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Teaching 31 Again

October 29, 2015

When I first started teaching I taught five classes in a six period day. My class sized ranged from 25 to 40, and I would often have 40 kids on my roster, but no more than 35 show up on any given day (which made for problematic seat shuffling when I had less than 40 chairs). At first these classes felt packed to the gills. Kids had little personal space and it usually was a work of extreme yogic twisting to squeeze my way through desks to check work or help kids. But like most things, even difficult or borderline reprehensible things, I got used to it. The kids were used to it since their schooling had been like this for years. For me, became a way to “humble brag” to other teachers about your caseload of 160 students, or your class of 40 with children sitting on the widow sills.

Because I was new to teaching, I really didn’t know any better.

Fast forward a few years and I’m teaching in a small school in Boston. When I started at the school, one of its points of pride was the small class sizes. My first two classes that I taught there were one of 15 kids and one of 8. It was amazing. Liberating. Sure, it took me a solid three months to adjust my teaching for it. The thing about big classes is that my tendency is to overscaffold the work since there are kids in the room who need the extra scaffold, and with 30+ kids I didn’t develop any good systems for making sure each kid was assessed properly and got the right scaffold for them for each assignment. So I used to scaffold the whole thing, often to the detriment of the kids who needed to be pushed in their reading and writing instead of needed another graphic organizer.

I adapted to my smaller classes sizes, and in the process I’ve seen kids grow so much with that “Right In Time” instruction, where my conference with them happens once the ideas for writing have started to bloom,or just when the real confusion with the text has started. I watch the magic of providing the right tool or right modeling to the kid at the right time and having their writing blossom into something magnificent. I have no doubt that this magic can and will still happen in my classes of 31 this year. But I suspect it won’t happen as much considering there is literally less time to conference with each student. With more classroom management tools need to keep the volume level down during mini-lessons, I will need to turn to some scaffolds that I would not otherwise use for all the kids.

The students in my classes of 31 will learn, just like the students in my classes of 38 and 40 learned oh so many years ago. In fact, I suspect my current students will learn more both because of the effective structures of support in my school, and because I’m a more experienced and stronger teacher than I was ten years ago. But I’m afraid the struggling students won’t grow as much as my struggling students in my class of fifteen grew last year. I’m afraid the students who need to be pushed won’t be pushed as far as the students in my class of twenty were pushed last year. I’m afraid that it is easier for kids to hide out, to pretend they don’t need help when they do, or just for the loudest ones to get attention even more over the cacophony voices that happen in a class of 31, even when each child is talking at a reasonable level.

My co-teacher is a superhero, and she has figured out some ways to make sure we target the kids who need it the most with our conferences, and she is also doing a great job thinking ahead to about additional scaffolds our ELL students will need as the reading and writing becomes more complex. Having her plan some concrete strategies has helped mitigate my lamenting about how much more these kids could learn if they were in smaller classes. But I still feel some sadness when I don’t get around to conference with everyone in the span of a week, or I realize that a kid has been hiding to the side, being confused and unsure so, so quietly that it’s a day or two before I figure out that he needs me. I’ve read the studies that show that class size doesn’t matter much when measuring test scores. Maybe it doesn’t. But I can tell you it does affect my ability to connect to kids, to support individual growth, to give kids choice, to build confidence, and to do a host of other things that don’t always show up on these tests. And that makes me fee bad for my kids from ten years ago, and the kids in my classes of 31 now.

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