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Gail Skroback Hennessey taught for over 33 years, teaching sixth grade in all but two years. She earned a BA in early secondary education with a concentration in social studies and an MST in social...
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Self Contained or Departmentalized Classrooms for 5th and 6th Grade?

Self Contained or Departmentalized Classrooms for 5th and 6th Grade?

For those veteran teachers~ you know that the old is often "new" again when it comes to teaching!

When I first started teaching back in(yikes...1973)~ I started in 5th grade. As a self contained classroom of upper elementary students~ I taught science~ math~ language arts~ social studies~ reading and even a daily penmanship lesson! The following year~ my team "moved up" with our classes and I taught 6th grade. Looping was the term for this a few years back. The team of 5th grader teachers and 6th grade teachers decided we liked the grades we were in and stopped the two year program and I stayed in 6th grade. For seventeen years~ I was a self contained classroom teacher. Then~ the winds of change took me~ like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and Toto~ transplanting my classroom into a new educational program...I was now a middle school teacher. With a love of social studies and a masters in the teaching of social studies~ I became the social studies teacher in a departmentalized format.

Emotionally and physically the 11-12 year olds I have taught have certainly changed greatly since I first entered the classroom back in 1973. Sixth graders once had much in common with the 4-5th graders~ bringing dolls or matchbox cars to school. They attended and enjoyed assemblies for puppet shows~ magic shows~ bango playing sing-a-longs and visits from Laura Ingalls Wilder presenters. Now~ the age has become an ever increasing unsettling time of life where the students seem to have more in common with 7th graders and we as educators changed the assembly themes as well. Sixth graders attended drug awareness programs with canine sniffing dog demonstrations~ character education and abstinence programs. The latter I personal questioned as too mature for my students until I heard the sexually explicit questions that they asked of the speaker!
Teaching 6th graders isn't for the tame at heart! It's a grade that my student teachers often came into with much trepidation(but loved it at the end of the 8 weeks). Dealing with their changing emotional and physical development AND trying to teach the age group about the Ancient Egyptians or the Ancient Greeks....can be really challenging! Sixth graders arent really elementary children and certainly dont want to be treated as such but they arent teens either. Its certainly an awkward time as some have growth spans and others dont. An emotional time as well with one day two students being best friends and the next~ they are upset and crying about the friendship that has ended. Its a time where this age level is between a child and a teen(hence the moniker tweens) and they are seeking out their identity and independence sometimes stumbling along the way.

For these reasons~ I think a middle school configuration has so much more to offer this age level. In addition to having teachers teaching a subject that they are most skilled and interested in ~ students participate in so many additional activities and programs to address this age group than if they would in an elementary configuration Students participated in sports~career awareness~ home and career classes~ computer and journalism classes~peer mediation~ homecoming activities(including the dreaded 6th grade float"-I was the class adviser and supervised my 6th graders participation each year)~ guidance programs such as tobacco~ tolerance and drug awareness. Additionally~ without having to have a reading series as was mandated in a 6th grade elementary program~ my team created a very unique program we dubbed STARS(Specific topics to advance reading and other skills). During this 40 minute non graded class~ students read and discussed literature~ did character education building~ computer activities~ geography and writing projects~ and shared issues of the day.

With budget cuts and smaller numbers of students~ I am wondering if schools will be moving back to a modified self-contained class for 5th and 6th graders. What is the format for 5th and 6th grade is like in your school. Are you departmentalized? Is there a move back to being self-contained?Which do you think is best for students in these grades? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Gail Hennessey

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