Class Size and Leadership

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Thomas Dennison
Thomas Dennison
15 May
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I have a leadership structure in place this year in my classroom that is really exciting.  Don’t get me wrong, I am still working the kinks out of it, but I think it is worth sharing and both letting you try it out and work out the kinks with me.

I have what I call “Classroom Captains.”  These captains report directly to me, get extra attention from me, have lunch meetings with me and are responsible for the other members of the class.   

Each captain has 2-3 students that they are responsible for.  It is their job to make sure those students are on task, unpacking, writing homework down, turning work in, etc…all of those little managing task I have tried to do myself in the past for the sake of keeping the classroom flowing.   

If a member of their group doesn’t do well on an assignment, is acting out of line or hasn’t turned something in, I talk to their captain.  The captain should be addressing these things before I see them or they come across my desk.

You see, the reality is this – I can’t take care of 29 students in a high-quality way, but I can take care of 8 or 9.  Let me take a step back and unpack this a bit more…

Big class sizes and high expectations are a reality of our day-to-day world.  With the way funding is trending, my class…and yours…are not going to get any smaller.

There seems to be some debate these days about class size.  About whether or not more kids in a room is a powerful thing or horrible bad thing.  As classroom teachers our job is teach the kids in front of us.

Over the past 16 years in the classroom, I’ve worked with as low as 14 students in a co-taught special edu classroom while right now I’m sitting at a career high of 29 students.   

Other than the fact that grading 29 essays takes MUCH longer than grading 14 and 29 students smell up a room much worse and much quicker – one constant in a classroom holds true:  no matter how many students you have it’s still about relationships.   

 

Assigning a specific number to what is “best for students” discounts what we as teachers know in our bones; that every kid is different, and every kid needs something just a bit different.   

One student might seem like 10 while another hardly needs my support at all.  (You just thought about a kid who felt like 10 didn’t you, me too!?)

It is my job to figure out who is who and to find a way to know each of them uniquely.  It sounds so philosophically beautiful doesn’t it; the college version of me writing his “Philosophy of Education” at the end of my junior year would be so proud.  The current and realistic, white bearded version of me knows the reality however- as do you… building relationships with people a quarter of our age with no common interests is REALLY hard.  

In church a few years ago I heard an idea that I’ve been kicking around, it’s this – as humans we are capable of only a limited number of quality relationships.  I recently read an article in the National Post that confirmed this claim with specifics, saying that we can successfully have around 5 close relationships.  From there the quality of our relationships decreases. It again decreases around 15 and then again around 35. As a teacher I’m thinking about my 29 students and starting to panic…

The article then suggests that we are not physically capable of more that 150 relationships total, even at the most surface level. Any other teachers in freak-out mode?   

Despite those numbers; the key to college and career ready is STILL relationships though…

So here’s what I do, and what I would love for you to try and help me work out –  I make sure 9 students have as much access to me as they need. I do my best with the others, but I know the quality and quantity goes into those 9 because those 9 each have 2 assigned to them and THEY are going to give their quality and quantity into their 2.   

We talk weekly about their squads and where they can’t handle something and they need me to step in.  My wife always says, “the general doesn’t handle ordering pencils.” Meaning, I’ve got bigger things to do than to make sure my kids have supplies for the day – my captains do that.   

We each have responsibilities in the classroom, and in order to fulfill mine, I need them to fulfill theirs.   In order to make sure every kid feels loved, valued and cared for, to make sure high quality, rigorous instruction is taking place, I need them.  I don’t teach 29, we teach 29. I don’t mentor 29, we mentor 29.

That’s the effect from this structure – the we.  This isn’t my room, my job, my year or my work – it is what we do.  What sounds like me being a bit distant from some has actually resulted in more students being cared for and a group of students I could not love more.

Simple Tips on Handling Large Class Sizes:

  1. Every kid has a number that they put in the right corner of their paper.  When papers are turned in, they are sequenced. This numbering order matches the order in my gradebook.  It makes recording work MUCH faster!
  2. Computer based assessments.
    1. Shout out to Pearson here because I love the “Practice Buddy” and “Quick Check” pieces of our math program.  I can customize which problems students get and it grades them for me and keeps record. The ‘Practice Buddy” is my favorite because if students miss the problem it gives them multiple chances to try it and learn from their mistakes AND when students work with each other their problems are the same concept but different numbers.  It ensures that they can’t cheat off each other but they can help each other. By the time I get to a pair of students working to check on them, they have already problem-solved it themselves. That’s how you build problem solvers.
    2. I also love Socrative.com and Kahoot.com – I’ll unpack some online tools I love in another blog.
  3. Cups
    1. In math and writing students have 3 stacked cups on their desk:  red, yellow and green. They start each lesson on yellow because they aren’t expected to be perfect or know everything already.  If they are crushing a skill they switch their cup to green. If the need me immediately, they switch it to red. This allows me to quickly scan the room to see where I need to go.  It also lets the students see each other – WHICH IS GOOD! We are honest about when we struggle. Green cups look for red cups or red cups know to search out a green cup for support if I can’t get there fast enough.

       

  4. Outlook
    1. Oh, my, goodness…I love outlook!  I share an Outlook calendar with my students so everyday they know the schedule and what to expect.  I load any links or assignments into the calendar and expect them to e-mail me each morning if they have any questions or needs.  This basic level of organization changes the expectations for being prepared and helps move the smaller tasks out of my hands.

 

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Thomas Dennison - Havre de Grace Elementary

Thomas Dennison is a 5th grade teacher, serving at Havre de Grace Elementary in HdG, Maryland.  He has also taught kindergarten, 3rd and 4th grade and intends to stay in the classroom for 30 years.  Thomas believes schools should be built on hope and believes it is their role to help each student figure out who they uniquely are.  He works to make sure that each day can be fun and challenging, not either or. Thomas believes in the power of beards, the balance between chaos and control and the comfort of a worn-out pair of Cons.  He has a master’s degree in Educational Computer Technology and a bachelor’s in Early Childhood Education both from Ohio University. Thomas is a National Milken Award winner and Milken Unsung Heroes Fellow.  You can follow him on Instagram @mrdennison5th to see how each day can have its own piece of awesome.

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