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Voices: Why class size matters

Aurora literacy teacher Jessica Cuthbertson says it may not be realistic to have a classroom with eight kids, but even a class with 25 students is a whole lot easier to individualize than one with 35.

On day three of an eight-day enrichment session, a student’s words sent chills down my spine. He inhaled deeply, stretched his arms high above his head, and sighed as he said: “I love working in a small group. I wish school was like this all of the time.”

If you don’t think class size matters, ask a sixth-grader. Or a kindergartner. Or a senior.

If you don’t think class size matters, you haven’t spent enough time in classrooms recently. You haven’t been the new student who has to sit at the teacher’s desk until an additional student desk is found for the classroom. You haven’t lobbied for airtime in a discussion with 34 other students – as those in my two literacy classes must do each day. You haven’t had to wait in line to use a resource like a dictionary or computer. Your name hasn’t been buried on the checkout list for a copy of The Hunger Games.

Class size matters.

Teachers know it. Students know it. The more personal the learning experience, the more powerful. Period.

I knew spending eight days with eight readers would equate to teaching bliss. But I wasn’t prepared for the intense level of student engagement, excitement and critical thinking.

PoWeR” sessions address postsecondary workforce readiness skills and standards and are a part of my school’s innovation plan. There are three sessions built into this school year’s calendar.

Using student and community input, creativity and staff expertise, teachers design sessions to enrich and extend student learning in a variety of disciplines. Literacy and math intervention is also offered as an embedded option for struggling students and an alternative to summer school.

For my recent fall session, I designed an “advanced book club” for sixth grade readers. For seven mornings and one Saturday afternoon, we met in three-hour block sessions to explore the celebrated young adult classic The Giver by Lois Lowry.

We attended a Saturday matinee production of the work brought to life by the Denver Center Theater Company. We collaboratively emailed the author a few of our lingering questions and received a response within 24 hours. We composed and posted reviews of the book on Goodreads to share our opinions with other readers.

Above all, we engaged in multiple Socratic seminars focused on the dystopian aspects of the book. We dissected, analyzed, debated and examined the work from multiple angles.

Every student received daily feedback, from each other and from me. Every student had a prominent voice and role in the session. We did not watch the clock. We did not face interruptions from bells or schedules, drills or assemblies.

What did students learn from this experience? They learned to defend their thinking both orally and in writing with evidence from the text in order to strengthen their analysis and position. They learned to think critically before, during and after reading. They learned to compare and contrast a text and its dramatic adaptation. They learned how to ask big questions to generate deeper thinking. They learned how to write thoughtful responses for personal reflection and for authentic audiences. Above all, they learned that reading to learn and reading for pleasure can be synonymous.

We accomplished more in eight book club sessions than we could have in weeks of 90-minute literacy block instruction with 35 students per class.

And when the eighth day came, they begged for more.

So, we’re reading the next book in Lowry’s quartet, Gathering Blue. We’ll be meeting mostly online, and weekly during the students’ lunch period or after school.

On the first day of the session, I greeted eight individual inquisitive readers. By the end of the session, I celebrated with a community of readers.

The session was teaching and learning utopia.

A class size of eight is amazing, but unrealistic. I’m not asking for rosters of eight to strategically support students. But I know what I can do with even 25 or 30 students is much more challenging with 35 per section. I want learning to be personal for every student every day – from the gifted to the struggling reader. I want all of my students to receive immediate and meaningful feedback. I want every voice to be heard in whole class discussions.

Every student deserves to sigh with contentment at the end of class because school should always feel that satisfying.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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