Observe'Em In Depth Debrief

A few weeks ago, six teachers at our school volunteered to become students for a day.  Each of us was given our own timetable, we were banned from our regular offices, and we were expected to eat lunch in the cafeteria.  After a day of learning, we made some initial observations which you can read about here.  Last Thursday we all (finally!) found ourselves in the same room for a more in-depth debrief.  So what did we learn from our collective time pretending to be students in our own school?

Bryn, true to the student experience, waited in line in our library the morning of to sign out a Chromebook for the day.  This sounded hilarious to us.  It also impressed us that Bryn would go that extra mile for the student experience.  However, it reflected something important in our student community (and we are willing to bet the majority of student communities) and that is that students rely on technology a great deal.  It’s important to them and understanding what our students need to do in order to access that technology should be important to us.

Bryn prepares for period one

Look around your building, how many students are using a cellphone or laptop or tablet?  Many of our students come equipped with multiple pieces of technology.  We all noticed that the abundance of screens made it easy for students to become distracted and zone out.  What surprised us though was how adept at multitasking the students seemed to be.  Several of us witnessed students who seemed to be totally disconnected from the task at hand easily step into complicated class debates and questions.  So students can multitask really well.  Time is definitely spent off task but students are quick to change gears with their technology.  

What we did notice when students were using technology for something school related was some flawed execution.  For example, we saw several students using their phone cameras to take pictures of written notes or examples.  When questioned about what they do afterward (“Save it on my phone”, “How do you organize your pictures of notes?”, “Why would I organize my pictures?”) we found a big lack of follow through.  Ideally, a student using their phone to save images of examples or lessons would spend time later sorting their pictures into some sort of virtual notebook.

This is where the 21st Century Teacher should step in.  Covering curriculum is great, but we have to remember to keep a focus on discussing and improving our students learning skills.  More importantly, we can’t expect students to have the same learning skills we had during our time in high school.  Taking an audio recording of a lesson in order to create a well-written note, later on, is a great strategy for some students who struggle with note taking in class.  It’s our job to help them realize this is a valid strategy.  So how can understanding our students use of technology change our teaching practice?

We all felt a bit of anxiety at different times throughout the day.  We noticed it before we even stepped into our new classes.  There was a lot of perceived pressure around where we were going to sit.  What’s happening in this class?  What’s the agenda?  Really it was the big unknowns of the day that threw us for a loop.  All of us were given timetables that were outside of our comfort zone.  We were the outsiders in our new classes, the weird teacher that was sitting with the students and trying to fit in.  What supplies do I need?  Should I bring out my binder?  Is this class Laptop appropriate?  What’s the Google Classroom Code? Is this what students feel like on the first day of the semester?

Yes, we all brought our flip phones to class...
But there was more pressure throughout the day.  Sahar felt it when she got a few text messages.  The adult in her wanted to ignore her phone because she was a visitor in someone else's class.  Plus, she decided to approach this day as “the student she never was in high school”.  That being said, she still felt the urge to check her phone.  There was a perceived pressure to stay engaged on social media because “It felt important to me…”  It’s easy to forget that in the world of social media, whatever is happening right now can often feel like the most important thing.

We also noticed two extremes of student behaviour.  There was a lot of what we might describe as banter/ribbing/teasing among our students, particularly in the younger grades.  Most of the time it felt like the kind of exchanges that are commonly made between friends.  However, spending a day in the proximity of that banter felt like it would weigh on us over time.  And yet, on the opposite end of this spectrum, we were confronted with just how kind students can be.  Students were quick to help each other, to collaborate, to share resources.  One of us (not saying who) was mistaken for a mature student by a student who arrived late to class and missed the introductions.  This student painstakingly took the time to help us navigate the classroom culture, signing up for Google Classroom, finding the link to the slide show, helping with the activity that was happening, finding notes, and basically explaining the everything.  It was unexpected and it really made us feel connected to the students.

You know what? It is hard to pay attention for an entire 75-minute period.  We should know that!  Our school days are a little inauthentic when it comes to how people learn.  We ask our students to stop whatever it is that they are doing during our 75-minute class, change gears, and learn what we think is important.  And of course it is important, but how do we convince students of that.  If it isn’t something a student is passionate about, that is a hard sell!  We have to recognize that our classrooms are based on curriculum and that 75-minute block is a long time if students don’t understand why they should be passionate about what they are learning.

To top it off, we are putting 30 bodies in a small room and the space they live in is one small desk and chair.  Depending on the timetable, there could be a huge lack of movement during the school day.  The lack of movement in some classes made us realize why so many students ask to take a lap around the building during the school day.  Andreea summed it up the best for all of us, “After 60 minutes I needed a break...my brain was done”.  Sixty minutes of class seemed to be the limit for all of us; after that we had a hard time paying attention.

Of course, there were several classes that offered opportunities to get up and move.  A Grade 9 math class was using manipulatives, the Leadership class offered several different activities throughout the period (some sitting, some moving), a Chemistry class was doing a lab, an art class was working on a big mural, which allowed for movement inside the classroom.  Typically, our attention span lasted longer in situations where we were asked to change gears mentally and physically several times.  A variety of activities helped!

Ashley spent the entire day in courses that were outside of her comfort zone.  Writer's Craft, Business, Chemistry, Math; all subjects that would not have been her first choices when she was in school.  Yet, she quickly adapted to the unwritten rules of her classes.  She partnered up with students who seemed to “get it”.  She figured out who she could borrow resources from.  She found ways to cope with the unfamiliar material she was learning.  She tried her best to be an ideal student.

She quickly discovered that it takes a lot of work to be the ideal student, to pay attention for 75 minutes straight three to four times a day, to take notes and participate in discussions, to collaborate and share but not overshare, to be quiet and listen, to use technology sometimes but not all the time, to learn bell to bell but leave class quickly enough to make it across campus in only five minutes.

The day was full of these little contradictions and the students know how to work the system.  They know what classes require their full focus and which classes they can power down for.  They are willing to admit that they build their timetables with this in mind.  Take it easy in period 2 so they have energy for period 4, study for their period 5 test during period 1.  Optimize their marks so I can get into the program they want.

What if the student felt (believed) that the goal of school was learning and not marks?  What if teachers stopped using marks as currency?  How might that change the choices that are happening in our schools?

We can’t help but wonder what other educators might notice if they were to take on the #Observe’em challenge.  Would you agree with us that 75 minutes is a long time to sit and focus or would you find yourself in a classroom that embraces movement?  Do you do enough in your own classroom to help support students as they use technology?  What does your building do to build culture and community so that students are prepared to act kindly?  Finally, how good are your students at playing the game of school?  Do you agree with us that it’s time to change the rules?