From Safety Goggles to Seventh Period: What Shadowing A Student Taught Me

Have you shadowed a student in your school? This post describes what I learned from stepping into the shoes of a freshman for one day. And why I believe we should all shadow our students to redesign the school experience.

I never want to be a freshman again.

I never want to feel anxiety and fear building throughout a crowded morning of classes and climaxing at the threshold of the cafeteria as I wonder: who will I sit with at lunch today? I don’t want to be corralled from class to class every sixty(ish) minutes. I don’t want to be confined to assigned seats, texting under my desk, or using bathroom passes strategically. I don’t want to worry about my identity, fitting in, or standing out.

Being a freshman is exhausting and scary and stressful.

Since surviving my own ninth grade experience over twenty years ago (when did that happen?) I’ve only been a freshman in this century for one day.

But here’s the thing: I believe if every school and systems leader had to be a freshman (or a first grader, sixth grader, or senior) for just one day, our schools would be radically different. Significantly better. Exponentially more student-centered.

The national #ShadowAStudent challenge took place this past week. School leaders from across the nation committed to shadowing one student for an entire school day.

I shadowed a freshman named Maria.

Maria is my former student. I watched her grow as a reader, writer, and adolescent during her middle school years. She is a second language learner and an aspiring nurse. Maria cares about doing well (in some classes more than others) and she seamlessly navigates her schedule, passing periods, and the high school system. She’s maintained friendships from middle school, developed new ones, and proudly reassures me she doesn’t have a boyfriend.

She also points to certain classes on her schedule and suggests that some are going to be “more fun” than others. She points to two classes and recommends I skip them altogether. “Why?” I ask. “Will I embarrass you?”

“No…it’s just that…we don’t really do anything in that class,” she shrugs.

Maria understands that learning (in part) is doing. She knows some classes demand more of her attention, others are worthy of her attention, and a few require little attention at all.

And she’s right.

Our day is spent in close proximity but not always in actual collaboration. The highlight? Dissecting a sheep’s heart together.

Aside from this hands-on experience, the bulk of the seven-period day is spent sitting in desks side by side, engaged in independent or whole class work. There is an awkward moment when we discuss in hushed tones why teens might be persuaded to engage in sexual activity so that she can complete a survey in health class. There is a quiz in algebra that makes my palms sweat when I think about all of the mathematical knowledge I know I learned but can no longer remember (like the formula for slope).

But mostly, there is sitting and listening. Lots of sitting and listening. On what Maria assures me is a typical Tuesday, it appears that sitting and listening are the primary skills necessary for earning credits, passing classes, and progressing to the next grade level, where I presume you sit and listen as a sophomore.

This is why I believe that if more educators, administrators, district leaders, school board members, and parents shadowed a student, even for just one day, the look and sound and feel of our schools would change.

There’d be less sitting and listening and more doing and thinking. Less talking at and more talking with students. Less quizzing and more feedback. Less review and more practice. Less guiding and more releasing to independence.

There’d be flexible scheduling and opportunities to go deeper — with dissection, or problem solving, or complex texts. There’d be more time for students to ask questions and figure things out collaboratively. There’d be less telling and more co-creating.

But mostly there’d be far less sitting and listening and far more active learning.

Our students are the best source of information about what’s working (and what’s not) in our schools. Our students can help us redesign schedules and structures in order to create more meaningful learning experiences. Just spend a day in their shoes. Then ask yourself: would you want to be a student at your school?

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