Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Day I Shadowed a Student

"I have to believe that if the world's going to be a better place, it's going to start in school."

~ Middle School Principal, Seth Weitzman

The quote above comes from a friend and fellow New York Middle School Principal, who shared this as part of a conversation several weeks back. When he first said it, it resonated with me...for several weeks. And it became nothing short of a mantra for my daily work.

Last week, I proudly served as a chaperone on our school's annual middle school benchmark trip to Washington DC. It was ironic to me that this occurred during #ShadowAStudent week, because when you chaperone an overnight trip for 72 hours, the shadowing/being shadowed theme is real. This got me thinking about seeing life and learning through the eyes of our students, and looking forward to what I was scheduled to do upon my return, something I have not yet done in nearly two decades of being an educator.

Making the commitment to shadow a student took me on an unexpected journey of reflective leadership, before, during, and since the experience.

First I consulting with one of our seventh grade teacher leaders, and shared the concept of #ShadowAStudent. She brought the idea back to the team of teachers with whom she collaborates, conferring with them on the possibility of me doing this, in the spirit of professional growth, empathy-building, and trust. Her team gave me their blessing and selected a student for the project.

The following day, I met with "Michael", described the project, and asked his permission for me to shadow him for a day. We spoke about why I wanted to do this, and the parameters, which included me following his schedule for the entire day, uninterrupted by the standard aspects of my position in the school. I wouldn't be making or taking phone calls and emails, I wouldn't carry any devices, and I wouldn't be holding or attending any meetings. And I'd be a middle school kid. I traded my office...for a backpack.

I explained that he'd see the next day, from his arrival at 7:20 am until his dismissal at 3:15 pm. I'd be dressed in my hoodie, cargo shorts, and running sneakers. I'd participate in his a fellow seventh grade student. I called Michael's mother, to explain the experience, and to confirm her permission as well. She was agreeable, excited, and intrigued. She even offered to prepare a second school lunch...for me. And all she requested in return, from her son, was a selfie of us together, to commemorate the day.

On the morning of my #ShadowAStudent experience, I was NERVOUS. When I met Michael that morning, I almost immediately started in with a series of rapid-fire questions. He grinned and patiently answered any I asked. At that point, I assured him, I'd limit my questions to a total of nine for the day, or no more than one per period. In looking back on the day, there are a number of questions I am still pondering, challenging myself and anyone else who's willing, to answer.

Q1: When was the last time you decided to just "go for it"?

Michael is a talented and dedicated middle school student musician. He plays the clarinet and he sings as well. But when I spotted a sticker in his locker, that led to a conversation in which he told me he's Carnegie Hall.

Carnegie. Hall.  

This is a New York City landmark that opened 125 years ago. Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Benny Goodman, and Judy Garland debuted there. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there. And Michael, the seventh grader who I shadowed, sang there. And he's doing it again this year. At this point I realized, Michael, who at a glance seems like an ordinary actually quite extraordinary.

Before his first class, Michael comes to school early to participate in a select choral group. And on this particular day, I stood next to him and among a group of very special and uniquely talented middle school singers. And I sang. The nervous energy, self consciousness, and the uncertainty I felt was all-at-once, consuming. But I sang.

We sang Black Bird. By the Beatles. One of my favorite songs, from one of my all-time favorite bands. I knew the lyrics, so I could just sing. So I did.

And that was before the official start to my #ShadowAStudent day.

Q2: What are you thinking?

My first period class featured a discussion about empathy, or more specifically, slavery, and it's impact on history and current events. This was where I came came first realize and appreciate exactly how empathetic 12 year-olds can be. They know the difference between right and wrong, and they are able to eloquently express their feelings, more than they're generally given credit for being able to do. 

All you have to ask. And listen. 

During one portion of the lesson, I was one of the students who was called to a discussion with several others, where we had a side-conversation about our reading preferences, habits, and lifestyles. What did I learn from this discussion? When teachers deliberately carve out time and space for important conversations, students seize those opportunities to engage. As long as a trusting relationship exists, students will be there. And they'll do it as much for the topic as they do for the trusted adult who invites them to engage.

Each of these items was passed to a fellow student.

Q3: What's important to you?

I found myself thoroughly appreciating the academic socialization that teachers established as a school culture norm. In one case, I sat in a group of four and we collaborated on a project using Google docs. Each of us was assigned a role, and was responsible for completing our aspect of the task. It was my responsibility to curate five photos and five accompanying captions for the group project. Jumping into a project felt overwhelming. But the helpful actions of the members of my group was thoroughly uplifting. My "classmates" were kind to me. But maybe even more impressive was the sharing that went on. One of my peers were originally from Costa Rica and another, from Colombia. And this is where I learned...there are significant differences in cultural norms...depending on your country of origin. Why did it take me sitting in this class to realize that this is something that our students navigate each and every day, and all that's required, to build empathy, is a willing ear?

Q4: How do you learn best?

Something that astounded me, as I traveled throughout the day, was the variety that was offered in each classroom. Each teacher has his/her own personality which has a direct impact on the core values and classroom culture. Each offers the students a unique learning experience from the previous class. Almost each class involved students seated face-to-face or in small groups. There were many times where we had opportunities to socialize, but in academically meaningful ways. There were high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech learning options throughout the day. And in many, there was either gross-motor or fine-motor movement, but no matter how much, it never seemed to be enough. I was definitely curious about how the students felt about the amount of time they spend sitting versus standing while engaged in learning over a 41 minute period.

Q5: Why do we need to know this?

This is a timeless question I recall asking often as a student of the 20th Century. And I found myself, sitting among my seventh grade peers, alongside Michael, asking myself this same question repeatedly throughout the school day. The good news? Each teacher seemed to provide an anecdote of some sort that provided relevance to the day's lesson. For one teacher, a Maroon Five reference was the hook. For another, it was relating a National issue to the students' neighborhood issues. And for another, it was about demonstrating how students should see learning in interdisciplinary terms, bridging probability in math to the Presidential election. In almost every instance, the students could answer this age-old question.

Q6: How well do we know each other?

In a lunchtime conversation (which by the way, was something else I learned about my student - he's by choice, a pescatarian), I stopped to appreciate how much Michael...and his classmates...know their teachers. This was something I found absolutely fascinating. The students know, appreciate, and unconditionally value their teachers strengths, are very willing to honestly share about their teachers' weaknesses, and are overall very accepting of who their teachers are as people. While there were cases where I thought about how adults interface with people who they don't see eye-to-eye with, I found the students to be unassuming and to find humor in their teachers idiosyncrasies. In a follow-up conversation with Michael, he told me he was surprised because he thought I knew our teachers better. And while I do feel that I know them on a instructional level, his honest words gave me pause to consider how I might further my relationships with them. I also reflected on how well our teachers know our students. No matter how well any of us think we are doing, I think it's safe to say, we can always do better.

Q7: What's your reason for coming to school?

In my opening words to welcome back our teachers to this new school year in September, I issued a challenge to each of them: Be the reason. I often think about people's thoughts on school, and while many of us can say we've had a favorite teacher or a favorite subject, can we honestly say we can remember our reason for coming to school? Well, for our teachers, the challenge I issued then and issue now, is to be the reason that our students come to school. Maybe a student is not a "morning person" or maybe he/she doesn't love every aspect of the school day. 

However, if a student gets up in the morning to see you in Advisory, extra help, to play an instrument for you, to sing with you, or to attend an after school club or sport, you can be the reason they come to school. 

And once that seemingly insurmountable personal challenge is overcome, the possibilities become endless. I can honestly say, on my #ShadowAStudent day, Michael was my reason for coming to school. But the unanticipated gifts that followed, including the thought that I didn't want the day to end, no matter how tired I was and busy I knew I'd be, returning to my role as Principal, made it all worth it.