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Learning to Cope With Larger Classes

Voice of ExperienceIn this week's Voice of Experience essay, educator Max Fischer reflects on the difficulty of dealing with significantly larger class sizes. Though the inclination might be to become "the sage on a stage," Fischer hasn't given up completely on strategies and best practices mastered during his national board experience.

Max W. Fischer

In all my years as a classroom teacher, the National Board Certification process was the most thorough introspection I had ever taken of my teaching.

This year I am once again facing a daunting challenge: Budget cuts have left me with classes that are significantly larger than I have had in years. To help me through this year, it has been very beneficial to reflect on what I learned and relearned about teaching during my national board year.

Periodically, students need to have center stage.
Yes, I admit it. This year, I've been more inclined to become the "sage on the stage" than I would like to admit. When class sizes increase, that is a default strategy I and many other educators use. It is taking a conscious effort this year to remind myself that being a "guide on the side" can have a very powerful impact on learning.

For example, when this year's students moved for the first time into the role playing/discussion group I call the "big circle," I was overwhelmed by what a truly big circle it was! It would have been so easy to dump this strategy as unmanageable. But, no matter the size of the circle, most students thrive on the interaction of role-playing a scene that has affectively engaging content. Whether taking on the roles of Roman senators debating Caesar's fate, or jury members pondering the Hippocratic Oath and deciding the guilt or innocence of a doctor accused of euthanasia, most students profit from taking charge of their learning -- while I remain on the sidelines.

I can't, in good conscience, no matter how large my classes get, cast aside those strategies that truly engage students.

Analytical writing is crucial.
Robert Marzano and others (Dimensions of Learning, 1997) have noted that exercises that challenge students to compare and contrast are among the most valuable comprehension strategies. While I have often employed persuasive writing (students share their opinions) and interpretative essays (students dissect historical events), it wasn't until I got involved in the national certification process that I fully appreciated the analytical bent that students could, and should, be challenged to offer about history. This is not time to resort to more literal or easy-to-grade assessments of student learning.


More Voices


Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays by Max Fischer?

--- Using Art to Improve Students' Comprehension
--- Is Differentiation the Answer to the Tracking Debate?
--- Another Look at "No Child Left Behind" (Year Two)
--- Gaga Over Google: Photo Images Bring Lessons to Life
--- Poetry Writing: A Comprehension Tool Across the Curriculum
--- Some Classroom "Dilemmas" Are Beneficial
--- The Importance of Mentors, or What I Learned from Harold

Don't shortcut best writing practices.
My third epiphany came when I recalled how a consistent regimen of pre-writing, practice writing (rough drafts), and final drafts produced significantly better results from my students. However, when it comes to teaching history survey courses -- when it comes to covering 3000 to 4000 years of history in a school year -- it's so easy to get railroaded along a different path in order to cover the material. My national certification experience taught me -- and, this year, is serving to remind me -- how well my students, even my special needs students, can write when they are given the opportunity to rewrite. To this day, the best writing assignments I give are the ones that take several class sessions. Those lessons are hard work for everybody, but they're worth it.

Time is critical.
While some might promote coverage of a "mile wide and inch deep" curriculum, actual teaching requires more time. There's no shortcut to teaching important skills. For some things, you just need to slow down and take time if you want real learning to take place. This year, when the inclination is to "get through" the material, I sometimes must force myself to slow down. It's another important lesson I learned so well while going for my board certification.

Effective teaching demands constant reflection.
All during the year of my national board experience I was forced to reflect on specific lessons and my general teaching skills. Yes, even this experienced educator with 27 years of teaching under his belt was constantly reminded that year of his significant teaching deficiencies!

This year, I've tried to make fresh that experience of four years ago. I'm doing more reflecting. I'm remembering how vital candid and critical personal reflection is if I am going to do the best for my students.

This year, more than ever, I am continuing my quest to be the best teacher I can be. I'm learning that I need not throw away the strategies that work so well with smaller classes. I just need to adapt them, critique them, and adapt them some more.

Without that national board certification experience behind me, I might be far more overwhelmed with my large classes than I am; and far more inclined to resort to "sage on a stage" strategies. With that experience behind me, I am relearning that constant reflection is the key to getting me through the year and giving my students the skills and experiences that will serve them best in the years ahead.


A teacher for over three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.


Article by Max Fischer
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