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.