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!
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!
It's back to school season and Pinterest is blowing up with all of the cute classroom set ups and decorations. While I love Pinterest for finding innovative ideas and management tools, I kind of resent Pinterest too. As both a parent and a teacher, Pinterest ups the pressure to be "cute".
I noticed this as a parent a few years ago. With the advancement of sites like Pinterest, the level of expectation as a parent has increased. Suddenly you're supposed to take monthly pictures of your kids with cute little signs and have perfectly organized birthday parties and knit your child the perfect Halloween costume. At first you do might do it to see if you can or as a way to show off on Facebook to your friends. But then slowly, it seeps itself into our society that it's a requirement. That somehow in order to be a good mom, I have to make a 4 tiered birthday cake out of cupcakes because if I don't then my child will be deeply disappointed and scarred for life. Seriously? My kids are happy with cake and ice cream because it has a lot of sugar in it. They don't care how fancy it is. But we've trained ourselves to think they care.
Now if baking fancy things is your specialty, great! Share that gift with your kids if you'd like. I personally love to experiment in the kitchen and get an especial kick out of making something from scratch that I had to buy prepared before (cheese sauces, bread, pasta, granola bars, etc.) and I love sharing this with my kiddos. But I don't knit or sew. I don't make fancy halloween costumes. I don't plan over the top birthday parties. I don't use Pinterest to decorate my kids' rooms. And guess what? My kids are fine. They are healthy and happy and they know that mom loves them. There's no need to get into this "I can do everything on Pinterest" mode in order to prove you're a good parent.
The same is true as a teacher. Themes in particular seem to have taken over the world of Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers in the past few years. Teachers, especially in elementary, seem to think that they have to have a cute, color coordinated theme in order to teach their students. There suddenly have to be multiple, professional level bulletin boards and all of the baskets in your library center have to match or the kids just will not learn. Today I even saw a post in a teacher's forum on Facebook that said "I feel so bad. I'm a first year teacher and I can't afford to do a theme in my classroom." Seriously? This will be my 12th year of teaching and I have NEVER done a theme. EVER. My books are in mismatched baskets, labeled by genre, but not matching colored labels. I have no beautiful colored duct tape on my teacher's desk. My bulletin boards are neat and organized, but not fancy. And guess what guys? My kids learn, a lot, every single year.
And none of my students have ever said "Mrs. Raki, why isn't your room pretty?" Why? Because the kids don't care. They could care less what theme you've chosen. They care whether you care about them. They care about how you treat them. They care about the activities you do. They don't care what color your book baskets are.
Of course there are a lot of teachers who LOVE doing classroom themes and that's fine for them, just like knitting a Halloween costume for your kids is fine for those parents who just love to knit. My worry is the pressure that this puts on other teachers, who don't love it and especially teachers who are on a budget. Teachers already don't make enough money. We spend way too much of our own money already on books, storage, curriculum, and other things that help directly impact our instruction. Adding cute themes and bulletin boards requires teachers to spend more money and more time on things that aren't helping us do our job better. They're often just a way to "keep up with the Jones'" that is disguised as "necessary".
In addition to the pressure having a "cute" classroom puts on teachers, it is also a time drain. There is always so much to do and so little time as a teacher. More and more is being added to our plates every day, taking away from the time we have with our families and our personal lives. Designing super cute classrooms is something you can take off of your plate and still be a great teacher!
It’s time for recess!!!! Time for a break! Time to let the kids be kids! Time to breath for a minute, maybe even get a word of adult conversation with another teacher. Until the tattling and accidents start. We’ve all been there, and it happens in every classroom, but there are some things you can do at the beginning of the year to make recess safer, and more fun – for you and the kids!
1.) One of the best tips is to start out the year with double the normal recess time. This additional time will give the kids an adjustment period to get used to being back in school, while giving you more time to teach recess rules. It’s a win win situation. Start out by being very clear that for the first two weeks of school (or 3 or 6, or however long you think will be best for your class) there will be additional recess. Give students a specific date of when this extra privilege will go away, maybe even mark it on the calendar, because otherwise they will be quite upset when the schedule changes. Don’t expect to get a break during this time, this is the time to set the tone for recess, help students solve their own problems instead of tattling, make it clear what is and isn’t safe etc. Be on your toes now so that you can have a breather the rest of the year.
2.) Before recess each day, go over the specific expectations of the recess, keeping it as simple and sweet as possible. Another teacher I worked with used to sum it up with: Be Safe, Be a Good Friend, Be a Good Listener.
Have the students recite the expectations every day, so that you know they are internalizing (or at least memorizing) the expectations. This way, when you have to have a discussion with someone who is not following expectations, you can go back to these expectations that have been clearly stated every day.
3.) As the days go by, you may want to take that moment in the beginning to reflect on what happened yesterday, and how recess could go better today. ie. “Yesterday, I noticed that some students were kicking rocks and making dust that made it hard for others to play. Let’s make sure that today we don’t kick rocks and make dust.” Let kids talk about problems they saw or had – they often see things that we don’t. And let them help come up with solutions to class problems, as they often they can come up with solutions that are just as good, if not better than ours.
4.) Split recess in half, with structured play in the beginning and free play in the end (or have two recess – one with structured play and one with free play). This gives kids who have a hard time selecting a game a chance to play in one that has been pre-selected. Often those students will continue the game into free play, while those who had another idea will switch games as soon as free play is announced.
During structured play time, introduce kids to playground games that everyone can participate in, like Duck Duck Goose, Four Square, different variations of Tag, Hot Potato etc. Often kids have never learned these games and so when it’s time to play, they struggle to come up with a game. If you introduce new games and their rules to the kids in the beginning of the year, you will often see these games come back later in the year during free play. Take time to pair up unlikely pairs during this time, so that kids get used to playing with everyone in the class.
During free play time, allow it to be FREE play. Students can play anything, with anyone, as long as they are being safe and kind. We all need a little time each day to just be us. This is a true brain break that can allow students’ minds to work better when returning to the classroom.
5.) Don’t be afraid to play yourself! I have gotten my best work outs by playing tag or jump rope with my students. It lets them see you in a different light, builds morale, models the importance of physical exercise and is great cardio-vascular work!
6.) Pair up with another class. If possible, have recess at a time when another class also goes. Do both structured and free play together, giving students a chance to work, play and socialize with a new set of kids. This also helps to reduce the “sibling squabbles” that happen later on in the school year, as kids get to know each other as well as they do their own siblings.
7.) Have a unique line up signal. I had a cowbell. You could hear that thing for miles, and the kids always knew when it was time to line up. One friend of mine had a duck call and another a train whistle. Anything that helps extract your students from the sea of students on the playground without having to call their names or waste your voice.
8.) If possible, schedule recess BEFORE lunch. I learned this when my school did a book study onThe First Six Weeks of School. What an amazing difference – they get all their energy out before lunch, making for quieter, calmer lunch periods – and happier lunch ladies. Then, they return to your classroom full, calm, happy and ready for work. After lunch, plan something quiet and productive like Writing Journals or Silent reading with Reading Response Journals, and watch the amazing work that can be done in the afternoon!
What is your best recess management tip?
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