The Gift of A Non- Snow Day

pexels-photo-732049.jpegThere is nothing like an over-anticipated winter storm to remind me that class size really does matter. Yesterday, Mayor De Blasio announced that schools would indeed be open despite the impending nor’easter. As an elementary school teacher, I knew what that would mean for my day— tiny classes.

Today, as expected, I had only 14 students in one class, 10 in another, 17 in another. It was incredible. I spoke with every single student during just one lesson. Conflicts were resolved. Materials didn’t need to be shared unless students chose to work together. I was able to individually help every student in each class complete their work and understand the activity. I could actually assess student work then and there and provide feedback or suggestions.  I could laugh and smile with the kids because I wasn’t running around like a maniac trying to check on every child or putting out fires (fourth grade is drama-full). I had time to have a conversation with students about their home lives and interests. I could be more flexible and introduce new materials when students finished early. The classroom was calm & happy. And most important, everybody learned.

Districts and local governments spend millions on testing, consultants, (& new chancellors)  technology and  curriculum to “boost achievement.” But ask any actual teacher and he or she will tell you that no product or curriculum can replace the human attention that all children need. There is a reason private school class sizes rarely exceed 20 students.

Class size matters. Visit any school on a blustery non-snow day, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.

 

 

 

Ain’t Misbehaving- Class Size and Problematic Student Behaviors

Yet again, I was reminded this September of how much class size matters.

Last year, the second grade classes I taught each week all had 27-30 students and it felt like every class had numerous children with disruptive behavior challenges- fighting, calling out, pushing, extreme anger and frustration, lack of impulse control, distraction- there were a lot of kids who were neither motivated, nor engaged. I felt like I was constantly redirecting, problem solving and disciplining and it was impossible to make time to meaningfully resolve every issue or address every need.

This August, when I looked at a 3rd grade teacher’s class list, I thought oh man- this is going to be a rough class, because I saw so many of the kids who I had struggled with as second graders.

And then school started. And things were different- with those very same kids that I used to fall asleep worrying about. Suddenly, the behavior problems were gone.  Why?

Now that class only has 16 kids in it.  16. 16  kids who are focused and calm, respectful and excited to learn and share their ideas. No, they are not suddenly perfect kid-bots, thank goodness. They still are quirky, and wiggly but the behavior problems, the serious ones that I devoted huge amounts of time and energy to managing- those  are gone. And its the very same kids. 3 months later. The same teacher. Smaller class.  Hand wringing, constant redirecting gone.  It is dreamy.

What happened?

Well, in a class of 16 every child is getting what they need. No one needs to compete for attention. No one is forgotten. Conflicts get fully resolved. Parents build close relationships with teachers.  Every voice is heard. Students have physical and emotional space- more freedom to be independent and explore.  The room itself is quieter, safer and calmer. Most important, in a small class teachers can quickly build relationships that lay the foundation for meaningful learning and growth.

Imagine if all classes in public schools were this small. Certainly there would still be students who struggle.  But imagine how many of the misbehaviors that we address every day would disappear. How many suspensions and disciplinary actions we might avoid.

We need to ask ourselves- by having large classes in early childhood are we the ones creating so called “behavior problem kids”? How often do people say of misbehavior- oh he is just trying to get attention. She just wants attention.  As if that is not a valid need for a child to have. All children want and need attention! And love! And recognition! And a sense of significance!  And it is really hard to get those things in a class of thirty other 7 year olds.

This is why my friends who teach in private schools have 15 students and 2 teachers in a class. Because class size really does matter and everyone who has ever tried to teach a roomful of 32 children understands that beyond a doubt.

If only the DOE and powers above would invest in teachers instead of blowing money on testing, consultants and developmentally inappropriate and soon to be obsolete technology. If only this one small class wasn’t a fluke and classes of 32 became a thing of the past- especially in early childhood. Because every year as my classes shrink or expand, I see how much class size really does matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember Class Size?

School districts don’t want small classes because that means more teachers, more space, and of course, more money.  Funding in public schools in in short supply these days between sky high consultant fees, expensive test prep programs and deliberate underfunding by state officials, so class size has slipped out of the conversation.

Moreover, for  top down reformer zealots, large class sizes are a-ok because they fit right in with military style, teacher centered classrooms in which students passively recite, chant and fill out the latest quiz.

Small classes, on the other hand, allow teachers to foster independence, freedom, community, and trust- all hallmarks of progressive education. In this way, class size has the power to shape the way we teach and the culture of our classrooms.

We educators know that authentic, meaningful teaching and learning happens in small communities of learners that know each other very well, in communities in which every child can feel heard, in which students can explore and experiment, and in which children can make decisions for themselves.

I see the difference class size can make every day. Last year, the first grade  classes at my school had between 18-22 students. We had a fabulous year. We were able to get messy and do amazing things. We built towers out of recycled materials,  we mixed liquids and made slime, we created animal puppets, we planted seeds in the school garden and designed roller coaster tracks for marbles.

This year, I am teaching many of the same students and I want everything we do to be as fun, hands-on and child friendly. The thing is, this year, the second grade classes all have between 27 and 30 students.  The difference is palpable. What felt calm now feels chaotic, and what felt manageable now feels utterly exhausting. Just getting through a greeting or transition takes an extraordinary amount of strategic management.

And the kids are suffering. Students who made tremendous progress last year are now falling behind, because in a class of 30, teachers don’t get to work with every student daily, or even weekly. Similarly, students with learning disabilities who were able to shine and fully participate last year are now struggling because there are so many more distractions around them. Because of these larger classes, many teachers  are trying autocratic management strategies like class dojo or forgoing hands on activities. I also know that some teachers are reluctant to go on trips because their classes are so big.

What’s more, 30 students puts quite a bit of pressure on space and materials.  30 little bodies doing hands-on exploration or experiments is very different than 20. For 30 kids to be able to all work together and do meaningful, multi-sensory, student driven work, you need children with exceptional self control, lots of space, extra funding for materials, and lots and lots of clean up time.

With 6 and 7 year olds, exceptional self control is hard to come by. Which is why I’m coming to the conclusion that large class sizes in early childhood are simply not developmentally appropriate. It is just too much. Too much distraction, too many bodies, too many materials, too many needs, and too many voices that don’t get heard. There is a reason class sizes in private schools are almost always no more than 20.

I know I’ll make it work this year with a combination of patience, station teaching, donors choose and lots of practice, and so will the fantastic teachers I work with each day.  But in the meantime, some of these kids are missing out and no amount of fancy new curricula,  consultant visits or new mandates from on high are going to help them. What they need is teachers- empowered, creative and nurturing teachers with enough time and resources to help every child thrive.