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Class Size: You Don't Need to Be a Math Teacher to Understand Ratios

With an average of 30 students in each of a city high school teacher's five classes, one can imagine the cumbersome nature of providing feedback for every child, every day.

Nonetheless, we hold ourselves to the standards of maintaining learning relationships with our students and making sure that all are progressing; sometimes creatively developing ways to ensure student growth without sleepless nights or children perilously falling through the metaphorical chasms of suggestion.

This has all become terribly relevant as the first midterm progress reports went out and my inbox has been neatly organized so as to have the appearance of emptiness despite having approximately 100+ papers of various lengths to review.

(Every day there was an opportunity to do some or I had planned on doing some, but each time I tried, something more pressing seemed to come up. And the papers in my inbox languished in their lack of attention and the overriding guilt descended.) 

Then It dawned on me recently, that although I know (even if it isn't written anywhere) what my students need based on what they know and can do, I'm not sure I've communicated it sufficiently to them or to their parents. There's never enough time.

Although any hand-full of educators may disagree on the biggest challenge in the field, I'm sure we can all agree that one way to reduce many of them would be to ensure smaller class sizes.

It's all really common sense even if it does come down to dollars and cents. Smaller class sizes would, in fact, correct many other issues; so much so that it seems like a good thing to spend money on rather than getting another way to report data.

Imagine how much easier it would be for one person (a teacher) to work with 15-20 kids for 40 minutes (or if we're living in a fantasy world already, why not make class periods longer too and reduce the number of classes a day the students take as well). The time in class could be spent much differently and every child could get face time almost every day, one on one.

One year, my AP Lit and Composition class was 20 students. It was an oasis of learning and collaboration. Once routines were established, I can set up group work time and confer with students in the class for 10 minutes at a clip. If I wasn't working with individuals, I could get to all the groups in one period even if an emergency came up. Papers and projects were routinely reviewed and returned within 48 hours. My inbox seldom backed up.

And there was plenty of personal drama going on outside of school.

This year, that same class is 30 students. 50% larger. Those 10 extra kids make the class amazing for class discussion, but unwieldy for administrative management. As it stands right now, I'm meeting with kids on all of my free periods, before school, via Voxer at home and sometimes even Google Hangouts on the weekend. 

And that is just one of my five classes.

Now I could sit here and rant for the rest of this post, but I won't do that. Too many of you reading it can relate, I'm sure. So it's time to focus on a solution.

Since I know that my class sizes aren't going to get any smaller (unfortunately... our school is understaffed!), I need to get creative with how to help all students.

Here are some of the ways I've been doing that:

  • Much of the data I collect comes from students filling out Google Forms with specific questions about their learning against the standards. This way I don't have to write the status of the class every day, I can be a little freer.

  • I take pictures, video and voice recordings of what students are doing in their groups and in class, so I can review them again later. Recently, I even had students Voxing me class discussion while I was home with my son.

  • I try to talk to students face to face as often as possible and I've taught them to track what we talk about in their notebooks. Each child is responsible for tracking his/her own progress (seems like they should be really on top of their own learning)

  • Students are encouraged to self-advocate so that if an emergency arises in their learning, they are asked to reach out immediately. These are the fires I spoke of earlier. I put them out immediately. If a child asks for help, then help shall be given (As Dumbledore suggests to Harry, "Help will always be given to those in Hogwarts who ask for it")

  • Students are also taught to provide each other feedback and keep me in the loop while they do it. I'm not the only expert or authority voice in the room, so I shouldn't be the only one giving out advice.

None of the above abdicate me from my responsibilities obviously, but how awesome would it be if we didn't have to keep a grade book?

To me, this is one of the biggest draws of a no grades classroom. We need to have flexibility in the way we remain accountable for student growth and smaller classes to really help each child maximize his/her progress.

What do you do to maintain and maximize feedback to students in spite of your large class sizes? Please share your ideas.

*This piece originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog Work in Progress in December 2014

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