This year has been challenging me. I feel tired faster. I'm having a harder time keeping up with planning and grading. I'm not doing as much differentiation as I usually do. It's taking me longer to cover certain topics and there are so many "extras" we haven't done yet that I normally have introduced by this time of the year.
I couldn't figure out why I was having a harder time until my husband made a comment the other day. He said "You're trying to do everything you did for a class of 16, but now you have 24." This was a great "aha!" moment for me. He's absolutely right. Last year I was able to do a lot with my students and a lot more for my students because there were less of them. Eight kids may not seem like much, but when you're trying to differentiate for the specific needs of your students, fitting eight more students into small groups and one-on-one conferences can really throw you off, even if some of them recieve special services with other teachers.
Last year I taught at a charter school in a different part of town. There were less "extra" services available to me in the way of specialists and support teachers. However, my class sizes were kept drastically smaller. This year I have moved to a "regular public school" to be closer to home. I'm not knocking the school at all. The teachers I work with are fabulous and administration is very helpful. We have quite a few specialists and support teachers. However, because of our budget, the class sizes are bigger. I have 24 kids in my class. 24 kids with different levels, different needs and different backgrounds. I've had quite a few people tell me I have a "small class". I guess when the some classes have 27 - 30 kids, that's true. It's all about perspective, isn't it? But of course my previous experience has given me a different perspective too. And it's this perspective that got me thinking:
What do we give up in order to teach a larger class? Or more specifically, what do the students give up?
I have less time for one-on-one conferences. I have less time for small group reading and small group math. Of course this means that as a teacher, I often prioritize and those with the greatest needs. This means that if a student has greater abilities, they don't get as much of my attention. Additionally, these higher achieving students are also used as peer tutors and asked to help other students out, often taking on an almost grown up role. When I had a smaller class, I worked on novel studies with these higher achieving students and I didn't rely on them as much as peer tutors. They got a much more equal share of my attention.
In larger classrooms, higher achieving students recieve less of a push. They spend more time helping other students and less time exploring their own interests. Lower achieving students recieve less individualized instruction. They spend more time being helped by students and less time being helped by a teacher. Overall, we tend to "teach to the middle" more in larger classrooms.
Calmer, more peaceful classrooms:
Students who have behavior problems often behave worse in larger classrooms because they can't have the attention when they are beginning to be distracted. There are also more students in the classroom, meaning that there are more chances of one of those students providing them with a trigger or distraction for their behavior. Students who have focus problems recieve less help in staying focused. Instead of having one child who might need some light reminders, I have multiple students with checklists on their desks. Because of this, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Students who can skate by without making a fuss often get very little help because we spend so much time dealing with the student who is turning our classroom upside down. Additionally, we spend more time "managing" behaviors and less them teaching which leads to louder, less peaceful classrooms.
Interest based learning:
In addition to less time for differentation due to needs, we have less time for differentiation due to interest. Even though studies show that students learn more when they can connect their own interests and background knowledge to the curriculum, most students do not get a chance to see their own interests mirrored in the curriculum. When we have small class sizes, we get to know our students and their interests and we make connections for them. The more kids means the more interests and the less connections made. Unless a students is extremely vocal about a certain interest, we as teachers may not even know to make a connection. However, in a small class, there was time for conversations and this led to me building up connections for students, buying books that were over interest to students and finding other ways to allow students to see their own interests in the curriculum.
Our students need us not just as teachers, but as mentors. They need to know they can come to us with a problem and feel like we're listening. They need to know that we care. When we are tired, we are less engaged with our students and less likely to listen to their problems. More students mean that teachers are more tired and less engaged. There are also more problems, and a wider range of problems, for teachers to listen to. This means that in larger classes, we often lose that personal connection that allows students to know that we care for them.
Now I'm going to have some teachers read this post and say "I've taught a class of 30 for years and I differentiate and give individual attention!" And they won't be lying. Teachers are an amazing group. We do the impossible because we strive to treat a class of 30 in the same way that we would treat a class of 10. I know that I still try each and every day to give each and every child my undivided attention. We differentiate and we find ways to make miracles happen. But I've also taught a class of 10 and know that the attention and differentiation I give my current class of 24 is not the same as I was able to give my class of 10.
Of course as teachers we have little control over the number of students they place in our classroom. Often the numbers go up for reasons that are out of even our administrators' controls: shifts in school district lines, emergencies that cause people to move from one area to another (I got an extra 6 kids during the aftermath of Huricane Katrina.), or budget cuts happen. Teachers "make it work" because that's our job. That doesn't mean we don't go home exhausted because of our effort and it doesn't mean that just because we "can" teach a class of 30 that we "should" teach a class of 30.
In my perfect world we would look at what students are losing in these larger classes and prioritize our students' learning over whatever fancy new tool the military is getting or what great tax cut is going to bring a new millionare business into our state. In fact, in my perfect world I would put less kids per classroom and take the money to afford it from the billions we spend on standardized testing and curriculums that are not developmentally appropriate. But alas I don't run the world, so for now, I will just make my point that size does matter, especially if it's class size!
Stephanie from Forever in Fifth Grade does a monthly link up about the new and wonderful things going on for teacher bloggers. It's been awhile since I've participated, but I've missed being a part of it. So, here is this month's show and tell post:
Show and Tell #1 - They have poured cement! In March we purchased an acre of land in New Mexico with a wonderful view. We are very slowly getting ready to build a house on this land. This weekend they came out and poured the cement for our house.
Show and Tell #2 - I've added Google Classroom documents to my 3rd grade internet scavenger hunts. This year my students have access to Google Classroom for the first time. In order to make my life easier, I have taken all of my 3rd grade internet scavenger hunts and created a Google Documents version. This allows me to quickly assign the scavenger hunts to them within the Google Classroom. I have passed this innovation to my customers as well, by updating all of my 3rd grade internet scavenger hunts on my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Hopefully I can get the other grade levels updated this week as well.
Show and Tell #3 - The balloons have arrived! The first two weeks in October are always fun in Albuquerque, because it's Balloon Fiesta! Balloon Fiesta is an international hot air balloon ralley which brings in hundreds of hot air balloons. Where we live we regularly see five to ten balloons in the air on a weekend morning, but this week while driving to work we have seen hundreds of balloons each morning. The view has been amazing!
So that's what's been keeping me busy lately. Stop by Forever in Fifth Grade to see what is keeping other teacher bloggers busy. If you have something great keeping you busy, please feel free to leave me a comment here!
Getting to know our students is a key to being able to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of each student. The more we know about our students, the better we can fit our instruction to their levels, their interests, their background knowledge and their needs.
There are so many ways to get to know your students, but here are 10 I use every year:
1.) Have conversations with the students and their parents. Especially at the beginning of the year, it's important to start conversations and to listen when the kiddos and their parents tell you stories about their life or giving you little snipets of information. Sometimes these pieces of information will be the key to helping you know how to help your students succeed.
2.) Get to know your students' goals. This year I started out the year with my Long Term Goals Sheet, where I asked students to work with their parents and think about where they want to be in 5 years, in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years. It was a great way to get to know my students on a new and different level. Hearing their college and career aspirations made each of these students so much more real to me. Now the student who wants to fix computers is a "tech support helper" who I have introduced to code.org and the student who wants to travel to multiple countries is reading books about those countries and studying French on Duolingo.com. Knowing who the students want to be when they are an adult, even if they're only in 3rd grade now, allows me to break into their interest levels in a completely different way.
3.) Read their writing. The way that a student responds to a writing prompt says so much about the student. For example my students are currently writing narrative stories about a picture of a girl falling off of a swing. The stories I got range from a first person narrative where the main character helps a girl who falls off a swing and wins an instant friend; to a story where aliens were purposely breaking the swing each time the main character sits on it. In between, I also got a story where the main character's mother fell in love with the doctor who helped her and one story where the girl was pushed on purpose and the pusher got a large punishment. Reading each of these stories with my students helped me to better understand their background knowledge and their viewpoint as well as their writing ability. I often use my Genre Writing Journals as a way to give the entire class the same prompt.
4.) Ask students to visualize stories. Last year I demonstrated to my students how much background knowledge plays a part in the pictures they visualize. I read them two stories that I wrote, which were almost identical, about families that were having dinner. One story took place in Morocco where the family was eating couscous. The other story took place in New Mexico where the family was eating enchiladas. While I read each story, the students drew pictures of what they were visualizing. Then we looked at photographs of a family in Morocco eating couscous and a family in New Mexico eating enchiladas. The pictures the students drew of the family in New Mexico (where we live) were very close to photograph we looked at, but the ones they drew of the family in Morocco were not close at all. Background knowledge affects what we can visualize. So as often as possible let students draw pictures of the stories they read. How they visualize the story will sometimes surprise you, but will often give you good information about their own background.!
5.) Use turn and talks about their home life. Morning meetings are a great way to get to know your students. Often during morning meetings I will ask students to turn and talk to a neighbor about a topic, what they did over the weekend, their favorite food, the pets they own, a time they were scared, etc. etc. Then I let the students report out about what their friends told them. You get interesting information about both students this way, because what the person reporting hears as important is often something that relates to their own life!
6.) Allow time for Genius Projects or Passion Projects. Ask your students "If you could learn about anything, what would it be?" Their answers will be telling enough, but then give the students time to plan out and work on genius projects. Watching them work on these projects will tell you a lot about their commitment, their work ethic and their interest level. Genius projects in my room often lead to new read alouds, writing prompts, math scenarios and science experiments because I know better what will connect to my students' learning.
7.) Find Vocabulary Connections. One of my favorite ways to get to know my kiddos background knowledge is to discuss vocabulary with them. When I ask them for a definition or sentence for a vocabulary word, their background knowledge comes spilling out. Hut is a great word for this. Most students will tell me "Oh, like Pizza Hut", a few will say "Like the little houses in Africa", but my favorite was the one student who told me you mean like "hut, hut, hut in football?". Background knowledge, it just spills out, doesn't it? You might want to use my vocabulary graphs as a basis for some of your vocabulary conversations, the connections students make are great.
8.) Challenge students to an activity that you think may frustrate them. Watching students be frustrated can be an eye opener. It's always interesting to me to see "smart" kids hit a brick wall with something new and difficult, while kids who struggle often spend a lot of time trying to get to the answer before they give up because they are used to the struggle. Not only do frustration triggers tell us a lot about students, but watching students handle those frustrations tell us a lot about students. Once we know where students get frustrated and how they handle frustrations, we can better help students manage frustrations. We will also know how and when to support students so that they can either avoid certain frustrations or deal better with frustrations when they happen.
9.) Monitor group work. Students often work differently in a group than they do independently. Some students will automatically lead, some will automatically follow, some are peacemakers and some will respond negatively to other students. As you walk around and monitor your groups you will see how students react to each other. Then, mix up the groups and watch again because students often respond differently to different group dynamics differently.
10.) Incorporate activities that are not "normal" school subjects. Recess, PE, art, music, computer skills, cooking, sewing, nature skills - anytime that I incorporate these things into my lessons I see a completely different side of my kids. Students who often struggle will come out of their shell during a cooking lesson or run faster in the race than anyone else. Students who are the top of the class often get frustrated or scared to try new things. These activities remind us to think about our students as a "whole person" instead of just as a student.
As a teacher, I have always tried to communicate a lot with my students' parents. I have a class website with a blog feature where I keep a weekly log of what we are working on in class. I have open conversation with my parents via e-mail and phone calls. However this year I started on a team that uses Class Dojo and I have been so impressed at how much Class Dojo has increased my parent communications.
I know that Class Dojo is not a new website. I know many teachers who use it effectively as a way to help students monitor their behavior by giving out positive and negative dojo points. However, one of my favorite features of Class Dojo isn't the student points. It's not even the instant message with my students' parents (although that's been great for parent communication too!)
My favorite feature is the Class Stories section. This provides teachers with something similar to a Facebook newsfeed about what's going on in class. During the day, I take at least one picture of what is going on. Then, during planning or at the end of the day, I post the picture with a caption that prompts parents to ask their children something. For example after reading the second chapter of The Case of the Gasping Garbage, I asked the parents to ask their students what made the garbage gasp. I have had great feedback from the parents on posts like this. The parents like knowing what's going on, but they also like having specific questions to ask their children that go beyond "What did you do at school today?"
In addition, I can take pictures of important forms that have gone home and post them to the story as a way to remind parents of things that are coming home before they even get there. This helps a lot with papers that get "lost" on the way home from school.
Do you use Class Dojo in your classroom? Do you have any secrets to using it to increase class communication? Let's learn from each other, leave a comment so we can all use this app to the fullest!
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