Alex Walker, a middle school science teacher, wants to learn more about the educational experiences of English language learners at his school. Of the approximately 1,000 students at Forest Hill Middle School, only 600 speak English at home. Students speak 42 different languages, with Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian being the most common.
Alex wonders whether English language learners (ELLs) at Forest Hill have significantly different learning experiences as they move between their ELL classes and regular classes. He decides to try a new professional learning strategy he's heard about—shadowing a student through the school day.
He talks to Victor Kim, a student in his chemistry class who's recently arrived from Korea and appears to be reasonably comfortable in school. Alex mentions to Victor that he's curious about what his school day is like and how he meets the challenges of learning a new language while also learning new concepts and interacting with new people. He asks whether it would be OK to follow Victor for half a day to learn about his classes and his experiences. Victor readily agrees.
Why Shadowing Works
Just as it sounds, shadowing is the process of following a student through all or part of a school day to gain insight into what that student experiences within the school setting. It's a way to collect data about the nature of problems faced by a group of learners—or just one. Tests, after all, can't provide on-the-ground information about what is contributing to a student's academic performance or what teachers might do differently. But educators who've shadowed students report that they've developed new perspectives on what conditions most enhance a student's focus and motivation.
In recent years, schools have tried various strategies based on classroom visits to inform instructional practice. These include walk-throughs, learning walks, instructional rounds,1
Although these each provide a big-picture view of teaching and learning throughout a school, shadowing provides a complementary perspective—a look at schooling through the lens of a single student.
Shadowing helps a teacher gain fuller understanding of interactions between students and teachers (or among students), including how race, class, and culture affect a student's experiences. It fosters empathy. It gives teachers greater clarity about instructional and curricular practices and ideas for improving their instruction in ways that will give more diverse kinds of students the chance to excel.
Shadowing also gives teachers who have many English language learners more awareness of what supports exist—or don't—for these students. Watching Victor navigate classes, Alex believes, will lead him to a deeper understanding of the conditions under which his many ELLs are most engaged.
Because he's shadowing an 8th grader, Alex approaches this process as a partnership. He believes that it's best to give secondary-level students an opportunity to share how they'd like to be accompanied. Alex asks Victor where he should sit while observing in class, whether Victor minds if Alex talks with him in the hallway between classes, and whether he should hang back when Victor talks with friends.
Another key step Alex takes is clarifying his purpose. Basically, Alex wants to understand how regular and ELL classroom experiences help or hinder the academic success of a high school student who's learning English. But to get the most insight out of his observations, he narrows his focus and connects it to his long-term goal, which is to set up conditions in which every student feels connected to—and respected by—the teacher and peers. He's curious about whether teachers establish this kind of inclusive atmosphere in both ELL and general education classes and whether second-language students feel they belong in all aspects of school.
Preparing for Shadowing
Shadowing a student effectively requires teachers to plan carefully. To help educators carry out shadowing experiences, I suggest some basic questions teachers should ask themselves. Let's look at what Alex considers as he prepares to observe Victor.
How can I make the experience productive and comfortable for everyone?
It's important that everyone involved is clear about what shadowing will entail and that school staff respect confidentiality. In addition to getting Victor's permission to follow him through his first four classes, Alex seeks permission from the teachers of those classes and (because shadowing is uncommon in his school) from the principal.
Alex decides to adhere to two guidelines, which he makes clear to Victor, key school adults, and Victor's parents: (1) If he speaks publically or writes about this experience, Alex will change the name of the student and school, and (2) If Victor says he'd like to end the shadowing experience at any time—as sometimes happens—Alex will honor that request. To communicate with Victor's parents, Alex seeks assistance from the district-authorized interpreter, who helps him write a note and follows up with a phone call.
It's sometimes helpful to give the student a written description of your general purpose for shadowing—not your more detailed one—and how you hope to proceed. (See "An Explanation of Shadowing.")
How will I focus my attention?
In keeping with his purpose of determining how connected—and respected—ELLs feel in their classroom communities, Alex decides to pay special attention to student-teacher interactions, student-to-student interactions, and classroom routines that seem to support or interfere with Victor's engagement.
How will I take notes?
Teachers should have a game plan for how they'll take notes on what they observe. Alex works out an agreement with the student about what is OK to share with colleagues. He also makes a plan to distinguish in his notes among factual observations, inferences he'll make based on what he observes, and questions he'll wonder about. Although observers will make some inferences, it's important to practice making statements that describe only what they actually see without inferring intentions or policies. Finally, having a way to recognize judgments helps avoid the tendency to leap to conclusions (for example, note "The teacher mostly called on English speakers in this class period" rather than "The teacher avoided calling on language learners").
Alex takes notes using sheets of paper divided into two columns, the left-hand column for observations and the right-hand column for his thoughts, feelings, and emerging questions.
How will I know what I've learned?
Extracting the main ideas from hours of observing is so essential to a meaning-ful experience that Alex plans ahead for how he'll review and make sense of his data. For instance, Alex decides to read through all his data twice, trying to keep his original question in mind and avoid preconceived ideas. During the first read, he looks for patterns of activities or learning conditions in Victor's classroom experiences that foster—or seem to inhibit—his sense of belonging. During the second read, he groups these observations into three categories: social exchanges, academic exchanges, and individual learning activities.
Reflecting on What You Learn …
The goal of shadowing, of course, is not just to learn about students' experiences; the teacher also must apply those insights to instructional planning and teaching in a way that supports a broader range of students. To learn from their notes, teachers look for patterns they see in light of their original questions, reflect on those patterns, and choose specific practices to change, or at least explore how to change. The process may involve sharing these distilled observations with other teachers and asking for their ideas.
As Alex organizes his notes on shadowing Victor, he pays attention to which kind of observations appear most frequently and which strike him as significant. One of his most powerful insights is how few times Victor interacted with his teachers or spoke with classmates. Alex estimates that during one 110-minute instructional block, Victor asked other students three questions. A large portion of each class period involved working in small groups, but Victor didn't seem to make much sense of his group's conversations. However, he was able to write down main ideas, and he followed up with Korean-speaking students after school to clarify the purpose and content of lessons.
Alex realizes how invisible Victor appears in his regular classes. Teachers expect Victor to contribute in his ELL classes, but teachers in regular classes don't seem to expect him to participate in group work. Alex wonders if they assume Victor is engaged because he typically looks busy by staring at a paper or fiddling with his translator. Alex includes his own practice in his inquiry by wondering whether Forest Hill teachers, himself included, subconsciously decide not to engage Victor in class conversations.
And Taking Action
These reflections lead Alex to question how he can create a classroom environment that encourages language learners to interact with other students. Such a climate would offer language learners better opportunities to take risks with a new language and practice reading, writing, and talking. It would also help them advocate for themselves when they need clearer information. He sets a goal to design lesson plans with deliberate opportunities for his English language learners to communicate their questions and learning.
Deciding he needs to speak with some more experienced colleagues, Alex seeks out interested teachers for a study group on how to plan lessons that include clear learning targets and strategies for teaching students who are learning English and academic content at the same time. He asks a district office coach for articles on teaching English learners in math, science, language arts, and social studies, and for literature that discusses how English language learners are both similar to and different from one another.
Developing a Schoolwide Approach
Shadowing can be part of a schoolwide strategy. Encouraging teachers to shadow learners can help a school follow through on its commitment to improve teaching and learning for a range of learners. Watching one—or several—students helps teachers who feel frustrated because they've been asked to improve instruction but don't yet understand what problems exist or how they might solve them.
Although it's productive for one teacher to shadow one student, it can be even richer for one or several teachers together to shadow four different learners—for example, two low-performing learners, one who performs above grade level, and one with average achievement. Teachers often select a mix of students on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and language so they are reaching across diverse student groups. Gaining a sense of what the learning day is like for many students enables teachers to keep the image of different learners in their minds as they plan lessons.
If several teachers shadow students, the school benefits when administrators create a way for them to share their experiences. For example, school leaders might set aside time in a staff meeting for teachers who've shadowed to present to the larger faculty about their approach, insights, and next steps. This is an excellent time to offer assistance to other staff members who would like to shadow a student as well. Following these presentations, a whole-group discussion among the faculty can help everyone explore what the shadowing revealed and the implications for teaching, learning, and school practices.
A Transformative Practice
As a form of inquiry-focused professional learning, shadowing supports teachers' desires to improve their own instruction. It engages teachers' imaginations as they connect the dots between students, curriculum, instruction, and the school environment. Further, shadowing students can be transformative. The insights teachers gain by seeing the school day through a student's eyes, and the meaning they construct from that experience, can fundamentally alter how they view students, instructional interactions, and their own commitment to continuous improvement.
An Explanation of Shadowing
It's wise to share with the student you shadow (and relevant adults) an explanation of your purpose and procedures. Here's a sample:
My goal in shadowing you is to understand more about the experience of students in our school by witnessing, firsthand, some of your learning experiences. I hope this will help me be more effective as a teacher. With your permission—and the permission of your teachers—I would like to sit in on three or more classes with you and also walk behind you, like a shadow, in the hallways. In classes, in the hallway, and at lunch, I will pay attention to interactions without being too obvious. Let me know how I could best do this without making you self-conscious.
In addition to being your shadow, I will take notes on what I observe. Anything I write will be confidential. I will not use your name in my notes or in anything I share with other educators. I will use what I learn from shadowing you to help make learning at our school more respectful, relevant, and worthwhile for all students.
City, E. A., Elmore, R. F., Fiarman, S. E., & Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Ginsberg, M. B., & Kimball, K. (2008). Data-in-a-day: A new tool for principal preparation. Principal, 87(3), 40–43.
Author's note: All names of students and schools are pseudonyms.
Margery B. Ginsberg is lead faculty of the Leadership for Learning program and associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.
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