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.