Some intangible consequences…

I got interviewed this morning for article about class size. I don’t know how long interviews are supposed to take, but this one took 25 minutes, and her focus was the impact that insufficient funding has had on students across the nation.

That’s an easy one for me, because I think that the most pressing issue in education today is that classes are too large. She was interviewing a few different teachers from across the nation—a teacher from Virginia was apparently the phone call before mine—and she had other teachers who were dealing with the tangible consequences of too little money in schools’ budgets, but my role was the intangible consequences of large class sizes.

She wanted to know about some of the ways in which large classes negatively impact students that the general public might not know about.

So here you go:

  1.  Students are much more anonymous in large classes. They get lost in the crowd much more easily than they would with manageable class sizes.
  2.  This means that teachers don’t know each student’s academic needs well enough to do all of the “differentiation” that education reformers are all feverish about. It’s a term that makes me crazy, by the way. OF COURSE we try to differentiate! It’s impossible to do with 175 students, though, so quite bringing up something that can’t be done. If a teacher barely knows each student, how on god’s green earth can he possibly differentiate his instruction?
  3.  Another consequence of #1: teachers don’t know students on a more personal level, either. To bring it really personal…it means that there are amazing qualities of my students that I can’t possibly know. I didn’t know until March that one of my big 18-year-old men was actually one of the most compassionate, empathetic people I have ever known. I may be wrong, but I believe that if I didn’t have 170 students, I would have known that much sooner. The most empathetic person I may ever know sat in my classroom for seven months before I knew this wonderful trait of his! It almost made me cry.
  4.  Yet another consequence of #1: writing letters of recommendation is just this side of impossible. Sure, you may be thinking, “Hey Marsh, I thought you said this was about the students!” And it is. Because a heartfelt letter of recommendation is far more powerful than one from a teacher with too many students to see straight. I still do write “heartfelt” letters—I take that role very seriously—but my heart isn’t as full of each individual student because there has to be room for so many of them.
  5.  And another consequence of #1: A teacher can’t possibly assign as many essays/quizzes/projects to students as he knows is in the best interests of the students, because it’s impossible to grade it all. I am a quick grader—ask any of my teaching colleagues—but it still takes me at least two to three minutes to grade every essay. Depending on the time of year, it may take me up to six or seven minutes to grade an essay. I personally believe that in an English class, every student should be writing at least one essay a week. For me, that’s 5.6 hours (if each essay only takes me two minutes) of only grading essays. There are still quizzes and tests to grade, parents to call, emails to send, meetings to attend. The only thing I left out is planning (called prep hour), because that’s built into the teaching day. There’s a problem with this, though, because—as I said—I am really fast. I know this from scoring advanced placement essays in Louisville every year, where we track our numbers and our accuracy. I’m not as fast as others in Louisville, though, and no matter how hard I try, I can only read as fast as I can read. Usually, I am the fastest one at the table, but two years ago, I sat next to a woman who read almost double my speed! And she was accurate, which is far more important. I’m competitive, so I tried to keep up with her, but I couldn’t even come close. Why does all of this matter? Because my 5.6 hours of grading essays might take a colleague 12.8 hours. Or it might take him 4.3 hours. I am blessed to be quick at grading (with accuracy always what matters most, by the way. My motto is that I want every student to have a fair and accurate score), so I may be able to assign more to my students than others can, but it’s still not enough. The bottom line is this: the fewer students there are in a class, the more work (essays, homework, tests, projects, class discussion etc) that each student can do. And the more work they do (as long as it’s not busy work), the more they will hone their skills.
  6.  I can’t help but add at least one tangible consequence of large classes: There’s no room to move. Should a teacher be circulating around the classroom? Absolutely. But with 38 big kids, plus all of the desks, plus their backpacks, there really isn’t space. Unless you’re a circus performer. Small, whispering conversations between teacher and student about something semi-sensitive?? Not happening. To me, that’s a huge problem. Kids don’t want their peers to hear a discussion about how they missed the syntactical importance of George Bernard Shaw’s letter to his mother. But what if they did miss the syntactical significance? It’s impossible to ask each student to stay after class. Heck, it’s practically impossible to call a student to come to my desk, with all of the students, backpacks and desks in the way. Just as I can’t get to them, they can’t really get to me.

I could go on. And on. And on and on. But this is already 932 words, which is exactly 500 words above the word count of what I generally shoot for.

The accumulative impact of large class sizes will have negative unintended consequences for our students when they become the adults of this world. Mark my words on this one and come back and chat with me in 20 years about whether I was right. 

2 thoughts on “Some intangible consequences…

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  1. Very insightful to know how class size affects high school. 32 students in 4th grade the last few years is too many for me as well.

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  2. thats a really nice post. thanks for sharing.

    i want to tell you to calm down. but then, you probably dont get paid a lot even though you work hard. anyway, now that i am thinking about you and being a student in your class i remember that you taught a lot of people for an AP teacher. i remember there were like 10 kids that took AP spanish in my year. like spanish, your AP english course was supposed to be college level and, at least in my year, it was the first of such courses for many of the students. people that couldnt hack it in AP chem or apush took your class. but you didnt let that detract from the rigor of your program. i remember feeling like someone smacked me on the back of the head when you caught me for not reading poisonwood bible over the summer. but you didnt make a big deal about it and your were on to evaluating the next person before i realised what happened. it was really fun to read plays as a class, too. so what i mean is that is that you do a good job, and someone should fight your fight for better wages for you, but dont wait for that person. i consider taking the stuff about money at this point, but i am working on being honest and direct, so there you go. on that note, more Nabokov, less modern war books… i guess that the takeaway from this is that if you try hard to personlize your course, and i like that, but care less about reputation, status, and official results because you are at a level where the optimal impact you have on a student only becomes apparent to the student ten years down the line. there might actually be measures for that too, but im not a psychologist. still, i can tell that you are exhausted from poor working conditions in a rich district.

    Did you include some low brow books to target the people who are on the fence about academics altogether? That seems like an indisposable strategy, but then you have the weigh the worth of your students. Consciousness of local identity is really important in a young city in a young country. If you really are serious, you will inspire your own type of circus, acrobatics and all. The other day while walking around, I noticed that for every time I quicken my pace, there is a pause in which I am dumbfounded shortly after.

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