Tag Archives: Learning

Class Size Matters

classsize

 

Like most teachers, the sizes of my classes have progressively increased over the past few years. This year is no exception, save for one of my classes that has 22 students. As we complete the first month of the school year, the differences between this class and my larger classes are instructive as to why “class size matters“.

The class is a 9th grade Global History class that meets towards the end of the day. Anyone who has ever taught freshmen when the clock is close to 3:00 pm knows the challenges involved. It is basically the same set of challenges for any class that meets towards the end of the day, only double. After 6 hours inside of a school building, kids start exhibiting symptoms of school fatigue: fidgetyness, boredom, irritability and intractability.

Yet, this particular freshmen class exhibits none of those symptoms. All of them are motivated and attentive in their own way. By the end of the period, most if not all of the students have raised their hands and contributed to the daily discussion. The few students who straggle with the “do now” assignment I am able to quickly get on task by quietly going over to them for individual attention. Most importantly, it easy for me to get know each one of their personalities. I know them better than I know the students in my other classes.

Contrast this class to the one I teach during the preceding period. This is an 11th grade U.S. History class with 32 students. They are a good group that I enjoy teaching. As 11th graders, they are able to pick up on subtle humor and we generally have a few laughs by the time the class is over. Yet, I cannot say that I know many of them as individuals. Just like the freshmen class, there are a few stragglers during the “do now” assignment. However, I cannot get to all of them because the class is just so large. There are a few students who have not participated all year. The quieter students tend to slip through the cracks while the ones who are bold during class discussions soak up most of the attention. To be sure, there are many students who excel at class discussion, so I am able to get a fairly decent spread of participants on a daily basis. Still, I have never been able to get to everybody yet, even though I know I will by the end of the year.

The difference between the percentage of students who participate in my freshman class compared to the junior class is not merely due to differences in numbers. The smaller class size in the freshmen class makes the students feel comfortable. There is a smaller audience for them to reach. They do not have to worry as much about saying something that others might think “silly”. Furthermore, they seem to feel more comfortable with me as a teacher. Even a student who sits in the “last” row (Yes, I seat kids in rows. Charlotte Danielson will probably have my head for this.) still only sits towards the middle of the room. In the 11th grade class, a student who sits in the last row sits all the way in the back, far away from me until I make my rounds throughout the room, which I do often. The smaller class size enables me to have a better rapport with my students.

If I was one of those yelling teachers, or someone who got ticked off easily, my 11th grade class probably would have driven me over the edge in week one. This is not because they are bad kids, because they are not. This is because when you have a room of 32 teenagers, it is inevitable that some of them are going to talk, or try to sneak a text message, or fall asleep or whatever else teenagers do. I am sure things go on during that period that escape my notice. When I do notice things in that class, I only have time to stop it by saying “stop it” or throwing a glare. To be sure, no truly bad or disruptive behaviors have taken place but a teacher still has to deal with a student who talks too much to his/her neighbors or does not want to do work.

With my smaller class, I can be much more inventive with my discipline. Since I have come to know them over the past three weeks, I can understand why each student does what they do. Instead of just telling a student to “knock it off”, I can try to work a normally disruptive behavior into the lesson or buy the time to go over to the student and deal with the issue personally. At this point, I know that none of the students in that class would be disruptive for the sake of derailing the lesson or showing me up. Whatever they do is an extension of their natural personalities, which is to say they do not do things simply out of pure malice. Of course, I know this is the case for all of my students in all of my classes. But the smaller class size allows me to understand from whence certain behaviors arise. In my larger classes, I just assume that malice is not a motivating factor for disruptive behavior. That does not necessarily tell me what the motivation is.

After 14 years as a teacher, I have no doubt that I will eventually figure all of my students out. The fact that I am able to do this faster with a smaller class means I am able to build a better rapport with them earlier in the year. Every teacher knows that the beginning of the year is vital, for it forges the channels over which the rest of the year will flow. I can already foresee that I will be able to be more creative, take more risks and teach more in the long run to my small freshmen class than to my larger classes.

This anecdotal evidence should be enough to give the lie to reformers like Bill Gates and Pharaoh Bloomberg who assume class size does not matter. What I mentioned here are merely the in-class benefits of smaller class sizes. It does not even speak to the other out-of-class benefits, like being able to spend more time on grading each child’s assignment, which would enable me to provide more individualized guidance. I am an effective teacher whether there are 22 or 32 students in my room, but there is no doubt that I am more effective with 22. Any veteran teacher worth their salt would say the same.

It also should give the lie to the KIPP and Success Academy philosophy of school discipline. Even with a classroom of 32 students, I never felt the need to force them to sit up straight or keep their eyes focused on me or keep their lips sealed until they are spoken to. With a class of 22, which is closer to the class sizes that exist at Kipp and Success Academy, there should be even less of a need to do this. If a high school teacher cannot keep the attention and focus of a class that size with kindness and understanding, then that person should not be teaching. How much damage are these charter schools doing to kids with their draconian discipline codes? How many kids are learning to hate learning in these places?

Only three weeks into the school year and already we can see that class size matters.

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THE MARCH OF THE DATA

What is there to be afraid of?

What is there to be afraid of?

They are there every year. They have been there for the past few years, starting their high school careers with faces anxiously upturned. I give them the run-down: the historical eras we will cover, the class routines, the homework policy and what will be expected of both them and myself.

In many ways they are just like the freshmen I taught when I started my career 13 years ago. They are introverted, extroverted, pleasant, cruel, motivated, sedated. They embody all of the contradictions of humanity, all in one room. And why not? After all, they are human beings.

Yet, on another level, they are very different from the freshmen I taught 13 years ago. Or maybe it is me who is different. Or maybe it is both.

I sort of remember the first high schoolers I ever taught. I would ask them a question, they would go beyond it. They would ask a question and bring to the class a new level of understanding. Sometimes, they would bring me to a new level of understanding as well. Their essays easily regurgitated the facts necessary to pass, but there was more. They saw connections. They synthesized. They reasoned inductively and deductively to give their writing a coherent feel. Above all, they were curious. Their minds were reaching for ever-higher regions of understanding.

Perhaps these are just the ramblings of an old man who remembers some halcyon days that never quite existed. Perhaps my first students had such an impression on me because I was more impressionable. Yes, one can still be impressionable at 21 years of age in a way similar to a child.

And I still see these same qualities in the students I teach today. They are still precocious because that is the mind of a human child, of children of most any species.

Those qualities are there but they are muted. They still ask questions. They still go beyond what is asked of them. They still help me develop new levels of understanding. They still do these things, but do them less frequently than the teenagers of old. Instead, they do certain other things more frequently. These things, I don’t know, they just don’t seem healthy.

We have students that pay attention to everything. By the look on their faces, you can tell they are following along with the lesson. They may not say anything but you just know they are absorbing history like a sponge. Then they approach you after class. Are they going to ask a question about history? Is there something they need clarified?

Then they open their mouth and ask: “what grade do I have for this class?”

It’s the middle of the semester. They received a progress report a month ago. They have received a grade on every homework assignment and exam. They know how classwork is graded. In their possession is a trail of numbers they can use to get an idea of how they are “doing” in the numbers sense of things.

But they want to know how they are doing now, right at this very second. They want to know how the last number they received has gone up or down.

It used to be that when a student asked me a question after being in rapt attention during class, they would ask something about the lesson. They wanted to know something that wasn’t necessarily covered in class, something that had been burning a hole in their brain for the past half-hour.

Today that look of rapt attention doesn’t necessarily mean they are paying rapt attention. It means they are looking for their opportunity to pounce to ask that one question that has been burning a hole in their brain: what is my grade? Sometimes they ask it in the middle of the lesson, the suspense being too much to hold in.

There are the students who complete one handout in class, then turn to me and ask “am I passing now?” For many of them, it is like they wish to know the exact moment their grade reaches an acceptable level, however they define “acceptable”.

This never used to happen. Grades were something that usually came later. They were something to be discussed during parent-teacher conferences or during moments you had set aside for students one-on-one. It was a conversation that took place once or twice a year for each student, if even that much.

Now, it is something that happens all of the time. Is this the result of the online gaming generation where achievement is measured in an ever-rolling number at the top of the screen? Every level passed or enemy killed, as it were, causes the number to go higher and higher.

Nah, I don’t think so. If anything, video games have become less beholden to scores and more about completing a digital story.

The students who have been entering high school lately are part of the Reform Generation. They have come up through the ranks of a school system that has been thoroughly “reformed” by our saviors in government and business. They are the No Child Left Behind generation, the Mayoral Control Generation, the Standardized Testing Generation, the Race to the Top Generation. They have been reared on a steady stream of data. Their learning measured in a number from 0-100.

Education for this generation is not a matter of learning stuff. It is a matter of doing stuff. It is a matter of doing enough stuff to get their desired grade. For them, school is a series of mechanical processes: filling in the right bubble, filling in the blank with the right words or doing enough assignments to keep their head above water. Sure, there is internal growth, spiritual growth. But the growth they are most concerned with is the growth of their number.

For the student of old, it seemed that learning was an intrinsic thing. A new idea sunk into their brain. It either deepened, contradicted or displaced some other idea they already knew. This would cause them to ask a question or to find a new synthesis or do something else to adapt the new idea into their existing (sorry for using this educationist term) “schema”.

For the student of the Reform Generation, an idea sinks into their head. They stick the idea somewhere in their brain because they were told it was going to be on a test. There are many ideas already in their brain that contradict the new idea, but that is of no bother to the Reform Generation. It is not about how an idea affects you and helps you evolve. It is about how an idea can be stored and retrieved like a data file. What the new idea does to them, how it might deepen or undermine their entire world, is lost. Either the idea does not affect them in any way or the effect the idea has is secondary to its use as a knowledge widget for future regurgitation.

This is the data-driven Reform Generation. People are trained to act like computers. The technocrats and bean-counters who run our school system are succeeding in fashioning the next generation in their own image. They are training the next generation to think, feel and measure everything in numbers. They are training the next generation to think that intelligence is a binary code.

Are these human children? Sure. Like I said earlier, they are still curious like all human children. But as a teacher of teenagers, which is a stage of life where the indoctrination of their past schooling competes with their natural, child-like precocity, I see where these teenagers are tending. I see the sheen of a computerized, technocrized, numberized adult starting to cover the wonderfully chaotic soul a child. I see the silverish shell of a robot starting to grow over the flesh-and-blood human child.

No, I will not tell you your grade now. You will have to wait until report card time. I will not give you a number for every little thing you do and don’t do. I will not put every little assignment, every little breath, every last piece of work you do into an online grading spreadsheet so you can learn the lesson that education means nothing unless there is a number attached. Your education is not a number. Your education is your growth as a human being. Not only is it your growth between September and June, it is your growth forever and ever. Not everything in life has a number. In fact, the most important things in life don’t have numbers.

When you get married, why don’t you ask your spouse for a number to describe how you’re doing?

When you go to holiday dinner with your family, why don’t you ask them for a number to describe what type of relative you have been?

When you go to your place of worship, why don’t you ask your deity to give you a number describing how good a life you have led?

Numbers are for computers, technocrats and bean-counters. You’re a human being. Education is your growth as a human being. I’m sorry but, as your teacher, I have an interest in keeping you human. When I see that silver shell growing over you, it is my job to give you the tools to crack out of it. How can you even breathe in that thing?

Let the computers compute and the bean-counters count beans. You are a human being. The best lesson you can learn as a human is that you can’t be boiled down to a number. Once you allow yourself to become a number you become another bean to be counted, thrown in the pile with millions of other beans.

Our job is to ensure that the reformers’ reforms never amount to a hill of beans.