Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Advantages of a Large Class

Thursday and Friday of this past week, the band students in my classes (and there tend to be quite a few of them) were on a trip to Indianapolis, which for two of my classes took the number of students down to 15 or less.  So, rather than sitting at separate tables, those classes sat as one group and discussed the exercises.  Since it was only one group, I didn’t need to circulate and sat at the “table” with them the entire bell both days.  The atmosphere was, as you might expect, completely different in those two classes.  The most striking thing to me was the way that most of the kids presented the material to me instead of the group.  There was an almost constant look of, “I’m doing this correctly…right?” in their eyes as they kept turning toward me about every five seconds as they presented their solutions.  It took a lot of reminders to get them to refocus on presenting to each other, interacting with each other, questioning each other, etc.  Friday was definitely better than Thursday, but even then there still wasn’t the level of interaction that normally pervades the classroom.  These two classes are my morning classes, so it made for quite a contrast to the afternoon, where things were running normally, with three or four tables going at once and me checking in visually and verbally with each group rather than sitting with them the entire bell. 

From this, it occurred to me that there may actually be an advantage to having enough students in the classroom to force the move to more than one group.  Specifically, the students are forced to become more self-reliant.  If I’m constantly at the table with them, it becomes really easy to fall back into the old habit of relying on the teacher for everything from moral support to verification of the correctness of answers.  (I avoided asking questions and/or agreeing with their answers until the end of each presentation, allowing plenty of time for the other students to catch any mistakes and ask any questions, but the request from their glances was there almost constantly.)  If, however, there is an understanding that I need to keep track of other tables and that I can’t be with any group the entire time, then the responsibility of running the conversation, catching the mistakes, asking the questions, and thoroughly investigating an exercise falls to the students by default.  And normally the kids rise to this responsibility, especially by this point in the year.  Despite the fact that we just began the new trimester on Tuesday and that these kids have not been together in my classroom before (they’ve had the first half of the course so they know how things are supposed to run, but it’s a new distribution of the students each trimester), the afternoon classes are already running smoothly, and I’m sure the morning classes will be next Monday with the return of the band kids.  However, the fact that the instinct to look to me rather than to each other is still there is something that I found disconcerting to say the least.

So, one more thing to add to the to-do list: make sure the kids understand that they can and should rely on themselves and on one another, not only in my class but in others as well.  I’m there to double-check and refine their results, but I’m not the driving force behind the conversations.  I thought I was already doing this, but clearly I need to do a better job.  Hmmm…

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