As the old saying goes, "You don’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes."
This week, administrators and teachers in a number of districts nationwide are doing just that, engaging in an exercise aimed at putting them in students' shoes to build empathy and foster understanding of their experiences.
The nationwide “Shadow a Student Challenge” kicked off on leap day, Feb. 29, and is set to wrap up on Friday, March 4. Participating educators can begin the day by hopping on the big yellow bus with the student they choose to follow, struggle to find a table in the cafeteria during lunch, navigate packed hallways, and attend homeroom or regular classes.
The challenge is the result of a partnership between various organizations that came together to form School Retool, a professional development fellowship that encourages deeper learning and problem-solving by educators. Partners include the design and innovation consultancy group IDEO; Stanford University’s d.school, which also has a primary focus on innovative solutions; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
IDEO has an in-house “Education studio” that creates ed tech platforms, learning tools, and school models. Its free Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit is aimed at teaching K-12 educators and administrators the ins and outs of design thinking.
Stanford’s d.school is a collaborative effort that brings together students and faculty in engineering, medicine, business, law, the humanities, sciences, and education to conceptualize innovative solutions.
Susie Wise, K-12 lab network director at Stanford d.school, is one of the organizers behind the Shadow a Student challenge. "The Shadow A Student Challenge is important because it gets leaders into student mode to see/feel/hear how students really experience school," Wise said. "This empathy opens them to see school in a different way and opens them up to design things into school that are more student-centric, more relevant to kids and their futures."
Wise urges teachers and administrators to shadow a student or a group of kids that they may not know a lot about. Describing typical realizations from school principals to Education Week, she said, “Some of the leaders who've done it have been surprised with how passive the student's day is, how much sitting there is, how many transitions there are that don't make much sense. You don't see that when you're looking at a master schedule and you're in your leader mode.”
School leaders are expected to also think on their feet during the challenge, identifying myriad problems that students regularly face and improvising possible solutions. The scale is intentionally small, and adults are encouraged to embrace a “hacktivist” mentality.
The idea for the challenge stemmed from a November 2015 visit by the School Retool team to the White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools. In Washington, the team pledged to help 1,000 school leaders in 50 different states adopting “hacktivist” techniques in order to spur deeper learning.
Thus, the Shadow a Student Challenge was born. And according to Wise, the participant goal was shattered with some 1,286 educators hailing from all 50 states and 24 countries signing up.
"Given the great response to our inaugural year, we hope to run it annually," Wise said.
Shadowing is just the first part, though. Participants are also expected to share their experience with peers and colleagues.
In the February 2012 issue of Educational Leadership, the publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), professor and author Margery B. Ginsberg described one middle school teacher’s experience with shadowing students.
“Educators who've shadowed students report that they've developed new perspectives on what conditions most enhance a student's focus and motivation,” Ginsberg wrote. “Shadowing helps a teacher gain fuller understanding of interactions between students and teachers including how race, class, and culture affect a student's experiences.”
Besides fostering empathy, she continued, shadowing also lent clarity to teachers around instruction, sparking ideas about improvement.
“Watching one—or several—students helps teachers who feel frustrated because they've been asked to improve instruction but don't yet understand what problems exist or how they might solve them,” Ginsberg concluded, urging districts to enact a school-wide approach to shadowing.
High school math teacher Dave Sladkey from Naperville Central High School in Naperville, IL, shadowed students in November 2014, later blogging about the experience. He also created a Storify account of his day.
First, being a student is tiring. Second, sitting around is hard to do.
"This was mentally and physically taxing today," Sladkey noted. "I was wiped out by 7th period... I, being a math teacher, calculated how much time, in minutes, I was in my chair. 303 minutes in my chair. Almost all of the chairs were swivel chairs, which helped. However, that is a lot of time just sitting."
He also found that student schedules packed a lot of learning into one day, and he left the experience with a heightened appreciation for school staff and his fellow teachers.
Sladkey ended his recap on an upbeat note, encouraging other teachers to ask their own principals to let them shadow.
"You will be pushed out of your comfort zone, but you will never regret it," he wrote.
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