The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Restructuring Classrooms in Small Elementary Schools

on October 19, 2017

After re-posting a piece recently about the research that led teachers to believe that certain students were smarter than they really were, I started to think about some of the things I did as a school principal to help teachers and students succeed, think well of themselves, and be motivated to take on new responsibilities school-wide. Although, I’m sure I have mentioned some of those actions previously, today I will try to describe more fully one set of actions I took that made a big positive change in both schools where I was principal. In the future I will describe other actions that produced positive results.

Right after graduating from college with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and the Dramatic Arts, I decided to become a teacher and enrolled in a summer-long class that qualified me for a basic teaching license. Over the next several years, as my husband and I moved from New Jersey to Puerto Rico, back to N.J, and then to Wisconsin, I gained experience by teaching in eight different schools at many levels from grade 1 to 12. In addition, I took many university courses and earned a Doctorate in Curriculum Development and Applied Linguistics.

Among the things I learned from my university courses and classroom experiences was that small elementary schools inevitably have uneven class sizes, some so large that teaching and learning cannot be as good as they should be. I also learned that having teachers working alone at a single grade level was not a good idea. Not only was there a wide range of experience and competence among teachers at any school, but also little coordination because of their isolation, differences in training, and previous teaching experiences. Also, at a small school there were only rare opportunities for teachers to observe each other’s teaching or work together.

In 1974, when  I decided to leave teaching and become a school principal, I applied for an opening at a small elementary school in a middle class community in Madison, Wisconsin, the state capital, base of the state university, and home to a large number of educated people.

I spent most of my first year as a principal getting acquainted with the teachers, students, and current practices in my new school. I observed in classrooms,  sat and talked with teachers during their lunch hour, and held group discussions about things teachers or I saw as school problems. However, I did not formally formally evaluate teachers or castigate any one for problems I had observed in their classroom.

Near the end of that school year I held some meetings with teachers to explain what I saw as problems in our school structure , and described the changes I wanted to make to improve students’ learning and teachers’ jobs. Through those discussions teachers slowly came to see the same problems I saw and to agree with my plans to ameliorate them.

I also asked teachers to join me in a large parent meeting to be held at the beginning of the new school year, in order to explain the changes to be made and how they would improve our school.  In addition, I suggested a seating plan for the meeting in which all parents would be at round tables with a teacher. First, I would describe the school changes we intended to make to the entire audience. Then the teacher at each table would talk with the parents about the details and do their best to convince them that our school restructuring plan would work better for everyone. By having parents discuss the proposed changes with teachers they knew and trusted, we were able to convince most of them that our school and our students would benefit by the planned restructuring.

Over the following school year we were able to put second and third grade students into common classrooms and do the same for fourth and fifth graders. Unfortunately, we could not combine kindergarten and first grade because kindergarten was only a half-day class. However, much later, at my second school, we received enough funding to hire an additional teacher which enabled me to create two K-1 classrooms.  Those mixed classes met every morning to work on basic school skills and appropriate classroom behavior.  They also ate lunch in the cafeteria together. In the afternoon, after the kindergarteners had gone home,  first-graders met with their teachers in two small classes that emphasized reading, writing and math.

Over the 25 years that I was principal at two small schools we continued combining grades and having two teachers at each grade level.  We  believed –along with parents—that our new structures were successful. Below are the major positive effects we saw in this  form of classroom structuring:

Reasonable size classrooms at all levels

Good combinations of students in each classroom

Teachers at each level able to plan together and  help each other solve problems during daily common planning times

 Inexperienced teachers teamed with experienced teachers

 Students in mixed-grade classrooms soon losing awareness of grade differences                                   and working  well together

 A mixed -grade classroom providing more time and support for lagging students to                          catch up and avoid being held back in grade

There was really no disadvantage for students in combined grades

P.S. For those readers who are wondering about the curricula for mixed grade classrooms, here’s how we handled them in the years before the CCSS and yearly testing. Each classroom covered two years in subjects such as math, geography, science, etc. For reading all students were grouped by ability, regardless of their official grade. Every year the students who had been in a classroom for two years moved on to the next the higher two-year classroom. The students who had been there for only one year stayed put for the second year and were joined by a new group of students from the previous grade.



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