Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On Class Size--Night and Day

I taught two double-period classes this year. One had 32 kids and the other had 14.

I had a great year with both of them, to tell the truth. But they had quite different characters. The prime difference was that the large afternoon class required a lot of handling. I go quiet when I'm not happy. I stare the class down until we can continue. Every moment spent staring is a moment of instruction lost.

It was particularly tough this year because of four personalities in the PM group. None of them were bad kids, and three of them passed, but they were all problematic in their way. The most troublesome was a young woman who seemed to require my attention every minute. She had a piercing voice that could not and would not be ignored. She also had a very high average.

I tried contacting her parents, but they were pretty tough on her. She'd come in and go silent for two or three weeks. I found that even worse than being interrupted and basically put up with her for the rest of the year. It's perhaps my most significant defeat as a teacher. (Don't tell my students, please.)

Another kid basically could not sit still. Another could not refrain from speaking his first language. Actually there were two kids like that. Neither could comprehend fully that when I said the class was all English, I really, really meant it. In a way, it's understandable. Imagine yourself sitting in a foreign country with 25 English speakers and having some guy tell you that from now on you couldn't speak English. It's a hard sell, but my job is a hard sell.

Here's the thing, though--in the morning class I had a few very outgoing personalities too. In fact, one of my PM problems had been transferred from the AM class, and he was passing the AM class at the time. I knew moving him into the other class would be trouble.

But in the morning, I could let the kids say what they liked. I could let them speak as much as they liked. There was no place to hide and speak your foreign language, and it was rare that anyone even tried. One girl, who I think would have failed the PM class, was able to pass largely due to excellent participation. What was amusing in the morning, sadly, would have needed to be shut down in the afternoon. I think that was the case with several of my PM kids.

I like to encourage communication. It's one of my prime responsibilities as a language teacher. While I've got very few good things to say about Mike Bloomberg, one great thing he did was liberate teachers like me to place our classrooms in horseshoes. Before he made his much-despised push for that, you'd need special permission. Now I push the seats the way I like them, the next teacher pushes them how she likes them, and no one seems to care all that much.

But a few months into this school year, I pushed my PM class back into rows so as to hinder conversation. It was simply unworkable otherwise. Throughout the year I frequently reassigned seats. Nothing was ever quite perfect. But I know one thing--if my PM class had been split into two groups, I'd have been able to give them more attention. I'd have been able to indulge my louder kids a lot more. I'd have been able to make them love English more.

Making them use and love English is kind of my prime directive. It's very important for my kids, particularly if they choose to stay here. I'm absolutely sure I could do it better with class sizes of 25, or ideally 20. One thing I've noticed is whenever the most verbal kid leaves, another kid steps up and becomes the most verbal kid.

I would like to let each and every student of mine to step up and get a chance to be as verbal as possible. How about it, Mayor de Blasio? Chancellor Fariña? Shouldn't we reduce class size every half-century or so?
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