosts) that I could have worked on with a colleague in another department.

Key Takeaway #6

In hands-on subjects like PE, Yearbook, and Acting, motivation to complete tasks can be high because there is freedom to create and innovate, the success criteria are very clear, and the audience is authentic.

I saw some very dynamic academic classes on my shadowing days--Socratic seminar; fast-paced, engaging math problem solving; and totally student-directed lab work. But the level of engagement and enthusiasm for the electives is generally higher than that of academic courses in any school. I think some of it is simply due to the fact that students "choose" electives; few students will opt for drama if they hate to act, but all students must take English whether they like reading or not. However, I think some of the intrinsic student motivation present during the elective courses is also due to the fact that there is more freedom and autonomy on a regular basis while the goal in these electives is still the same: a quality product.

In PE, Celine and her group of three girls were choreographing a dance that was going to be a big summative grade. They had to meet clear criteria and standards with regard to things like length of dance and type of rhythm, but then they were free to choose the music, movements, and choreography. The PE teacher rarely had to direct the students because they were focused on their end goal and self-motivated. In drama, pairs of students had to work through a range of emotions in several different improvisational sketches. It was much harder than it seemed (I confess to being more afraid of the acting class than the Math SL class), but the students were never off task or disruptive. In yearbook, students were working on creating their yearbook themes in the hopes that their pitch would be chosen by the school's administration. The criteria were laid out, models were shown, and the students were left to work at their own pace in teams.

In all three of these electives, there was a similar theme - students working independently towards a finished product. While many academic courses do function the same way (the finished product might be a lab or an essay), I realized that those products usually have an audience of one: the teacher. That is less motivating than, say, pitching your ideas for the yearbook, winning, and having an audience of hundreds. Or creating a monologue with an audience of a dozen peers in mind. This makes me think that we who teach academic subjects might want to rethink how we design our assessments so that students have more opportunity to share their work and design it for a larger audience than just us.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

-       Infuse as much creativity into English projects and writing. I feel that over the years I have lost my focus on this, and I know it's one way to hook students into the craft of writing.

-       Rethink audience and purpose of the assessments. Perhaps students could publish their best work on a blog, present their projects for an audience outside our classroom, or be required to submit one of their writing pieces to a professional magazine once a year.

I look back on these four days of shadowing as transformative to my own teaching and learning. When we see school through our students' eyes, we understand their needs on a much deeper level. We feel their pain. We feel empathy and compassion, badly needed emotions in our education systems.

Of course teachers also work incredibly hard. Of course we are often underpaid. Of course many of us feel that our voices and ideas get drowned out by the drone of budgets, testing, and new initiatives in our schools and districts. Of course we also deserve empathy and compassion.

But this exercise was never intended to be one about walking in the teachers' shoes. Instead, this experience and these blog posts were meant to serve as an invitation to all educators: What does it feel like to be a student in our school for a day? Let's find out. It's not an experience designed to evaluate; it's merely seeing what is. And if we see things we want to change, then we can change them.

As I gather my courage again for this year's Shadow a Student Challenge, I am hoping to follow Kinan's advice and actually do all the homework and the extracurriculars. I am daunted and excited to learn alongside my colleagues once again as we walk in our students' shoes so that we can continue to grow as educators.

Note: I have used my former students' real names here in Part 2, as they are now adults and have given their consent.

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