In the Shadow of Students (February/March 2016)

Share This

By Riana Goodale

I have been a teacher in the Boston Public Schools for nine years and am often caught up in a teacher-centric world, despite knowing that the student perspective is key to a successful educational environment.
To better understand the student experience at Boston Latin Academy, I shadowed a student for a day, completed all of the classwork (with the exception of the science test, for which I hadn't studied or brought my notecard with formulas) and most of the homework. My observations were strikingly similar to those of a veteran teacher who wrote about her shadowing experience, and though I only shadowed a student for a day, this student and others report that the experience was quite typical. I tried to keep a low profile, though acknowledge that in cultural anthropology, the observer may influence the environment. Ultimately, my own perspective as a white, female, adult teacher also influences what I observe and what I see to be relevant and important. In italics I reflect on changes I would like to make to my teaching as a result of my observations.

1. The work felt like a good level of challenge, neither too easy nor too hard. There was a broad range in the extent to which and how teachers checked for understanding. For the most part, there was a lot more presentation of material than there was grappling with and making meaning from it.

Changes to my teaching: Setting a timer to limit my own talking, providing more opportunity for students to make-meaning on their own.

2. There was a lot of sitting and being quiet. With the exception of standing up to sing two songs in Latin and walking to the next class, students sat all day. Though there were some short opportunities to turn&talk in math and Latin, the student never actually said anything, which she said was because she wasn't sitting near anyone who turned toward her. She neither volunteered nor was she called upon in any class. The student spoke up a bit during group work in English and read aloud in her group, though didn't have opportunities to speak to anyone in World Language, History (substitute work), or Science (test).

Changes to my teaching: Increasing opportunities to interact with peers about real-life events and their reflections; asking to hear from students who haven't spoken yet; tracking the gender and race of those who speak and seeking more balance and equity; cold-calling in a warm and supportive way; giving more wait-time, especially when asking for questions. As an ambivert who tends towards extrovert and as a language teacher who values oral participation in the classroom, my emphasis on talking in-class is understandable, though I also want to offer more time for individual reflection. Sitting and being quiet is not inherently less good than moving and interacting, but striking a closer balance between the two would reach more learners.

3. Teachers were patient in all of the interactions that I observed, though there was a degree of distance and anonymity.The student had no personal interactions with teachers, and the only time that she engaged directly with a teacher was to give her name to a substitute and for her homework/classwork to be checked in one class.On a larger-scale, more meaningful changes may only be possible through advisories or with longer block scheduling to allow for more time for student contributions, more movement and interactive activities in classes, teaching fewer total students, and more opportunities to engage with students in a more personal and meaningful way. &

Changes to my teaching: Offering more hallway greetings to students; choosing a different student or two to check-in with during homeroom each day; spreading our homeroom "Friday Sunday" mingle activities to Mondays and/or Wednesdays; continuing to increase personalized feedback and check-ins with my students and all students

4. The physical environment also played a role in the experience. The building was generally clean, hallways were only crowded in a few spots, and the cafeteria atmosphere was reasonably pleasant and the food line was fast, though more food was thrown away than was consumed. Though the 23mn lunch block was rushed, there was time to hang out with friends who we otherwise barely saw in-class or between classes. The bathroom, however, was unappealing, with Ramen noodles in one sink and large wads of toilet paper in another. Students report that this is typical, and somewhat tame in terms of how bad it can get. Some students report not drinking water so as to avoid having to use the unpleasant bathrooms, which may have an adverse affect on their overall well-being and ability to learn.

Changes to my teaching: Supporting the Student Government to check-in with the student body about their ideas, and publicizing how a student can report concerns.

More meaningful changes may only be possible by establishing advisories or longer block scheduling to allow for more time for student contributions, movement, and interactive activities in classes. Still, there are many opportunities to engage with students in a more personal and meaningful way, which I challenge myself to take on in the coming year.

Riana Goodale teaches Spanish at Boston Latin Academy, where she also serves as the faculty advisor to the Student Government and the Gay/Straight Alliance, and organizes with Boston's Teacher Activist Group.