Teacher to teacher

Taming the beast

Making learning possible in overcrowded classrooms

Bodies are everywhere. Students pack shoulder to shoulder into the room, almost literally sitting on top of each other. The space is stifling for both you and the students, with no room to walk without bumping conspicuously into an uncomfortable child.

Classes in New York City public schools aren’t supposed to be this big. Some 35 names sit patiently on the roster, and even after the administration equalizes the classes, relief is not going to come.

How will the needs of 35 kids be met? They all have different needs, and managing a “normal-sized” classroom of adolescents is hard enough even under the best of circumstances. Now you face the seemingly insurmountable challenge of effectively educating each child.

Here’s what to do:

Get to know your students — all of them — as quickly as possible. Learn something about every child’s style of learning and use this to start making connections in the room.

Establish routines immediately. Explicitly teach expectations early and allow students to practice. Write an agenda on the board every day that has a learning target and specific activities for the period. Put it in the same place. Be predictable but allow just enough mystery. Maintaining students’ attention and forcing them to avoid merely copying what has been written are paramount. Copying won’t serve them at all; they need to make notes, not take them.

Always be hyperorganized. Structure the class so it will run and transition smoothly through activities, creating seamless movement and minimizing class disruption. The more prepared and alert you are, the easier dealing with the unexpected will be.

Vary student activities. Five days a week should involve five different kinds of activities, such as independent work, pair work, group work, presentations, kinesthetic activities and assignments using technology. Make the activities appropriate for the content, and find a creative way to engage each and every student every day. Make sure to develop projects that play to the strengths of different kinds of learners and provide multiple opportunities to help students experience success.

Create different groups for different activities. Group stronger students with weaker ones and let students be leaders, or group them by need and do guided lessons in those smaller groups. In a larger class, group work will be your savior as you rely on stronger students to help support the neediest first.

Plan other enrichment activities in case some students finish early. If a few students complete an assignment and aren’t engaged in some kind of extension, then you risk them wandering off task, which can be catastrophic for a big class.

Don’t collect every daily assignment. Finding yourself buried under a pile of papers that can’t be returned quickly serves no one. Explain that one out of three will be collected, but never tell them which one. Each assignment is expected to be done as their best work, so it shouldn’t matter which is the one selected.

Start giving and accepting assignments electronically. Making copies is costly, so if it can be emailed and printed or done online, you help them become more responsible and accountable for their own learning and save money.

Always have a backup plan. Try to be a step ahead and anticipate the needs of the students, especially in cases where printed materials are not provided. The more engaged your students are, the fewer challenges you will encounter.

Be available for students. You won’t be able to get to everyone in a class period and shouldn’t expect yourself to do so. Allow students to email you at a school-approved email address or set up conferences during the day. Or if you work with one group one day, share the love the next. Don’t allow one student or a group of students to monopolize time in class. Every student needs help, and they all deserve the attention.

Maintain records of all student work. Data will drive instruction in the future. Make sure you know what students know. Give exit tickets, low-stakes writing assignments and/or polls in class to check their learning regularly. Note similar weaknesses when grading projects or doing conferences, and don’t be afraid to reteach something in a different way if students aren’t getting it. No one did anything wrong; perhaps communication just wasn’t clear. Understand that everyone has a bad day occasionally. Always remember you are working together toward the same goal.

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