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…to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.” Alice Miller
Shadow Day Reflection
by Mollie Williams
Before I taught in Middle School, I was a Lower School teacher at a private K-8 grade school in Baltimore. My days as a third grade homeroom teacher were full of joy and laughter. I got hugs all day long, and I received love letters and drawings from my students, and appreciative gifts from parents on a frequent basis. Life was good. On the eve of my new role as Dean of Students in the Middle School, I thought to myself “What the heck have I done?!!” I braced myself for the stereotypical eye rolling, avoidance of student/teacher relationships, attitudes, and self-centered behavior.
While the hugs and love letters did indeed cease, I made meaningful connections with middle school students after about a month of investment. I quickly learned that middle school students are just as needy, if not needier, than those adorable lower school students….they just don’t always know how to show it or express it. They need us more than ever to believe in them and connect with them. They so want to please us, and a pat on the back, a smile, or a compliment goes a long way.
While I enjoyed my time teaching in the Lower School, I have felt called to Middle School; I want to advocate for children who are trapped between childhood and young adulthood, who need love, support, and guidance.
On Monday, February 6, I participated in the Shadow a Student Challenge by shadowing sixth grade student, Itai Gutman, for a full day of school. Shadow a Student Challenge was designed to be a fun, illuminating, and supportive journey, and an opportunity to gain empathy by getting a better understanding of what it is like to be a middle school student in today’s world.
Here is the schedule that I followed:
7:50-8 a.m. Homeroom (Mrs. Nine)
8-8:15 a.m. Middle School Morning Meeting
8:15-9 a.m. Science (Mrs. Magruder)
9-9:45 a.m. English (Mrs. Michelson)
9:45-10:30 a.m. Intro. To Theater (Mrs. Johnston)
10:30-10:45 a.m. Snack/Recess
10:45-11:30 a.m. Spanish (Ashby)
11:30-12:15 p.m. History (Huth)
12:15-12:45 p.m. Lunch/Recess
12:45-1:30 p.m. Math (Mrs. Nine)
1:30-2:15 p.m. Art (Mrs. Keohane)
2:15-3 p.m. Advisory (Mrs. Hutchinson)
Key Take-Away 1– Get Movin and Groovin
Movement is key to having students be alert and engaged. An hour of sitting is more tiring than one thinks. As teachers, we need to consider the following:
- Vary lessons so that students sit for part of the lesson, move to a different location for partner work, collaborate in groups in a different location
- Offer “brain breaks” to break up the lesson. Brain Breaks are a useful tool for teachers to use to help activate, energize and stimulate their students’ brains.
Key Take-Away 2– Furniture
On my shadow day, I noticed that every classroom was arranged in a different way. Our teachers have clearly given thought to the classroom atmosphere that they want to create.
Classroom furnishings can play a key role in meaningful learning. The furnishings and arrangement of the classroom should show that it is a flexible learning space.
Key Take-Away 3– Recess is Key
Fresh air, unstructured play, and running around is an essential part of a healthy day, and I firmly believe that our students will be more focused in class if they have this time. After sitting in morning classes, I joined Itai and Charlie for a football catch outside in the crisp air. I literally cringed when the whistle blew to end recess, and found myself being the one to say “Oh, just one more pass!”
Key Take-Away 4– Kindness, Patience, Connections Matter
While every teacher was kind, patient, and compassionate, I felt slightly self-conscious about my responses and contributions in the classes. Were other students going to laugh at me? Were there going to be glares across the room at my expense? Did people not want to partner with me because I was not smart enough or artistic enough? I could only imagine how children must feel at a time when they so desperately want to feel accepted among their peers.
Middle Schoolers are often destabilized by the drastic physical and emotional changes they are experiencing. They challenge, disobey, assert their independence, pull away, and test the limits. This does not mean that they are “bad kids” but rather “normal kids” who need caring and dedicated adults around them to guide them and keep them on track.
Mary Ashby had my back on Monday when I answered a Spanish question incorrectly and my fellow students were starting to make comments until she nipped it in the bud. I felt protected and valued by her. It is our responsibility as educators to do this for all of our students in every class, no matter what the subject area or challenge level.
Key Take Away 5– It is okay to fail
Along these lines, Leslie Keohane created an atmosphere in class where it was safe to fail. She explained the lesson and encouraged creativity, exploration, and persistence. She clearly communicated her expectations and what was important to her. Many students had never worked with clay before, and they felt comfortable because their teacher emphasized the process, not the end result exclusively.
Key Take-Away 6– Using Technology in a Meaningful Way
How fun and engaging can teachers make a vocabulary lesson?! Ask Kristina Michelson. After reviewing the homework, she shared an interactive powerpoint presentation in which students had to identify the vocabulary word by looking at a visual representative image. Not only was it interactive, but it was a great example of shifting gears while covering the same topic.
Key Take-Away 7– Design Thinking in Action
What better way to foster curiosity in your science students than have them learn about deep sea creatures and their living conditions, and then create, through the design thinking process, their very own deep sea creatures that would survive successfully in specific conditions! There is nothing better than witnessing fully engaged students roll up their sleeves and dive into a project. After research, students sketched a design of their sea creature, and then the creativity really took place as they chose materials from a wide collection. The features of their animal had to serve a purpose and students had to articulate and communicate this purpose. Lauren Magruder demonstrated how to be the “guide on the side” as opposed to the “sage on the stage” but guiding with questions.
Key Take-Away 8– The Importance of the Basics
Courtney Huth very intentionally taught a lesson on HOW to read from a textbook, take effective notes, and work collaboratively. Even though we know that we have a strong program, we cannot assume that our students have these basic skills. Even if teachers know that students have learned how to outline, take notes, or cite resources in a previous class or grade, they need to take the time to teach it again. While we implement PBL (project based learning) and other innovative teaching tools, we must not forget that it is our responsibility to teach and reinforce the basics as well.
Key Take-Away 9– Differentiation
17 sixth grade math students in one room? “Sure, I can handle that. No problem!” That’s what Elise Nine said when we were forming the new ability based math groups. She was like an octopus, managing five different things at once, all with complete composure and patience. She gave a new meaning to the word multi-tasking! She truly is a master of differentiation.
Finally, what better way to end the day back with my advisor, Lauren Hutchinson! Nurturing and kind, she facilitated the advisory lesson, challenging us to think deeply and thoughtfully. She navigated distractions with patience and understanding. It was the perfect closure to a full day!
I believe in taking the time to look at things from various perspectives.
I believe in being compassionate, open-minded, and empathetic.
I believe in the possibilities of children.
I believe in the goodness of teachers who have sacrificed much to make the world a better place.
It is an honor to be a part of this community.
I want to extend a special thank you to Itai, who allowed me to shadow him for a full day. I admire this boy immensely, for he came to America from another country and spoke very little English before school started. He has worked incredibly hard to learn how to communicate and how to gain knowledge. He is kind, smart, funny, charming, and persistent. I have tried to persuade him to convince his parents to stay another year here in Newport, for he has enriched our community greatly.
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Critical thinking, creative problem solving, resilience, risk taking without fear of failure, open-mindedness, and curiosity: most would agree that these are the 21st Century skills that our children will need as they move on to high school, then college, then the real world. While I am in full agreement with this list, there is one more key component that I believe our children will need in order to be successful and productive members of the community….empathy.
The dictionary defines Empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” One cannot be forced to feel empathetic towards another. However, we can intentionally coach our kids to be sensitive to the feelings of others, aware of what is going on around them, and appreciate that we are all coming from different places with different stories. When we do this, we are asking our children to try, just try to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. In order to experience true empathy, one must be able to relate to an experience that they have had themselves.
Empathy is the key that can open up a whole new world for all of us, a world that allows us to develop a greater understanding of situations, foster stronger collaborations, and establish powerful connections with others. It is a key factor in solving problems, improving communities, and bringing about positive change. Empathy also feeds our natural curiosity to learn, discover, and grow. Empathy is the “fundamental glue that holds humanity together.” Tom Markham, author of The Project-Based Learning Handbook. I am excited for this opportunity. Stay tuned for more information about this!
What does St. Michael’s look like through a student’s eyes? On Monday, February 6, I will be participating in the Shadow a Student Challenge by shadowing a St. Michael’s middle school student for a full day of school. I will be packing my backpack, throwing on sneakers, and immersing myself in a student’s life for a day. Shadow a Student Challenge is designed to be a fun, illuminating, and supportive journey, and by getting a better understanding of what it is like to be a middle school student in today’s world, I hope to gain empathy.
Take a look at Mollie’s day on our Instagram page! @stmichaelscountryday