Thoughts On Small Class Sizes

At Chicago Friends School, we have very small class sizes. When people talk about small classes, the ability to customize instruction and provide individual students with teacher attention come up a lot. Those are important—part of the reason I wanted to teach here was that I wanted to be in a place where I would have the time to get to know each of my students. But there’s another side to small class sizes, that doesn’t get talked about as much. Small class sizes allow for a completely different way of teaching, that’s much more student-driven and flexible. Here are some recent events in my room that couldn’t have happened with a larger class:

  • In September, we were working in groups to make scale maps of the classroom. Because we had a small class, students could take a much different role in managing this project, which lead to deeper learning. With a large class, I would have had to dictate each step of the process, simply to manage the movement of so many students. But in a small class, they can spread out to measure the room simultaneously, without my creating a strict rotation for measuring each area. Because of this, my students can organize their project themselves, building project management skills by discussing what the next step should be in their group. In a small group, I can monitor this, and step in to help and facilitate as needed.
  • In Genius Hour every week, students choose their own research topics and pursue them. They get to find topics they are passionate about, which leads to investment and deeper learning. I couldn’t follow and facilitate twenty or thirty separate projects at a time, but I can track six, or even ten. So, there’s a designated time every week for students to pursue their own interests.
    Chicago Friends School students feel ownership over their learning and therefore are invested. When I host optional math review lessons at the carpet and give my students the choice of playing math games or deciding they could use some review, the ones who I know need the review choose to join the lesson. They are used to taking initiative in their learning.

When children in the upper elementary grades transfer in here from other schools, they often come with a stock of jokes about hating school and resenting teachers. I’ve seen our students meet those jokes with polite incomprehension. I think our small class sizes have a lot to do with that.

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Renata McAdams

is our grade 3-4 classroom teacher. She has taught in a variety of public, charter, and independent schools, including a combined 3-5 classroom in Ann Arbor, Mich., for two years. Rentata graduated from Vassar College and received her M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania. She grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, and moved to Chicago from Philadelphia with her husband (then-fiancé) in August 2014.

In her free time, Renata enjoys singing, acting, dancing, and reading.