Maximum Capacity

I love to write celebratory posts, where I focus on small successes and new ideas. But reflecting on challenges is also important, and it’s something I think I need to do more. So here are some ruminations about what I consider my biggest challenge of all–large class size.

I’ve taken to sitting at my kitchen table and saying aloud, “I am the old woman who lives in a shoe. I have so many children, I don’t know what to do.” I jest, of course, but only partially. A reality I live with: My students are vast in number. One hundred and sixty to be exact. And that’s a lot of children to have. I really feel like, if I had one more student, I might actually lose my mind.

My school is a traditional one, with eight periods of 45 minutes of instructional time, separated by four minute passing times. This “factory model” of education sweeps kids, thirty-some at a time, in my door and out at what seems like breakneck speed. Sometimes it’s very overwhelming, just to manage these large groups of young people that fill my room. I am a one person wonder, responsible for making sure everyone is present, safe, awake, engaged, inspired, and learning. And someone always needs something. At any given moment I’ve got someone needing to go to his or her locker, someone needing to go home sick, someone who needs more explanation, and someone who needs to be told to bring his or her focus back to the classroom.

My style of teaching involves a lot of conversation, a lot of individual feedback and attention. And, unfortunately, it’s not possible to commit to this natural preference completely with my giant classes. Just think–even if I spent my entire class period on individual conferencing, a class of 35 would only get 1.3 minutes of my time per student. I can’t get to everyone individually everyday. It’s just not possible.  But I wish I had more time to give.

Sometimes it blows my mind just to think that I am monitoring the progress of 160 human beings, daily, all by myself. So how do I make this crazy factory model of education work for my individualized style of teaching? Here are some things that I try to use to my advantage!

*I speak individually with as many students as I can during independent work time.

*While grading, I write conversational feedback on student assignments in order to affirm, instruct, or redirect.

*While lecturing, I involve student input as much as possible, and try to be captivating and passionate enough for each and every student to have something that catches their imagination. I try to leave nothing at the door.

*I trust that my students can fill in the gaps in instruction that I must necessarily leave. I trust them to meet me halfway.

Whenever I start to get overwhelmed or daunted by the number of students I have and the fact that time is racing ahead while I’m still trying to figure out if they “got” what we were talking about five days ago, I try to put things in perspective by asking myself this question… What is my job?

My job is not to agonize over every word my students write (or don’t write), or every single thing they know (or don’t know). My job is to place the ladder, to supply tools, to boost them up on my shoulders and say, “Here, guys. We are building something together. Here’s our schematic. Let’s get to work.” Some will build me the Taj Mahal, others might only be able to install a doorknob or two. But the point is that something more is there, when all is said and done, than was there when we started. They work with me, they work with each other, they work with themselves. Really, the energy of running the class comes from within them. I’m just the one steering this energy in the best direction I can.

I just witnessed an appearance of this mysterious force last week, when I spent the hour before school pinning up stellar examples of student work on the huge “publication board” in my classroom. I may have put the papers on the board, but the students did the work. (And mighty fine work it was.) When each class came in, they all buzzed exitedly around the board, looking for their names, peering over shoulders, shrieking out when they saw something that their best friend wrote pinned up for all to see. (Yes, even the eighteen-year-olds were practicing this giddy behavior!) This tells me that they’re proud to be here with me, that they’re happy to be recognized, and that they’re invested in what we do. This community energy that helps me do my job is sometimes measurable, sometimes invisible. But when I see it, it makes me smile. It reminds me that while I am the adult leader, I’m merely one small part of the learning that’s taking place in my class.

P.s. All that being said, I still would prefer classes of 20 kids or fewer.   🙂

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