July 29, 2017

Departmentalization in Upper Elementary: Drawbacks

In my last post, I shared some of the benefits of departmentalization, but during my brief foray into this instructional model there were also a few significant drawbacks.

Drawback #1: Relationships

One of the hardest parts of departmentalizing, for me, was the lack of continuity with my students. We switched to this model toward the end of the school year, and I found it challenging to stay connected to the students in the my original homeroom. It was hard to maintain a community-building Morning Meeting when we only had 15 minutes before the kiddos left for their first class. It was hard to support all aspects of their education when I was only teaching them math, when I didn't assign the Social Studies projects, or grade any literacy assignments. It was hard to sustain and strengthen communication with families when I was not with their children all day.
In addition to feeling disconnected from the students in my original homeroom, it was also hard to get to know the kiddos and families in my other classes. Despite already knowing some of them, I did not feel like I had same connection with everyone. A benefit of departmentalization is that it allows teachers to focus on only one subject area, but the downside is that it increases the number of students who we interact with daily; it's not easy to manage individual relationships with 60+ students and their families and develop strong communities with multiple classes!

Drawback #2: Transitions

We read everywhere!
Before we departmentalized one of my primary concerns was how the kiddos would handle all the transitions. Nine- and ten-year-olds are still young and I questioned whether they were developmentally ready to move classes. In my school, we used a three-way rotation so students started in their homeroom, moved to another classroom for their first subject, returned to their homeroom for their second class, went to lunch and recess, then returned to homeroom, went to another classroom for their last subject, came back to homeroom to pack up, and finally went to special class -- that's 7 moves between spaces!  The kiddos had to carry their homework folders and independent reading books with them to each class, and often needed to bring their own pen or pencil as well (that was whole other issue with supplies!)  While some of the kiddos felt capable, and even confident, keeping their materials organized and moving from class to class, for others it was a significant challenge.  In addition to managing their materials, students also had to negotiate new expectations and personalities with each transition. My clever kiddos quickly recognized that one teacher was more strict, one was more permissive, and I was somewhere in the middle! Yet again, some of the kiddos could take these differences in stride, while others really struggled to manage all the rules and routines. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, most of the kiddos who had the hardest time with the transitions during the school day were the ones who were dealing with transitions in their home lives as well (moving, divorce, food insecurity). With students moving from room to room, it also became harder for any one teacher to respond to a student who was having a hard time; we were making multiple transitions too -- resetting materials, reviewing expectations, and managing additional procedures -- and now our time with each class was limited.  Although there were great things about seeing more students and changing things up, I was constantly worried about students falling through the cracks (not literally) with all the movement in the schedule.

Drawback #3: Communication

There are so many areas where communication is essential in a departmentalized model -- communicating expectations to students, communicating with co-teachers about curriculum and students' behavior and progress, communicating with families about all aspects of their children. Regrettably, this was not a strength of our fourth grade team. It's hard not to place blame when it comes to poor communication, so I won't say I did everything I could to improve the situation. Frankly, we didn't have the best systems in place for communicating before we departmentalized, and I think these problems were simply exacerbated once we were sharing students.  Disagreements about classroom procedures, instructional priorities, or when and how to communicate with families became much bigger issues once we were departmentalized. Conflicts between teachers, kiddos, parents, and administrators created more friction for our team when we couldn't handle everything in our own classrooms. Obviously, systems and strategies could have prevented some of these issues, but, candidly, strong communication also requires a level of trust and confidence that we were lacking as well.  Working closely with co-workers could certainly be a benefit of departmentalization, but it can quickly become a drawback when communication suffers.

It looks like I'm going to be in fourth grade again this year, and we're likely going to be departmentalized from the beginning, so I'm starting to think about solutions to some of these stumbling blocks.  Hopefully I can find some tricks and tools to minimize these departmentalization drawbacks! Stay tuned.

July 24, 2017

Departmentalization in Upper Elementary: Benefits

This past year, my school decided to departmentalize 4th grade for the last quarter of the year.  We made this decision for a variety of reasons, one of which was that our district has really pushed departmentalization for upper elementary.  While I have mixed feelings about this new trend, I'm glad that I experienced it for myself. Departmentalization can take many forms: we used a three-way rotation where students rotated to different classrooms for Math, Reading, and Writing/Social Studies. Although we were only departmentalized for about 9 weeks, I discovered some unexpected benefits, as well as drawbacks, for both myself and my students.

Starting with the positive, here are some clear benefits of using a departmentalized, subject-area teaching model.

Benefit #1: Focus

It's undeniable that teaching only one subject allows teachers to focus on that particular subject, in a way that you can't when you teach 5 or 6 subjects throughout the day. As the Math Teacher, I could suddenly spend all of my prep and planning time thinking about just math! I could hone my lessons more, organize more small groups, plan further in advance, grade and return assignments more quickly, etc.. It makes sense that focusing on one subject at a time, especially for new teachers -- who need more time for prepping and planning everything -- would lead to much stronger instruction. Even with a number of teaching years behind me, though, the ability to focus on math while we were transitioning to a new curriculum was definitely helpful (read about our Eureka Math transition here).

Benefit #2: Growth
In addition to focusing more on one subject-area, in a departmentalized model where teachers teach the same lesson multiple times it's much easier to incorporate feedback and improve more quickly.  The caveat is that teachers still need to get high-quality feedback and they need to be reflective enough to incorporate that feedback in order to actually get better faster. For me, I appreciated getting more attention from my Math Coach (who no longer had to divide her time between three 4th grade math teachers), and I could see my lessons improve as I tweaked instructions, re-ordered examples, and anticipated pitfalls during my second and third classes. Overall, I think I grew more quickly as a math teacher when I only taught math, compared to when I was teaching multiple subjects.

Benefit #3: Fit
"Fit" is an often overlooked, but important quality in education -- both how teachers fit with the grade and subject they are teaching, and how students and teachers fit with each other. A benefit of departmentalization is that it can be easier to find the right fit for both kids and teachers. Ideally, teachers are matched with a subject-area where they feel more confident and comfortable. Hopefully, students can also find a good fit with at least one of their teachers. While I work hard to connect with all of my students, I know I'm not always the best teacher for every student in my class. With departmentalization, I recognized that it was sometimes helpful for my students and I to get a break from each other, and for them to have different experiences with the other teachers. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that Math was the best fit for me (I have much more experience and natural passion/interest for Literacy), but I did enjoy getting to bring some of my strengths to a subject that is often challenging for students -- I was able to break down concepts, build students' confidence in math, and communicate with parents about math, which felt great.

We only had a few weeks to figure out departmentalization this past year, so there are many things I realize now would have made the transition even easier for both the kiddos and myself. Nevertheless, I did get instructional support from my administration, received a lot of positive feedback from kiddos and families, and saw growth in myself -- all great things! 🙌 

Of course, no model is perfect, and there were certainly some drawbacks to this instructional model as well.  Next up... Drawbacks.

July 11, 2017

New Year...Same Goals?

It's hard to believe that I'm approaching my eleventh year of teaching, but here we are...

More things have changed than stayed the same across those years, but there are few things that have remained consistent. For one, I'm still at the same school!  For another, each year I have created a "School Year __ IDEAS" document for the next year. This is where I collect all the great ideas I have after I finish a unit (you know the ones: the things I don't get to or realize too late or attempt unsuccessfully). I usually include ideas for read-aloud books, new classroom activities, improved procedures, and other small things that just might make the next year run more smoothly than the last.

Over the summer and throughout the school year, I check my "IDEAS" document and incorporate those ideas in to my planning and teaching. Ideally, each year I have new ideas and set new goals... but, unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way...

Firsties greeting each other with the "Butterfly Greeting"
A few years ago, when I was teaching first grade, I committed to maintaining consistency in my Morning Meeting.  I was coming off a year where I had strayed from the by-the-book RC (Responsive Classroom) Morning Meeting, opting instead for fewer community-building group activities, and more Calendar Math routines. While nothing huge was missing, I did feel like my classroom community was lacking something without the RC songs and games.  So that year I kept my commitment; we had a "true" Morning Meeting every single day, without exception.  Even when we had field trips, assemblies, or special events, we managed to do a quick greeting and read a short Morning Message. My focus on implementing Morning Meeting paid off; despite some very challenging behaviors that year, my kiddos could count on starting our day together every day.

As I'm looking at my "Next Year IDEAS" doc for this coming year, I find myself once again setting a goal to execute Morning Meeting with fidelity every day. How did this happen?  Frankly, we had Morning Meeting most days this past year... but, especially toward the end, I got lax. Some days we had a longer Morning Work, some days we jumped right into content, sometimes we came to the carpet just for announcements.  Sometimes I wasn't prepared and needed those extra ten minutes to set up the SMART board or organize some copies. Other times, the kiddos were calm and quiet, and I didn't want to upset the balance. Whatever the reasons, it didn't always happen, and I think our community felt the repercussions.

Of course, I'm well aware that Morning Meeting won't solve all the inevitable classroom challenges I'll face this year.  But I do know that being prepared for each day and maintaining consistency can truly change how a classroom operates.  We all reap the benefits when I'm ready to go for the day, there is a predictable routine from the moment students walk into the classroom, and we can make smooth transitions from one activity to the next. So this year, I'm re-committing to holding Morning Meeting, day-in and day-out.

Fourth Graders doing the "Hand Stack" greeting!

Now, I just need to figure out what grade I'm going to be teaching... 😁