ask three then me, class size, classroom management, combined classes, Common Core, crowded classrooms, Daily 5, elementary school, graded work, homeschool, language arts, librarian, math, parapro, quiz, school budget cuts, second grade, teaching, test, Whole Language
So, I forgot to mention that we were told at the end of First Grade that the school would be combining a First and Second Grade class in the next year. In other words, instead of three Second Grade classes and three First Grade classes, there would be two classes of each plus one combined class. This was going to be accomplished by forcing some of the inner district transfers in First and Second Grade to go to their “home” school, transferring a First Grade teacher to one of the other two elementary schools, and assigning one of the Second Grade teachers to teach the combined class. It did not go unnoticed that instead of keeping a teacher and reducing the number of children in the classroom for the first time in anyone’s collective memory, the district instead chose to increase the number of students in the classroom even further. This would come back to bite the district in the tuckus when they were seeking a bond issue from the community two years later to build a new elementary school and expand the classroom sizes at the existing schools. Many voted against it purely because they were afraid that the district was looking to build bigger classrooms so they could lay off teachers and shove even more kids into a classroom. More on that in a later post.
Parents of the students in First and Second Grade anticipated all summer that more information about the combined class would be provided. Perhaps a meeting. At least a letter. Nothing came. Two weeks before school started, I finally emailed the principal asking about the status and structure of the class. My concerns were a) how many students would be in the combined class, b) how many students would be in the other two Second Grade classes, c) would this reduced number of classrooms and larger class size continue throughout the remainder of my daughter’s elementary school career, and d) how would the kids be chosen for the combined class?
Although the teacher selected to teach the combined class was one of my favorites in the school, I just did not feel that the combined class would be good for my daughter. With her being highly distractable, I thought the addition and novelty of younger kids in the classroom would be one more thing to keep her from focusing on her work. Plus, no one at the school, including this teacher, had any experience with combined age/grade classes. It was being done because of budget cuts, and not because it was a chosen method to teach, and all of the data I found on the topic suggested this was the absolutely worst reason to combine age groups.
The principal was very noncommittal on most of my questions, but she did honor my request and kept my daughter out of the combined class. The remaining two classes, however, were given slightly more students in order to keep the combined class student-count low. There were 26 kids in one class and 27 in the other (though the classes received more students as the year wore on). The combined class had nine Second Graders and 15 First Graders, for a total of 24. The combined class was also assigned a student teacher.
There were other things that changed that year due to budget cuts like the art teacher’s hours were cut back, as were the library parapro’s (the school had not had a full time librarian since we had been there). Both of these staff members were required to take on additional support duties as well. For example, during what could have been library time, the library parapro was required to tutor those upper grade students struggling with math.
This was the environment within the school when my daughter entered Second Grade in 2011. On top of the undercurrent of tension at the school, the first thing I noticed was how absolutely crammed her classroom was. As the year progressed, I would be reminded over and over again just how small a classroom becomes with 26 desks in it, plus the bookshelves, plus the Elmo, plus the reading area, plus the “group-teaching” table, plus the teacher’s desk, plus the bathroom. The bathroom, by the way, always smelled distinctly “ripe” because it was visited by more than its fair share of little boys (mothers will understand this and I suspect fathers, as well) as there were twice as many boys in the class as girls. My daughter’s class (the entire class) had this boy/girl ratio since Kindergarten. While I have nothing against little boys, they do tend to have a higher energy level which always increased the challenge to the teachers for maintaining order. God bless them, they were excellent at it.
That “tension” I mentioned in the previous paragraph persisted the entire year. At first I thought it was because we had moved to a new, unfamiliar hallway with the change to Second Grade, but other parents in other grades mentioned it as well. I think we were all just waiting for the next budget- induced shoe to drop.
My daughter’s Second Grade teacher was a lovely woman who was always willing to work with me. She was a mother of a middle-school son and I believe one in high school, so she knew how important a strong elementary school foundation was. It would not be her fault that this year would be one of the final straws forcing my decision to homeschool.
The structure of the class was the same as the other two years. I knew what to expect there. I did not like it, but it was familiar. What was different this year, however, was the way that the more complex concepts within math and language arts were being presented. Much to my chagrin, there were still no textbooks. My daughter was in Second Grade and still had NEVER held a textbook in her hands; unless you considered the Treasures readers as textbooks (I didn’t). I know that textbooks have been eliminated in many schools these days to save money, but it is a huge mistake; especially in a school district that does not have programs aimed at students who can move a little faster. Back in the stone ages when I went to school, children would look ahead in their textbooks when they finished their work early. Textbooks are also an excellent way for students to revisit concepts that they might be struggling with or just need to review. If the school was really looking for a way to help children “take charge” of their own learning, this is an excellent way to help accomplish that goal.
Anyway, instead of textbooks, there were photocopied worksheets. These came in the form of half of 8 ½” x 11” paper devoted to either Language Arts or Math. These worksheets were completed first thing in the morning, daily. The children attempted to complete them by themselves and then they were corrected together with the teacher explaining the problems and providing the correct answer via the Elmo. This became known in my mind as the “appetizer” approach to teaching. A little of this here, a little of that there. There were no quizzes, no tests, and the teacher did not even see the completed worksheet as they went straight from student desk to their take-home folder. How was the teacher supposed to know what the child actually knew? How was the child supposed to know what they knew? When I brought this up to the principal later in the year, she told me in no uncertain terms that “grades” were only for parents and were of absolutely no value to teachers or students. Nevermind that I had not cared about a “grade” per se, only graded work; i.e., some way for the teacher, on an on-going basis, to assess what a child was learning or not learning and address problems in a timely fashion.
But back to those corrected-together worksheets. When they came home, I looked them over carefully. It was in this way I discovered that my daughter was putting down answers that she was told to put down by other students in the class; WRONG answers. She explained that so-and-so knew EVERYTHING about dinosaurs, so she felt confident that his math skills were on an equal footing. I explained that CLEARLY knowing a lot about dinosaurs did not translate into an equally robust knowledge of math and that exchanging information on class math assignments was, in fact, CHEATING and that it was not to happen anymore. When it happened yet again, I started off sternly, but then I noticed my daughter’s tears. She explained that they were instructed by the teacher to “ask three, then me”. Huh? They were supposed to ask three other students in the class their question before asking the teacher. I was appalled! When I settled down, I realized that my daughter obviously had her wires crossed. I knew that despite the whole “group think” teaching method trend, this was pushing it, and just could not be what was meant by “ask three, then me”.
It turns out that “ask three, then me” was a classroom management tool designed so that the teacher was not inundated with frivolous questions like “what time is lunch?”, “where are the scissors?”, and “where do I put my paper when I’m finished?” The teacher took the time to explain to the entire class, once she realized it had been misinterpreted, that they were NOT supposed to use that to get answers on assignments. O.K. This was better than the alternative, but was it good? Was I the only one who saw the potential downside to this classroom management tool? For example, once I understood this was being used in class, I gave my daughter advice on WHO she should be asking for help. These would be the children who always were attentive and focused and, as a result, usually knew what was going on. If you are the parent of one of those kids, you should know that they are probably being interrupted constantly (to keep the teacher from being interrupted constantly) by the hundreds of questions Second Graders have on a daily basis. Was this teaching children to think for themselves? I don’t think so. Was it a distraction to other students? You betcha! I mean, if an adult teacher had problems achieving her daily duties because kids were asking too many questions, how much more were Second Graders being negatively impacted by these questions when they were trying to LEARN? Especially those who were already prone to distractions?
And here is also what was becoming clear. Everything from Daily 5 to no tests and “graded” work to “ask three, then me” was designed to make things easier for the teacher. None of these tools were designed to help the student learn, and certainly not to their full potential. I’m not blaming the teachers. They had a lot on their plate. It is hard to teach almost 30 seven and eight-year-olds in one tiny class. But it is not right. It is not good. It is not an example of “best teaching practices”.
I realize that Second Grade will have to be divided into at least two parts as I have already made this post longer than those for Kindergarten and First Grade and I have only touched the surface.
Next time: How “writing” came to be a dreaded chore in our house and “the math that wasn’t.”