Thrilled to see online today that School Retool is promoting what I hope will be a new annual event, Shadow a Student Day.   They’re asking and encouraging school-leaders– though I know not why they are limiting their invite to school-leaders: why not all educators?– to commit to a full day of student shadowing during the week of February 29-March 4.

Commit to rethinking the student experience-starting by walking in the shoes of a student.

Some of my readers know how enthusiastic I am about student shadowing as a form of professional learning, empathy strengthening, and pedagogical inspiration.   I recommend this practice in nearly every presentation I make, but when I ask for a show of hands of whom in the audience has ever done it, it’s rare to see more than two or three arms go up.

Student shadowing, simply put, changed my life.  In 2008, during a sabbatical year, I visited 21 21st century high schools, shadowing students, usually 11th graders, for entire school days at each site.   At each, I made every effort to sit in the student seat, experience the class as a student would, partake of most the tasks students were performing, while also (furiously) keyboarding on my Macbook, writing for my blog.   Over the course of these several months, I immersed myself in both traditional and innovative curriculum and instruction, and came away with a newfound and deeply help appreciation for the true potential of secondary learning and a pained sense of how frequently we fall far short.

As a result, my work in school leadership changed dramatically, and not too long thereafter, my career course changed, to work trying to support all, not just one, school in shifting in the directions identified from my shadowing observations.

Each day visiting resulted in blog posts of 1000-3000 words; I recapped my experience in a post called “lessons learned,” available here. 

But that post contains the lessons learned about schooling– not about shadowing.   Here let me draw upon those 21 days, and subsequent reflection and discovery, to offer suggestions for those embarking on student shadowing.

  1.  Consider reading or reviewing some of the excellent writing that exists about the experience of shadowing students.   I’d direct people to one of the following three resources (in addition to my own, of course): Michael Thompson’s book, The Pressured Child; Denise Pope’s book, Doing School; and Alexis Wiggins’ reflection on Grant Wiggins’ blog.
  2. Take your reflections further by writing, and not just writing afterwards, and not just writing for yourself.  Make the commitment to make the most of your time by writing during the day, sneaking in a few moments as you are able, and then returning to write more at the end of the day- not the next.  And post, publish, distribute, make transparent your observations and learning.
  3. Select several, but not too many, questions you wish to pursue over the course of the day– and own them as close to your vest as you can.   “Am I learning?  Do I feel engaged/motivated/respected/encouraged in this context? Is what we’re doing here meaningful/preparatory/significant to my life and to how I can partially perceive a student’s life?”  Of course you can and will make observations and find answers to questions above and beyond the original set of questions you ask, (and of course there are real limits to how fully you can inhabit the worldview and life experience of your students), but clarifying for yourself what you are looking for, what you seek to understand better, will help make more meaning of the experience.
  4. Do the work.  I noted this above, but I want to reiterate.  Be more than an observer.  If asked to do a quiz, or write an essay, or work in groups, or listen to the lecture, do so: do what the students are asked to do.
  5. Shadow a second time.   Comparison is critical to insight: without it, it is so much harder to make judgment.   Try wine tasting, for instance, without multiple wines: there is so much more to infer, more to learn, more to comprehend when comparing two or more samples.    It is more time and maybe that makes it impossible, but seek to shadow two students on two days: a boy and a girl; a student from a relatively more advantaged background and one from a less advantaged circumstance; a student at your school and one at a school you know to be very different from your own.

Take the initiative, commit the time, and invest your all: student shadowing provides insights which will inspire and inform your leadership for months or years to come.