Inspired by the view out the window when writing Japanese poetry.

Inspired by the view out the window when writing Japanese poetry.

At the end of my day shadowing a student, all I could think was: I am going to sleep well tonight.

As I write this reflection, I’m also wondering whether I used the colon correctly in my previous sentence. That seems odd, but I guess the grammar lesson in period three was pretty sticky.

I spent a full day tagging along with Will, a Cary Academy 6th-grade student, as part of the national Shadow a Student Challenge. I accepted when our school entered a joint project with the Design for Learning Studio at IDEO to use the principles of design thinking to tackle thorny organizational problems. The goal, I suspect, was to center our thinking by deeply exploring the student experience at our schools. If so, mission accomplished.

My day started in band class, and before I trundled home that afternoon I had joined a national research project to measure ultraviolet rays, diagrammed sentences, won a contested game of capture the flag, programmed a computer animation of my family speaking in French, built a scale model of an Antarctic research station, written Japanese Waka poetry, and participated in a schoolwide scavenger hunt as part of Cary Academy’s 20th Anniversary celebrations.

Yeah, I slept well.

Parents are known to joke about the monosyllabic responses their kids give to the timeworn dinner table starter: “What happened in school today?”

Well kids, I feel your pain.

I joined our teachers for a faculty meeting at the end of my shadow day, and when all eyes turned to me all I could muster was a thumbs up. I was too beat to process all that had happened and frankly didn’t know where to begin. You kinda’ had to be there.

With a fresh night’s rest, I think I can put the day into better context with two words.

Will and all his classmates moved through their day with precision. Cary Academy has no bells, and in some cases we only had three minutes to pass between class. Transitions can be difficult for anybody, even more so for younger learners, but Will and his classmates had clear routines in place that made these transitions so much easier. Each time we got to a new room, he settled into his space, opened his laptop and got started with something. The teacher was present but didn’t need to cue anybody to the opening routine, which was important because some students were coming from other buildings on campus and thus filtered in at different times.

Once the teacher took control, there was a clear design for their time together. It varied greatly between the different classes, but it was always active and in most classes highly collaborative. Instructions were easy to follow, and the students were able to move into their work smoothly. It was clear that they were used to being active participants in their classrooms. In science class they were reviewing and selecting from 43 possible individual citizen science research projects that had been curated by the teachers. In math class they were asked for their opinions on what activities they should do to demonstrate their learning over the next three days. In the scavenger hunt, they were put in foursomes and used a phone app to find answers around the campus to school trivia.

All of the classes used technology in seamless ways, and I was impressed with how smoothly the students used these tools: OneNote to organize materials across all classes, to test grammar knowledge and to make French come alive. When the laptops were not needed, lids were closed and focus was on the task at hand.

It would be fair to think that so many transitions between classes each day might make for a disjointed experience. My day with Will was certainly busy. We moved purposefully but never felt rushed. Even though we moved between very different activities, the day felt connected. It was clear that Will’s teachers talk to each other, and that they enjoyed working together. They spoke knowingly and excitedly about things they knew the students would be experiencing in other classes, and this was oddly reassuring. It felt like I was a part of something bigger than just myself.

Behind the scenes, there where were norms of behavior everywhere. Assignments written on the corners of all the whiteboards. Soft but purposeful starts to the class, allowing students to transition in without shame if they had to use the bathroom or come from further across campus. Discussions were natural and questions were honored, not treated as nuisances. There was an occasional adolescent outburst — an inappropriate shout out or overly robust laughter — but these were corrected not by an obvious teacher scold but by the lack of oxygen given by peers. They simply burned out as folks went about their business.

A few years ago, our strategic planning committee struggled mightily to try and define the term “learning community” in our mission statement. They should have just shadowed Will for a day.