By Renee Koplon
What is it like to be a high school student in a Jewish day school? Understanding the day to day life of our students is key to effectively creating programs that will speak to them, scheduling exams in a way that will enhance their learning, and becoming a presence that will support them through their academic journeys. By shadowing a student for a day, one can learn a lot about a day in the life of a high school student. I know principals who have done this, but I tried a different approach. I hoped to learn not only about the daily perspective of my students, but also to relate to their year-long development and at the same time, to exercise my own love of learning. I enrolled in a ninth grade Spanish course. This was not a simple commitment. I couldn’t be sure that important meetings wouldn’t conflict with my class. I didn’t want the teacher to be uncomfortable having the principal in her class every day. And what would the students think if I couldn’t keep up? I decided I couldn’t worry about everything that could possibly go wrong; I just had to try.
During the first few days of class the students seemed both amused and slightly intimidated. At first, I was the only one taking notes. After we got back the first quiz, others started taking notes as well and I learned whom I could count on for help on the rare occasion that I missed class. I had a classmate who shared her quizlets with me. Some of the junior and senior Spanish students occasionally helped me with my homework. Over the course of the year, I got to do partner work with almost every other student in the class. One incredible outcome of this experience was my deeper relationship with this group of students. I saw them on their good days and on their bad days. I learned about their strengths and weaknesses in a way that doesn’t happen in the course of a regular day of classroom visits (me) and disciplinary visits to the principal (them).
My most memorable day in Spanish class was the day I had to give a presentation about Antoni Gaudí. It was early November, so we didn’t know that much Spanish yet. Each student had to write a biography of a famous Spanish person, just one paragraph or so, and present it aloud to the class. Who knew it would be so scary to stand up in front of a class of eighteen freshmen and speak Spanish? I am comfortable speaking to my staff, more than fifty people, and I regularly address my student body, about three hundred students, without any hesitation at all. But this time I had the paper in front of me, and yet I was too nervous to begin. A moment later, the teacher came and stood next to me, and I felt her support. It was so reassuring to have her stand by my side. I was able to give my presentation and then I calmly sat back down in my seat. In that moment, I realized that is exactly our teachers’ purpose. They are there to guide our students, support our students, and encourage our students to reach and stretch and do what their teachers know they are capable of doing.
Before I knew it, it was spring, and the day before our pesach break our teacher had a pre-pesach kahoot ready. A kahoot is a game-based learning platform where students answer multiple choice questions using their phones. Yes, it was exciting because we were allowed to take out our phones. And guess what? I won the game! I guess it makes sense that I know more about pesach than a ninth grader. Maybe I shouldn’t be so competitive, but a bit of healthy competition was a great way to engage the group. The class had grown more comfortable with the language by that point, and the teacher had creatively put us all at ease by incorporating a game.
Throughout the school year, I did the homework and the classwork, and I took quizzes and tests. I tried not to participate too much in class, because I wanted the (real) students to have as many opportunities to speak as possible. But for the most part I experienced learning the way a ninth grader would. It was instructive to live the life of a student. There was much that I already knew, but I really got to see the student perspective. I felt how hard it is to complete assignments that are due the day after a vacation. I learned that a long weekend or a vacation is a good time to make flashcards or create a quizlet, but it can be difficult to have an assignment ready to hand in upon returning. I noticed that if I reviewed for fifteen minutes a day, I would remember the lesson much better, but with so many other obligations, it can be tough to find those fifteen minutes. Students appreciate it when their teachers are flexible and they are more engaged in the learning process when their teachers present them with options. Perhaps most importantly, a good relationship with the teacher is highly motivating.
I did well on the final exam, though I won’t share my score because our teacher encourages us to keep our grades to ourselves. Gracias, la profesora, for your teaching and your patience. I grew as a Spanish student, no doubt, but I’d like to think I’ve grown as an administrator as well. I am looking forward to tenth grade Spanish this fall.
Dr. Renee Koplon is the principal of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School in Baltimore, Maryland.