Initial observations after Observe'em day

It’s 12:25.  Jamie is ten minutes into Grade 10 Boys Phys Ed.  He is dripping with sweat and all he is doing is goofing around with a basketball.  He’s wondering, just how did I end up in this situation?  What he doesn’t know is that in twenty minutes he’ll be suited up in road hockey gear playing goal for twenty moderately aggressive students who want to take a shot on net.  How did he get here?

Matt Coleman, Andreea Stoica, Jamie Mitchell, Bryn Dewar, Ashley Stephenson
and Sahar Monzavi on the steps at the beginning of the school day
Flash back 4 hours to when six teachers agreed to become students for the day.  We gathered on the steps before the bell at the start of the day, waiting with the other students, grabbed a quick photo to mark our day, and after Oh Canada, off we went to our various classes.  Our lead guidance counsellor, Tracey Forde, helped craft our timetables, as guidance counsellors so expertly do, so between the 6 of us, we had a variety of classes across all grades, from math, accounting, tech, art, and fitness.  Our Principal was great in offering up some supply teachers to cover our classes, provided by our schools SIPSA funding (that’s School Improvement Plan for Student Achievement for the uninitiated).  More feedback will follow soon, as we get the chance to sit down with all participants to break down our day.  In the meantime, here are some initial thoughts on the day, while the memories are fresh:

  • Hurry and Sit.  As teachers, being on our feet all day long, we tend to forget that our students do the exact opposite.  Students really do need to hurry to class (big schools, coupled with short transit times between classes makes for a HUSTLE between classes), and chart their route if they hope to make it from point A to point B in time.  And then….they sit, and sit, and sit.  Great discussion, interesting interviews, helpful peer to peer learning, all while sitting.  We weren’t used to that.  In fact, we found it exhausting for all the wrong reasons.
  • Peers Helping Peers.  We were struck by how resourceful and helpful students were, not only to us, but to each other.  I think that at the front of the room, I sometimes miss the quiet discussions happening at the other end of the room.  “Can you help me with this?”  “What does this mean” “how did you answer this” “here, let me show you…” were common refrains in the class.  Students were genuine, helpful and engaged in helping their peers. It was heartening and encouraging to see this collegiality going on in the back of the classrooms.
  • Teacher Student Collegiality.  It is approaching midterm, and it was evident that students and teachers were really in a groove together.  Classes flowed, jokes and ribbing were traded back and forth, it was clear that all involved were comfortable with the dynamic.  In each class, the temperature was different, set, it seemed by both the teacher and students in the room.  Some classes were energetic and quick, and others were more mellow and focused.  All classes felt in their own groove.  It was heartening to witness the level of comfort that comes from teachers knowing students and students knowing teachers.
  • Final 30% Stress. It was evident how the stress of the final 30% loomed, even if it isn’t yet midterm.  So much of the learning in the course needs to be tied to that final 30%; how the test was graded; how to best answer questions, that there seemed to be many moments where students asked questions about content related to this final 30%.  “Is this going to be on the final?” “How would this question be asked on the exam?” “How do we answer this question for the most marks?”  The stress of the test was palpable in students.  It seemed strange to us that the final could be weighing so heavily on the minds of students, and that it seemed to draw them out of the learning moment, not seeking understanding for comprehension sake, rather than as a means to answer a question on a test.  
  • Feeling Lost.  One thing I gained from the day is greater empathy for students who feel lost with the content of the class.  What a daunting task it can be to try to get a handle on the content when you are feeling out of your depth.  Thankfully, teachers were very patient and helpful, fellow students were enormously helpful and patient (see Peers helping Peers, above), and we  had the confidence to stick our head out a few times and ask a bunch of questions to get a handle on things, which helped...a bit, but still.  That feeling of scrambling to just get a general idea of what the heck was happening was stressful!
  • Students can Multi-task!  All six of us ate lunch in the cafeteria and had a mini debrief about the morning.  There were many common themes, everyone felt engaged, everyone learned something.  It was pointed out that one class watched a short video about the waste our society creates.  During the video, it was noticed that one student was totally immersed in the game he was playing on his computer.  This started to bother the “student for a day” teacher who was sitting beside him.  However, she rode out the game playing until the end of the video.  Then she was shocked when that very game playing student put up his hand and made some amazing observations that drove the rest of the class discussion!  
mitchell goalie flames.jpg
Jamie was on FIRE that day!
Flash forward to 1:30PM.  Jamie has hung up his goalie gear and he is trying to change pace mentally for his next class, World Issues.  He is finding it very uncomfortable to be sitting down to listen after the physical activity he just experienced.  Maybe it’s because he’s an adult man, staring 40 in the eyes, who isn’t quite used to so much running.  Maybe it’s the fact that he’s red faced and hot.  Something just doesn’t feel right.  After being active, he’d like to keep being active.  But he can’t, because he’s about to listen to two presentations on the Syrian Civil War.  Now don’t get us wrong, Jamie was floored by the quality of presentation and discussion he experienced in his World Issues course.  He understands that the research shows that students learn better after physical activity, but right now it is taking him awhile to settle into listening mode.

By the time the presentations start, Jamie is more focused.  He’s glad he stuck it out, because the overall quality and depth of answers in the presentations is really impressive.  It was interesting to hear student perspective on grown up problems today.  We can’t help but wonder what school and classes might look like if students were allowed more input into how, where and when they learn.  If anything, that’s a common theme we’ve been noticing.  Students want to have the ability to provide input on decision that impact them.  They want that opportunity in a genuine way and they are quick to figure out when adults seek their input without really listening to them.

If our goal is to create innovative spaces where students and teachers are challenged, we have to bring all voices to the table and listen to them equally.  We observed a lot of things that worked really well in our day as a student.  We also experienced some things first hand that don’t work so well, long periods of sitting and trying to focus for 75 minutes four times a day to name a few.  We are willing to bet that our students have solutions, if we could choose to ask them.

We are looking forward to talking with the other four teachers who participated in this challenge at our school and hearing what they thought about the day.  You can expect to hear more from us then.  In the meantime, have you ever spent a day in a student's shoes?  What were your big take aways?