Insights from Shadow a Student Challenge

By Katie Cain (originally posted on personal blog)

On Thursday, February 8, I had the pleasure of participating in the Shadow a Student Challenge.

“The Shadow a Student Challenge is a fun, illuminating, and supportive journey where school leaders come together to empathize with their students and take new kinds of action at their school. Educators and researchers have long known that shadowing can lead to powerful observations and insights to drive change. The Shadow a Student Challenge provides methods and a network to help school leaders achieve Deeper Learning for all students.” -shadowastudent.org

Because I work closely with eighth grade students, and this time of year signifies the beginning of their transition to Upper School, I wanted to learn firsthand about the ninth grade experience. It probably is not very often that an administrator follows a student around for a few hours, so in selecting a student to shadow, it was important to me to have already established a relationship with the student I shadowed. I felt that both the student and I would be more comfortable going to classes together (and eating lunch together!) if we already knew each other pretty well. Therefore I chose to shadow a ninth grader named Josie. Josie ran on my cross country team in middle school, and I taught and coached her older brother too, many years ago. Due to scheduling constraints, I could only join Josie for a few hours, rather than the full day. I am grateful for the opportunity to spend time with an Upper School student and learn more about Upper School programming firsthand.

Here are my initial takeaways and reflections:

  • Teachers who are passionate about their discipline have a tremendous impact on the learners in their class. I first joined Josie for honors biology with Dr. Spahr, who infused movement, a simulation, and music into her instruction on DNA replication. I thoroughly enjoyed her sense of humor, upbeat energy, and enthusiastic approach, and I suspect her students do too. In class, they eagerly approached the performance task after Dr. Spahr launched it by playing space-y music and conspiratorially stating, “Scientists have just discovered alien DNA in Arizona. It’s true! And we can identify the types of aliens by looking at their DNA.” Students grinned and sang along when Dr. Spahr played two music videos whose lyrics explained details about DNA. As a student in this class, I felt cared for, supported, relaxed, and excited to learn the material.
  • Use of hallway space differs from Middle School to Upper School. In middle school, teachers and students have become accustomed to using hallway space as learning space. Because the middle school modular building classrooms are smaller, and because we have intentionally built a culture around the belief that “learning demands flexible and interactive spaces” middle school students often spill into the hallways to work as individuals or in groups. In the Upper School, Josie’s biology class comprised the only students in the hallway, and while we were there, another teacher stepped out of the classroom to ask us to quiet down. I wonder how regularly and for what purpose Upper School students use spaces other than the classroom?
  • iDiploma students collaborate with each other like a well-oiled machine. Josie’s schedule on Thursday follows biology with iDiploma, a program designed to foster students’ curiosities and develop skills around communication, collaboration, and innovative thinking through project-based work. I was amazed to discover how maturely and thoughtfully Josie and her teammates Alex and Catherine spoke to each other as they worked to advance their project of constructing hexagonal shelves in an alcove at school. Not that I expected them to be anything other than mature and thoughtful; rather, the level at which they operated far exceeded what I might expect from a freshman in high school. They framed questions with, “Should we try it this way…?” and “What might happen if we…” Respectfully and naturally, they built upon each other’s thoughts and physically manipulated their prototype to show each other their ideas. From my perspective, it didn’t seem like there was one clear leader; they each contributed equally. This was impressive to observe. I wonder to what extent (and how) these skills were intentionally developed through iDiploma?

Josie and Alex utilize their measurement skills in planning how much particle board to purchase.


  •  iDiploma utilizes interdisciplinary modes of thinking, yet “disciplinary” teachers might not realize it. Josie and her teammates were building hexagonal shelves in a vertical nook in the Hive (the makerspace and meeting place for iDiploma). Their project incorporated an extraordinary amount of calculations and geometric thinking, in considering the angles of the hexagons and triangles in their design, measuring how much wood to purchase, and reasoning how to navigate from a two-dimensional plan to a three-dimensional prototype. I was blown away. When I asked how much their geometry teacher know about their work, Josie and her teammates responded, “I don’t think she does.” It left me wondering, how might teachers (and students) intentionally share the work they undertake with each other?

Josie and her peers discuss different approaches to procuring exact measurements. Photo is blurry because they never stopped moving!

  • I noticed students on cell phones, particularly at lunch. In middle school, students can use their phones if it is directly incorporated into the teacher’s instruction, like using it to film a video for a project, for instance. For the most part, we ask kids to keep them in their lockers, so it’s rare that I see a student with a phone at school. In Upper School, I only noticed one phone out in biology, and I saw a few in iDiploma, particularly in a group of students who were working on developing a virtual reality experience. I was amazed to see so many at the lunch table. The group of ninth grade girls I sat with talked with each other as they ate, and all the while, they were looking at photos, videos, snapchats, texts, etc. on their phones. It struck me as very different from my own experience at lunch as a high school student and very different from our current middle school culture, too. I wonder, what is the best and most developmentally appropriate approach to utilizing cell phones in older grades?
  • I was on my feet as a “student” much more than I normally am in my professional role. When I moved out of the classroom a few years ago, I found myself sitting much more as an administrator than I did as a teacher. I honestly haven’t done very much to correct this realization, but my relatively sedentary style at work contrasted sharply with how much I stood, moved, and walked with Josie. I climbed two flights of stairs to get to her biology class, in which we stood in the hallway and acted out the process of DNA replicating. I descended the same stairs to get to iDiploma, during which time I didn’t sit down once (for about an hour). Down one more flight of stairs for lunch, and then up all three flights again for enrichment. Truthfully I enjoyed the movement and exercise, and I wonder how we might incorporate even more movement and kinesthetic learning opportunities into the school day.

I’m still thinking through my brief experience as a ninth grader and may post more reflections soon. I appreciate Josie’s willingness to share part of her day with me, so that I could gain a firsthand glimpse of a day in the life of an Upper School student.

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