On writing this post, I thought of starting reflecting on my personal experience by applying the Thinking Routine: See-Think-Wonder. I often use thinking routines in class, but this is the first time I am embarking on such experimentation with my own practice.
I will try to visualize a group of 6th graders (11 years old) I am working with, and ask myself 3 questions:
- What do I see?
- What do I think about that?
- What does it make me wonder?
Boys and girls
Enthusiastic, motivated, interested, bored, happy, sad, tired faces
Disciplined, undisciplined, well behaved, less well behaved, shy, self-confident, hyperactive children, students with difficulty in concentrating, with learning difficulties
Different faces, different appearances, different personalities
Quite a few of them like English a lot.
Some find it boring.
Some find it difficult; they feel insecure and uncomfortable.
I know quite enough on a personal level about most of them.
When do I feel comfortable in my large, multi-level class?
How have I benefited from our interaction?
Which are the best moments we have shared?
I will now add 2 more parameters:
- My preconceived notions of what constitutes a large, multi-level class
- My assumptions concerning how learning takes place in proportion to class size and level differentiation
My preconceived notions are mediated both by what my country’s institutional framework defines as large, and by what I personally “feel” as such. Within the Greek state primary school framework, 25-27 is the maximum acceptable number of students a class can have. In previous years an informal flexibility allowed for splitting up classes in smaller groups. This was especially valuable in urban, densely populated areas; the recent trend, however, following school merging and staff redundancy allows for no such deviations. In the urban school where I work, on a full working day, I teach about 5-6 different classes and age groups; a total teaching load of about 100-120 different students. On a personal level, this is my teaching reality for the past few years so, no matter how tedious or demanding I may find it, I have to cope with it. In other words, I “feel” my classes are large but I am used to working with such numbers.
My assumptions concerning learning in proportion to class size, and level differentiation are that class size does matter, and, yes, I would be quite happy if I had fewer students in my classes. Especially in the primary school this would be beneficial in terms of being more attentive to individual needs, and establishing a closer rapport. I do not consider level differentiation an issue. Within the state funded primary school context, ability grouping can entrench differences between pupils, and affect children’s self-perceptions and behaviour. Learning can thrive in mixed-ability settings as well without the potentially undermining labelling implications. After all, in the Greek context English instruction is provided both by the private and public sector, and pupils are already grouped by ability in their private English classes.
Returning now to my wonderings about my large, multi-level class.
I feel comfortable once:
- I have established a minimum personal contact with them i.e. I know their names, a few things about each one as an individual through their work in class or their lives outside of it. This can be scaffolded by: 1) Finding some time to listen to and talk with students outside classroom environment (during breaks or school visits). 2) Cooperating with other colleagues who teach in the same class, gaining insights and sharing information about individual students. 3) Contacting and discussing with parents.
- We have decided upon a common framework of conduct and working together. This is considerably facilitated by establishing a few routines we can all depend on. Students of this age, and their parents as well, feel safe knowing what is expected from them in terms of homework assignments, testing, and assessment. Conduct involves building a work-and-learn together ethos which can involve many things, but just to mention a few of them: making clear and agreeing that each one should take turns in speaking, that everyone has the right to make mistakes while learning English and he cannot be made fun of, that all ideas are listened to and respected provided they do not insult or embarrass our classmates. Get to know each other activities, and a mutual classroom contract drawn in the beginning of the year help to that direction.
- There is a comfortable physical and learning space in the classroom; furniture arrangement and seating of students facilitates a well-managed classroom community. I like cooperative work and I am convinced of its beneficial results in large groups; blending high and low achievers and making use of the most efficient ones so as to help the others can be effective. Since, however, I do not have a class of my own and need to move every 40-45 minutes to a different class, cooperating with the Greek language teacher in charge significantly helps. Cooperation involves negotiating possible ways to arrange furniture in a way conducive to group work, and ensuring that I can have a little space within the classroom to hang students’ work.
- I have a planned and prepared teaching schedule which follows weekly cycles.
I have benefited from working with my large, multi-level group in that:
- I have developed my interpersonal skills.
- I have learnt to budget time better and more carefully, to be more patient, and more self-controlled. Whenever I entered the classroom feeling rushed or overwhelmed, students felt it too.
- I have learnt to be more tolerant and aware of diverse learning styles.
- I have been more resourceful in teaching, learning and assessment variables: enriching textbook material with relevant and engaging visual stimuli, providing opportunities for active learning, cooperating, creating, and movement (drama activities, drawing, games, music, group and individual exercises, peer and self assessment) make pupils of this age more attentive and interested. It also helps accommodating for below and above-level learners, motivating the less interested ones, and keeping busy the hyperactive.
The best moments I have shared with them
- Have been articulated within textbook-less spaces; project based work is a great way for all students to participate at a level comfortable yet challenging at the same time. It is a platform to put forward and test new ideas and possibilities. It is also conducive to building deep connections on many levels while at the same time fostering lingustic, emotional, and social development. Students can learn to share responsibility, help and trust each other, listen, have patience, and express themselves within a diverse group of people – valuable lifelong learning skills. Projects are also an excellent way for students to take initiatives and for teachers to move from a traditional teacher-centred status to one that calls for more inspiration, support, empowerment, and coordinatioon.
Teaching a large, multi-level class takes a great deal of time and energy. It is an ongoing process of experimenting, implementing, and reflecting through trial and error. It is an issue of finding a balance between individual attention and collective awareness. It is also an issue of connecting meaningfully with learners, and helping them connect meaningfully with each other in the microcosm of the classroom, the school, the family, the community, and hopefully the world.
The title of this post has been triggered by an interesting discussion with Chuck Sandy on the theme of worlds within worlds and I wish to thank him for that.