Shadow a Student Challenge

The third year of Shadow a Student challenge begins tomorrow and runs for the next two weeks. However, with all three administrators in the building I work in participating in the challenge, we had to get a bit creative with scheduling, which meant that I shadowed a student Friday, before the challenge officially began.

Before I get into what I saw and some reflections from the day, I can’t emphasize this strongly enough: administrators, counselors, district leaders – GO DO THIS. It was great to leave the radio in my office for the day and be out seeing the school from a student’s perspective.

I was really glad the way the schedule broke for the tenth grader I was shadowing, Lily. I spent the morning in two electives, cooking and metals. Though they were two different classes, I was really struck by how quickly and obvious feedback was in both of those classes. Mistakes – or areas that needed improvement – were generally pretty obvious and there were opportunities to fix them.

In cooking, Lily was making shakshuka with a partner. The end of the recipe called for a poached egg, which the two students were a bit fuzzy about how to go about making. After one attempt, they called the teacher over and asked how it looked.

“That looks like a fried egg, not a poached egg.”

The successfully poached egg

The students then problem-solved for how to get more of a liquid base in what they had made (this involved a smaller pot and some water) and immediately tried – and were successful – in poaching an egg.

How many classes do students get opportunities like this, to make a big mistake, and then see the error, and correct it immediately? In the conversation with Lily and her partner, they both felt like cooking and metals – the class they both had next – were the two classes that they felt like they could fail most safely in, where the mistakes they made were pretty easily visible to them and/or the teacher and were able to be corrected quickly.

Metals bore this out. Lily spent the metals period cutting then shaping a cylindrical metal rod into a screwdriver head. Showers of sparks from a grinder cutting the metal rod? Acetylene torches heating metal super hot so it can be shaped into the screwdriver on an anvil? Yeah. That all went down. Plus some students were welding, others were operating drills, etc.

Props to shop teachers – the amount of teaching you need to do around safe use of tools then the trust you need to have that students know how to properly and safely operate this machinery: not for the faint of heart for sure!

I was again struck by the ease of feedback in this class. At one point, when the screwdriver head was being flattened on the torch and anvil, the teacher stopped Lily and asked her to hold up the screwdriver. It was starting to get a bit curved.

“Oh. Yeah. I can fix that. Thanks, Harmon.” (Mr. Harmon teaches her metals class.)

Before and after shots

Feedback was quick, and the fix was immediate: more time was spent on one side of the screwdriver head than the other. And at the end of the class, you could see how much had gotten done: from metal rod to something that looked like a screwdriver head.

Unfortunately, I lost Lily at lunch when I ran back to the office to grab my food. However, I was able to catch up with her for her afternoon of French and science. Though the content of both classes was very different, both showed a lot of trust in students to direct their own learning. Whether it was a chunk of time creating a children’s book in the past tense or time to mess with acids and bases to create a neutral solution, students were given a goal and trusted to go and pursue it.

Both classes also demonstrated the power of social learning. Whether it was checking in with her table group when she had a question on her French book, or arguing about whether to add more acid or base to try to neutralize the solution then had already created, Lily’s afternoon had ample opportunity for both self-directed work time as well as time to work with and learn from her peers in the class.


This is more of a report and brief reflection on the day. Unfortunately, I left my notes from the day and the Shadow a Student Challenge packet at school over the weekend. I’ll pick up the reflective and debrief pieces from that packet and relook at my notes and hopefully have a few more things to say.

I’m also excited to sit down with other administrators in my building and district and chat about what we saw, what we learned, and most importantly what sort of actions we are going to take based on our opportunities to shadow a student.

Student Voice Forum Reflections

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Table 20!

I was lucky enough to get to attend the School District 42 student forum for grades ten through twelve students this past week. Conversations focused on motivation, belonging, and life after grad. These three topics were chosen through school visits that got students thinking about the most important parts of school and concerns or questions they had in these areas. Interestingly, were I to have chosen topics to chat about with a group of 160 secondary students from across the district, I think that my list would have looked remarkably similar.

The core of the day for me was a set of table conversations that I got to facilitate around the three focus areas for students from a cross section of the secondary schools in my district. Though a lot was shared, a few themes stood out to me.

In terms of motivation and belonging, students talked about the importance of relationships with the adults in schools as the huge key in this area. Is this a surprise? No. Is it an important reminder? Absolutely. Students talked about having real conversations with adults, about school employees taking the time to notice when they were having a bad day, about adults being willing to be vulnerable and acknowledge when they were struggling, about conversations about what was going on in the broader world, not just the confines of the subject area they were involved in in their classrooms.

The other area students at my table stressed was around relevancy. Whether it was the material of a subject or dealing with life after grad, students emphasized that seeing the relevance in the material in front of them made classes easier and more enjoyable. Thinking back on this conversation now, I wish I had gotten to ask about the connection between choice and relevance: does some autonomy over content increase relevancy? Or is relevancy something that is only tied directly to your life at that moment? Something to marinate on for sure.

The challenge going forward

Around the room throughout the day on flipchart paper were six questions that students could wander around and answer. The photo on the right about are students voices being heard really stuck with me, particularly the answer in the upper lefthand corner of the paper. There is a difference between listening to students and translating that listening into action. I’m looking forward to seeing the synthesis of all twenty table conversations from the day, to seeing the video stories that students shared, to see what the larger themes that came out of the event. More importantly though, I’m excited to see what changes are made after listening to our students.

A Little “Yes, And…’ Magic

At some point during the day yesterday, I got an email from the Stanford d school’s K-12 Design Lab discussing what they had been up to and the sort of programs they had coming up. One of the programs was the Shadow a Student challenge. The challenge is pretty simple: administrators follow a student around school for a day to build empathy and gain an understanding of a school from a student’s perspective. This seemed like an opportunity – to the Twitter machine!

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After tagging a bunch of administrators in the district I work in, I hoped there would be some interest. Well, Grant Frend had a better idea, AKA the first ‘yes, and…’ of the evening:

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Umm, yeah, that sounds like a good idea: shadow a student, some debrief conversations, maybe a beverage? That’s better than just shadowing a student for a day. Then Cheryl Schwarz chimed in with another ‘yes, and…’:

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Not just shadow a student, but then go shadow an admin? Get a look into another building for a day, see how other administrators do their job? That’s a really good way to see into other schools and learn routines and norms that other buildings have.

Shadow a Student day is still a few weeks off. How many SD42 administrators will end up participating? What will the structures that we use to debrief our experiences – both shadowing students and other administrators – end up looking like? I’m not sure what either of those answers are. However, I’m excited to see where the conversations head.

And all powered by a couple of ‘yes, and…’ ideas!

Turning Off Your Brain

Back in the day, as a new teacher, I found myself waking up at night, unable to go back to sleep. Student dealing with big issues at home? Or a different student making bad choices at school? Or what to do about that class that is spinning in the wrong direction?

My brain would click on and start spinning. And for the most part, it would be fixated on things that were beyond my control. But, for a while, that wouldn’t matter: my lack of control – something I could acknowledge at 3am as my brain was spinning – wasn’t enough to stop the ideas bouncing around my head early in the morning.

Eventually, I got to a place where I knew that my brain was wrapping around things beyond my control. I was able to train my brain to let things like these go, to trust that I was doing what I could and the rest would take care of itself.

And I slept better. Woke up and went back to sleep. Didn’t spend a couple hours with my brain unable to turn off, despite the early morning hour.

Now, as a new administrator, I’m feeling those same things I felt as a new teacher. I’ll roll over at some ridiculous hour and my brain will start turning and not power down. Usually, it’ll be stuff beyond my control. But I haven’t trained my brain to let that stuff go. Yet. It’s not awful – one or two nights a week. But dangit, I want my sleep!

I’m working on it. Now, I wish I remembered how long I dealt with this as a new teacher. Weeks? Months? When will it disappear? It’s coming, I’m sure. Hopefully sooner, rather than later.


One of my favorite crazy educators – but the good, ‘go run through a wall after you talk to him’ kind of crazy – Jon Corippo has a lot of interesting ideas. One of the things I’ve chatted with him about over the years is the idea of reps for students. Jon talks about how students will struggle with new structures and ideas to start with. An open ended project that should take half a week? The first time you do it may take two weeks. But get kids reps, get them familiar with structures and how something in your classroom works, and later in the year you’ll get that two week project down to a three day project.

That’s reps. Practice. What are the structures of your classroom that kids have to master? Give them reps and they’ll get better. My wife sees it in her grade six classroom with the Daily 5: students who struggle in September to self-direct through thirty minutes of Daily 5 have no problem with ninety minutes of self-directed Daily 5 come April.


It’s the same with hard conversations we have to have as educators. The first time you deal with something? A student – or a parent – who is furious at you? Yikes. I need a hand. Can I practice the conversation I’m going to have with them with you? The third time? The fifth time? I’ve got this.

I’ve seen this be true as an administrator as well. First fight? Walk me through how we deal with this. It’s easier the next time. Need to find out what a student knows? I WAY overplayed my hand in a conversation earlier this year. Hopefully, I’ll learn from it and do better the next time.

That idea of reps, what Jon talks about with students, holds true for the adults in schools as well. If you’re going to build competence, you need practice. You need to be bad at something in order to reflect and learn to be good.

You need – we all need – reps.

Seeing An Impact

One of my favorite parts of teaching world history was watching students grow. Getting to spend two years with a group of students allowed me to see skills and confidence develop over a longer period of time than over just one year together in a classroom.

If you looked at an incoming grade nine in September, then compared them to what they could do in December there were visible differences. Give them another year and a half? Huge growth. Students could find better evidence. Write more convincing analysis. Read more complex documents. Self-regulate for extended periods of project time. Present publicly with grace and poise.

Those things were all visible. Even over shorter arcs like a month you could see growth from students.

One of the things that I’ve struggled with this year is the lack of a visible impact. I don’t see students in class every day. I don’t get to watch a skillset grow and blossom. The things I was used to seeing in the classroom aren’t metrics I see anymore.

This isn’t a complaint. But it is different. I’m sure as I learn the job of VP those growth areas I got accustomed to seeing in the classroom will show up in my new job as well. But for now, I don’t immediately see those growth areas; I’m not sure yet where I should be looking. And because of that things feel a little different, a little less measurable. I can’t see the impact that I’m having.

But in time…

This is where you, the administrator, comes in. How do you see your impact in your school? What are you looking for? What are you watching? I’m curious!


As someone with a new job this year, mistakes are really inevitable: at various points I’m going to screw up, say the wrong thing, hesitate when I shouldn’t, etc.

What’s next? What do you do after the mistake? That’s what I’m working on getting better at.

First, say, “I’m sorry. How can I make this right?” That’s pretty easy. The next part is more complicated.

I’m a big believer in rational actions: people always act rationally. From the outside, it may not always seem like that is the case. However, with some empathy, I think we can get to a place where we may not agree with an action, but we can understand how it was a rational choice someone made in a moment.

When I make a mistake, it is the same thing: I made what I thought was a rational choice. However, when you let a teacher or student down, and you think you acted rationally, the impulse is to explain your decision. However, this explanation – “this is what I was thinking and why I did what I did” – isn’t needed in the moment. When you’ve got an upset party in front of you, they aren’t interested in your rationale. They are interested in solutions. And in attempting to explain why you made a certain choice, you can invalidate the feelings of the person you just wronged.

“If you just heard my side, you’d get it.”

That pushes back on the feelings they expressed. That isn’t a solution to the mistake you made. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reflect on what you did that left someone disappointed or upset. But the reflection doesn’t need to be public, in front of the aggrieved party. Figure out how to get it right the next time, and show that with your actions.


As with most thoughts on this blog, this opinion is a work in progress. Might my thinking change? Sure. It almost certainly will. It is, however, where I’m at right now.