Gail Anderson, Lansdale, PA email@example.com
Do you teach small classes? If so, you know that while the challenges of massive homework grading and juggling 25 or more different opinions and needs are certainly diminished, those are replaced by new challenges. These new challenges include not having enough opinions or ideas, the class getting caught in the middle of strong clashes of personalities, or the teacher trying to serve students with severe learning needs. During a workshop as part of CPM’s 2019 national conference in San Francisco, a small “class” of eight teachers and I brainstormed creative ways to take the most out of our CPM training and apply it in our small classes. I shared strategies which, in my experience teaching small classes of highly varied learners, have helped me to meet the needs of my students, while also maintaining my own peace and joy in teaching.
Often, my first reaction in a difficult class is to separate my students and try to reach them all individually. But that denies them what they probably need most: the opportunity to help them learn to function well with others. I really believe that talking about the material they are learning helps students attain a deeper level of understanding, and I do not want to deny that gift to the students in my smaller classes. I have found that applying techniques taught by CPM for my “regular” classes adapt very well to teaching those skills in smaller classes. Three key things I have found to be the most helpful are: icebreakers, sorting teams creatively, and using Study Team Teaching Strategies (STTS) adapted for smaller classes. For now, I will focus on the STTS; you can read about all of these ideas by looking in my conference materials at the conference site at 2019cpmteacherconference.sched. (Use the search bar to search for Anderson to get to my session.)
During the conference session, we spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to adapt the STTS for small classes. I am combining the ideas from that session with some of my own in the following five favorites. I hope you find it useful for getting a little variety into your small math classes and for new ways to handle old challenges! If you would like to see the whole list of 30 strategies for small classes, you can download it at this link: Study Team Strategies for Small Classes (ppt).
Five Favorite STTS for small classrooms:
- Think/Pair/Share + Teammates Consult. Students are given time to think individually about a question first, and then instructed to put their pencils down and share their ideas with their teammates before moving on to solve the problem. This is very important in a small class so that one student does not dominate the conversation. It also helps to start off with every student thinking.
- Gallery Walk. Let students do their work on the whiteboard or posters, and then students can gather in the middle of the room as the teacher leads a closure discussion based on the student work displayed around the room.
- Pairs Check. Student A does a problem while student B explains. Students can change roles. This works in any size classroom, and in a small class the teacher can be paired with a student while still being able to manage the class. Have half of the students get up and rotate to a new partner after each problem so everyone gets a chance to work with the teacher.
- Hot Potato. Each student gets a different color pencil and the problem is passed around the team or around the whole class. A fun variation, which allows kids to move a bit and takes advantage of a natural spirit of competition, is to have students line up in two rows at the whiteboard. The teacher reads a problem that the students write on the board, and then they solve it in the style of a relay race, passing the marker to the next teammate every 20 seconds (or whatever time interval works). I encourage them to coach their teammates from behind the line on the floor where they have to wait their turn.
- Reciprocal Teaching. Student A explains a concept, defines a word, or recaps yesterday’s lesson to student B. Flip a coin to decide who does the explaining after students decide who is A and who is B. The teacher can monitor all the conversations and do a quick survey for understanding before moving on.
There are also many things that can be done in a small class that are not so feasible in a larger class. These are helpful for easing tensions of social or status issues. For example,
- Trashketball in a small circle for review day. (Google “trashketball” if you have never tried this one. It is very popular with my students!)
- The whole class becomes one team in which the teacher takes on the role of facilitator. Students are assigned the other team roles. The teacher uses a student text when with this team, and does not use his or her pencil or calculator forcing the students to do the math. This allows the teacher to model good facilitating. Another option is to have the teacher take on a different team role.
- Pairs Check with one student at the board and the other seated with the book and calculator. Teacher can see everybody’s work at once.
- Four Corners – I sometimes send students to four corners to work alone when they need some space.
- Change of venue – use a conference room, sidewalk chalk outside, or do a Walk and Talk with students down the hall.
Variety is the spice of life. We do not like to wear the same clothes year after year; fashions change all the time. Music changes all the time; much of what we liked to listen to a few years ago no longer excites us. People are wired to want something new, over and over again. It is the same in education: what worked last month or last week might not do the trick today. It is important to have a well-stocked toolkit of options to liven things up or to present material in new ways. Trying out a new Study Team and Teaching Strategy is a great way to spice things up in your classroom. STTSs are also great for giving students a structure for collaborative learning to help them master the communication skills necessary for working together, for solving problems such as status issue, or for giving all students the opportunity to take a turn to talk and a turn to listen.
It took me several years of working with small (and large) classes to get to the point where I can spontaneously change direction and add in an unplanned team strategy that will work for that moment. It is like everything—over time, you will master the art of teaching small or large classes. Just like your students’ learning, it is a growing process. I hope that this list of ideas will help fill your “teacher toolkit” with some new ideas, and help you to finish the year strong.