Lessons Learned from the Shadow a Student Challenge

This guest post, from the principal of one of BIE’s partner schools, was written after he participated in the national Shadow a Student Challenge.


It was well before the start of the school day, but Mr. G’s classroom was already bustling with excitement.  Several of his fourth grade students were already in class preparing to begin their day. Some used the classroom iPads to surf the web or look up photos for a current project while others wrote and solved math problems on the white board. Among this eager group of students, floating between the tech users and the problem solvers, was Jay, my focus student for the Shadow a Student Challenge.

The opportunity to follow Jay and share in his school experience, in addition to a conversation with him to close out the day, prompted the following insights that I hope will lead to actions that will help improve instructional experiences for all students at Bachrodt Charter Academy.

Insight #1: Students need opportunities to engage in authentic tasks and experiences.

Jay’s favorite part of the day? The block of time during which he and his partner worked to finish their deliverables and practice their public presentation for that evening’s project exhibition. Students were finalizing their “Dream Vacation” project that involved various math, reading, and writing standards as well as a Design Thinking challenge. When asked what he enjoyed so much during that time he replied, “I liked using the iPads to find the pictures and working to finish our project. I felt proud about our project.”

For the Design Thinking challenge, Jay designed a video device that would translate the show you were watching into any language. He eagerly demonstrated his prototype and how he built it, providing a very thorough explanation. Jay’s engagement level was clearly higher than at any other point during the day. He demonstrated tenacity in completing other tasks throughout the day, but the PBL work allowed him to apply creativity, collaboration, and communication for a much more authentic purpose than other tasks during the day. Jay’s enthusiasm validates our decision to implement the PBL instructional model at Bachrodt, and it is motivating to hear students share their joy of learning through these experiences.

Insight #2: All students experience high and low points of perceived engagement during the day, and it’s OK.

“Works at grade level, gets along well with his peers, no behavior or social emotional concerns.” These are all phrases that can be used to describe Jay as a student, so one would assume that he would naturally engage in the lessons and tasks that are presented to him throughout the day. However, at various points during the day, Jay’s perceived engagement level fluctuated. His engagement appeared highest when he applied the content that was being taught. Solving math problems, manipulating coins, finalizing his PBL work, and working with his classmates all provided an outlet for him to demonstrate his content knowledge and use it to reach a desired goal or outcome.

Jay’s engagement appeared lowest when content was being delivered or instructions were being provided. He would rarely focus on the teacher, would play with his sweater, or tinker with a calculator or dry erase marker. When I shared my observations with Jay, he thought about his response before answering, “I felt a little tired during math (right before lunch time), but I was trying to pay attention.” Jay also indicated that at times, his tablemates would talk which made it hard for him to focus on what the teacher was saying. However, this didn’t stop him from demonstrating an understanding of the content when given the opportunity. The problems he solved during math practice were accurate and the responses he volunteered in discussions were precise and thorough. Mr. G, cognizant of Jay’s academic ability, pushed Jay’s thinking occasionally by having him tackle more complex and challenging problems when he was finished early.

Ironically, it is what Mr. G. did not do that may have had the greatest impact. He didn’t redirect Jay when he was not looking right at him and he did not call his attention when he was playing with his sweater. It’s clear that Jay was paying attention, but was doing it in his own way, and his teacher understood this. It’s critical to be aware of, and to be OK with, the reality that students listen and learn in many different ways, and being empathic to their perspective is crucial to helping keep students motivated and engaged in the learning process.

Insight #3: Students are intrinsically passionate about learning. If they don’t show it, we’re not trying hard enough to help them find their passion.

Jay taught me a valuable lesson as I watched him work and learn. Despite moments of low perceived engagement, lessened interaction, and even minor disagreements with his project partner, his passion for learning remained strong. He continued working, collaborating, participating, and shooting his hand in the air when Mr. G. asked for student responses. Jay wanted his project display to be perfect and paid close attention to detail, from the labels on his project board to the clay sculptures of Big Ben and London Bridge.

During our discussion to close the day, Jay shared that he hopes to become a scientist when he grows up (to mix cool potions), and he is really looking forward to attending middle school. He enjoys coming to school every day because of the safe environment and healthy snack options to choose from. His unwavering positive attitude is refreshing because there are many more students like Jay in our classrooms whose passion for learning motivates them to push forward every day.

At the same time, there are many students who are not as persistent as Jay, for whom the learning does not come as easily or who are more easily discouraged when faced with a challenge. It is up to us, as adults in the educational system, to identify innovative ways to meet the needs of our students so that we can help them overcome the barriers over which we have control. We must help each and every one of them identify their passion for learning and celebrate it.

While I know these lessons are not new or unique to all, they will certainly help drive me forward as I continue working with colleagues to deliver a 21st century learning experience for our students. Providing opportunities for increased student voice can help us learn much more about them and can help guide us closer to identifying what they think, feel, and need. How do our students learn best? What are their favorite types of learning experiences? What do they like most about learning? These discussions should be taking place in our classrooms, on the playground, and in the cafeteria, and we need to take the time to listen and honor what they have to tell us.

If I had to sum up my overall Shadow a Student experience, I would concur with Jay’s closing comment on the day’s events: “It was an excellent day.”

Note: Later that evening, Jay and his partner delivered a marvelous presentation of their “Dream Vacation” project. He and his partner selected to travel to London, England and were excited to teach their audience about their trip, provide travel suggestions, explain their travel budget and expenses, and exhibit their prototype for a travel gadget that would help solve a common traveler’s problem (language barriers).


Reactions, questions? Have you ever shadowed a student, and what did you learn? Please make a comment below.

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