news & tips
A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching
The Ever Expanding Class Size
The reports are saying that class sizes are going to increase as schools reduce the numbers of teachers through attrition or lay-offs. In any case the news is not good for science. But, those of us left in the classroom will have to cope with larger class sizes. How to do that and save your sanity is the focus of this article.
I am old enough to have survived the cuts in the late 70’s and early 80’s. There was a wave that saw a significant increase in class sizes. I have taught classes from as small as 4 kids to as large as 40. I like something in between. The comfort level is usually similar to kitchen ergonomics. How many people can pass a sink before they begin to look like human bumper cars and a few more folks around a table makes for richer conversations. So, if you have a large classroom or one where you can alter the layout of desks and tables you can survive a small increase without losing your sanity. Don’t get me wrong, smaller class sizes are associated with greater student achievement. My focus here is your sanity. The kids cannot learn if you are too stressed to teach well. So, here are some sane ideas from the last time this happened.
If you are a secondary teacher you need to make friends with an elementary one as they are experts at how to organize a classroom. They will know exactly where to put the desks to make room for group work and where to put the equipment to make the most use of limited “get out the stuff” time. It is as though elementary teachers are born with the ability to see how a room full of kids will flow from one activity to another. It is good to offer your expertise in content as a trade. I have created some learning centers for elementary teachers who helped me with my room “flow” and served as the resident expert for an elementary building on physical science during the construction of a unit on chemistry. The folks at Scholastic do a pretty good job on their web site of offering helpful hints on organizing.
The next good focus would be grouping. Many secondary teachers still group but sometimes the only way to make it work is to group kids and rotate lab time. This can sometimes be the best thing you ever did to help maximize learning opportunities. I like 3 groups. One is in the lab, one is working on the lab report and one is in discussion mode. I like to see if parent volunteers will help with the writing or the discussion a bit and I can manage the lab. If not, I will focus on the lab and draft student leaders to make the discussion stay on track and help with the lab writing from the lab. It is critical that you outline the roles in each of these settings and carefully manage and model appropriate behavior the first time you do one of these rotations. So it is good to have some posted ground rules. I drop in on the discussions and ask any student I select to summarize the discussion so far. This way everyone is on the hot seat to keep track of what was said and how the discussion is progressing. You can use technology and set up a threaded discussion online that is archived so you can look at it later too.
There are several good web sites on fostering effective classroom discussions. Most are not from science but the techniques are universally applicable. Most also touch on ground rules you can post.
This site has an excellent video on the subject.
Lastly, on this topic, is the idea of different structures to make discussions more effective and interesting.
To run the labs in groups there is a need for the focus of the lab (the take home message) to be crystal clear. The students need to know why they are doing the lab, what evidence they are looking for and what they should be examining with the lab evidence when they finish. The lab needs to be rich enough with thinking and connections to foster some deep discussion. For this, guided inquiry labs are actually better than labs where the kids are simply confirming some idea. When the students have to think and record a larger variety of information they have more cognitive work to do when they are in the discussion or writing lab trying to make sense of their findings.
Some good examples of labs in each subject can be found at the following sites to get you started.
If you work in a school that lets teachers have a bit more flexibility or input into schedules please consider using all the science teachers as a cluster of experts. Have larger groups with one teacher for a lesson on a topic that one teacher is really excited or has expert knowledge about. The smaller groups of kids can be in other classrooms for smaller group labs or activities or work. Rethinking how you use the human capital in your school is a great way to help increase the collaboration and decrease the frustration with larger class sizes. It dies involve some really creative schedule negotiations and a little patience when you first begin the adventure. The payoffs are increases student learning and a better use of your time. There is not a lot on the web about this so if you find a creative way to do this please use Hot Chalk to share your ideas and success stories.
The key to saving sanity is to let others who have worked with student groups help you organize. Large group instruction only is appropriate for a select few situations. Smaller lab groups actually are a good idea even when your classes are not getting larger. Now would be a good time to move in that direction if you have not done so already. The gist is to alter your labs so that there is more for kids to think about and discuss. Static confirmation labs may not be rich enough to get the discussion and lab report going strong. So, you may need to open up your labs to more inquiry and thinking. Second, take a look at your physical space and see how well it works for the kids now and how well the materials and kids flow through that space during a lesson. Traffic jams are easy to fix if you look for the right thing. Small changes made now can pay huge dividends in the fall when you do not have enough time to think. I encourage you to do what you can now so that your sanity is intact when the larger group arrives at your door in the fall. Feel free to chime in with comments to help others. We all have been there at some time and those things that helped us survive and thrive can save a new teacher some big frustration.