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  • Writer's pictureBrian Karsten

Shrinking the Class Roster

Midway through my AP Literature and Composition unit on The Awakening, my classes always have the same fiery discussion. I keep the conversation starter simple: “Do you like Edna Pontellier?” And students have very strong opinions. Some defend her vehemently, arguing that the societal pressures on women make her life miserable, and all of her actions are justified as she pushes back against expectations. Others, although acknowledging these perspectives, can’t stand the fact that she seems disengaged from her children, and they empathize with her husband who seems concerned and patient despite her clear lack of connection with him. Students pour over their books, looking for quotes to support the feelings they have. It’s an English teacher’s dream. 

However, inevitably there are a handful of students that, although listening intently, never get a word into the conversation. At times, I’ll see them timidly and momentarily elevate a hand, before pulling it back when a classmate jumps into the debate without noticing. Other times, I’ll read their thoughts on an exit ticket after class. They’ll list a variety of reasons, some never brought into the discussion at all, for why they like, dislike, or feel torn on Chopin’s protagonist. It’s not that they didn’t have ideas or opinions—they didn’t have the time or space to bring those ideas to a classroom filled with more outspoken or quicker-processing students. 

This struggle is amplified by the fact that, as an English department, we’ve committed to summatively assessing discussion as part of our upper-level English courses. Our aim is to encourage students to voice their opinions and be prepared to defend them against their peers. But sometimes, there are too many opinions—or too many peers. 

Similarly, in my freshman Speech and Composition class, there are times when one-on-one support is needed as students research, outline, write and practice their classwork. Racing from student to student, thesis statement to thesis statement, I often can’t keep up with all the hands raised. Students are asking great questions or looking for affirmation on their writing, but there are too many students—all with very individualized questions—for me to keep up with. And the toughest part is that the ones that likely need the most support are the ones with their hands down, struggling to research or type, but also less quick to call out for help. 

In both instances, I have a good idea about which students are missing out. And the reason for their missing out is partly because they’re not as quick to advocate in a classroom full of other, more vocal students. And the solution is simple: all English classes should be capped at 14-18. 

But… that’s not going to happen. 

So, there’s another solution that has worked well at our school: designated intervention times. Every day, our school has 20-25 minutes allotted in the schedule after lunch for office hours or for Focus Period. Office hours are drop-in. Students can find teachers to connect about homework, missing work, clubs, etc. But Focus Periods are more structured. Each day, staff can lock in students that need additional time to complete or learn the material in their classes. Students can also, if unlocked, choose sessions they feel they need help in (or they can choose general sessions to work on homework). And these Focus Sessions are great at shrinking my classes and allowing me to give attention to those that need it. 

In AP Literature, I’ll occasionally have a 25 minute, targeted discussion with the students that I haven’t heard from in class. We’ll have a new poem or prose selection, I’ll give them some time to read, and then we’ll have a small group discussion. Students that aren’t as eager to jump into full class discussions thrive when the group gets smaller, and I have the opportunity to adjust their discussion grades accordingly. 

Similarly, in Speech and Composition, I can lock a small number of students into my sessions that I know may need some help. And if I leave it open for a few additional sign-ups, I’ll get a handful of others, but it’s a small enough group that I can offer one on one support without feeling rushed or pulled in five different directions simultaneously. 

Focus Periods (also known as “What I Need” times or Intervention Periods) have given me the opportunity to ensure ALL of my students are learning at a high level—and, they are able to show that learning in a space that allows it.

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