“Mrs. Campbell, it feels like we are a family in here.” I put my hands on her shoulders and smiled down into those earnest eyes– I nodded because I felt it, too. Mission accomplished. And right on time.
In these first nine weeks I juggle the pacing charts, diagnostic tests, and benchmarks. But the most important work I do in this first quarter is construction work. We build. We’ve been building stamina, rigor, vocabulary, problem solving skills, and a foundation that will serve these learners for a lifetime. The most important thing we build in this first quarter is trust.
There is no one secret to building trust. We sing. We play. We tell jokes and stories and we learn to write our lives. We laugh. A lot. We recite poetry. We turn books and poetry into Readers’ Theater. We learn algebra for fun so we can see where this third grade math is taking us. We learn to give each other feedback. We learn how to show what we know in lots of ways. As we build our common life, we build a common canon of folktales so we can make analogies and build theories about literature together.
We learn that there is plenty and there is never an excuse to grab. Not ever. Everybody knows where there are extra pencils, sticky notes, paper clips, markers, glue sticks, flair pens. And everyone knows how to put them back… in the right place. Everyone knows how to sweep. And dust. And recycle. And straighten the desks. These tasks are easier if Aretha Franklin is playing in the background. After all, this is the work of R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
We learn how to celebrate together and we learn how to celebrate each other. An empty Kleenex box has become our celebration box. Every Friday, each child writes a message that celebrates some aspect of our week together and tucks it in the box. Often their messages are about each other, but sometimes they celebrate their own accomplishments. They notice when someone finally gets regrouping. Or when someone is improving. Or when someone does something kind for someone else. Sometimes I make cookies, but most of the time we just have popcorn and somehow even that becomes special.
These days there are policy people who say class size doesn’t matter. At first, this confused me because I have plenty of research (and empirical data) that says class size does matter; it matters a lot. And then I started paying attention to the statements: The research says class size isn’t as important as a rigorous curriculum; or a good teacher; or a good leader. These “mixed-variable” value statements masquerade as research for the sake of policy talking points. I worry about the effect this will have on class size in the future. Good teachers and good leadership and a rigorous curriculum are essential. But class size matters, too.
Every child needs plenty of access to his or her teacher in an atmosphere of trust and community. The size of a class affects this. We learn best when it feels like we are a family in here.