We Need Smaller and Larger Classes

I’m never quite sure how the head high school swim coach will use me, his ace volunteer assistant, until I show up on the deck each afternoon. Lately, he’s been giving me the burners probably because I’m less skilled teaching new swimmers.

Yesterday though, while the rest of the team rotated through four different stroke clinics he gave me two neophytes. Yikes, over an hour, what am I going to do after suggesting one or two things? I surprised myself. The girls and I connected, they made huge strides in what they were struggling with, and the time flew. I listened to them talk about what they were finding most difficult—always being really tired even in the middle of short sets. Then I watched them swim and diagnosed the problem—short, choppy, way too fast arm and leg action coupled with three and four stroke breathing. One asked, “How do I keep from hyperventilating?”

I told them there were four speeds—easy, steady, mod-hard, and hard, and they were spending all their time swimming mod-hard and hard. I got them to slow everything down, stretch things out, and breath more often. Slowing their arms and legs down and breathing more often felt odd to them, but they were thrilled to swim 50 yards without being winded. We also did flip turns and fine tuned race starts which included a lesson on how to wear goggles and tuck their chins so that their goggles don’t come off. They were very appreciative of my help and left practice more excited about the remainder of the season.

Crazily, we have forty-six swimmers, and most days, just four lanes. Those swimmers would have never got the individual attention they needed if I wasn’t volunteering. Working with them so closely reminded me how little imagination secondary school administrators and teachers have when it comes to class size. Irrespective of teachers’ methods and assessment practices, it’s as if 30ish students per class is mandated somewhere in the Old Testament. Thirty students is probably the optimal size for not really getting to know students individually and not using teaching resources as efficiently as possible.

The best elementary teachers solve the class size conundrum on their own. They brilliantly use learning centers to create more personalized learning environments. Their students are constantly moving from working independently, to working at small group learning centers, to whole class instruction.

In secondary schools, 30 students is sometimes too many. Like at swim practice yesterday, sometimes a teacher needs to listen to individual students, carefully assess what they already know and are able to do, thoughtfully diagnosis what they need to truly learn the necessary content and skills, observe, provide feedback, and repeat.

Ours is an outstanding public high school, yet after four years, Nineteen said she didn’t do much writing, and when she did, only one teacher ever provided specific feedback. Writing intensive classes, whether in English or Advanced Placement History, should be capped somewhere south of 30 so that teachers are able to assign papers, read them closely, and provide specific feedback on strengths and next steps.

And sometimes 30 is too few. Obviously, in order to have some classes with 16 or 18 students, there have to be others with 45 or 50. In ninth grade, Sixteen had math sixth period. She’d literally take a test, come home fifteen minutes later, log onto the school website, and announce her grade. Why should a teacher who slides bubbled-up Scantron sheets through a machine on the way to bball practice in less than 60 seconds be assigned the same number of students as the writing teacher who should be carefully marking three and four page essays on a regular basis?

If one’s lecturing, teaching discrete factual information, showing a PowerPoint about the digestive system for instance, and then using multiple choice exams, does it really matter if there are 30 or 60 or 75 students in the “audience”?

Granted, it’s tough to differentiate for 2,000 adolescents at a time in buildings that typically assume standard class sizes. But that doesn’t mean we’re destined to always have 30 students per class, or that each class has to be 55 minutes in length, or that all fifteen year olds are in the same classes does it?

2 thoughts on “We Need Smaller and Larger Classes

  1. Good job fellow coach of neophytes! We should pool (excuse me) our resources next time. My 16 year old is feeling pretty lost at our local high school. He feels connected with only one teacher, and recently commented, after seeing a TV program on an excellent teacher, that no adult at school had ever overtly said anything positively encouraging at school. Perhaps teachers need to stop worrying about “covering” (hiding!!??) the material and deal with the wonderful PEOPLE in their classrooms. I do think that school size plays a role, as I have been at smaller schools where teachers seem to know the kids that aren’t even in their classes.

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