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Why Looping Is a Way Underappreciated School-Improvement Initiative

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Most amazing opportunities cost money. A family trip to Harry Potter World. A new Subaru Outback to drive around instead of your ’97 Accord. A second honeymoon to Tuscany.

Teachers want amazing experiences for their students, but most of these opportunities cost money, too. Dazzling science experiments. Field trips to museums, performances, and botanical gardens. Home libraries for kids with few books at home.

But I know of one important innovation that is both amazing and largely free: Looping—the practice of a teacher remaining with the same group of students for more than one school year.

I became a teacher in the year 2000. Once you subtract the time I spent completing a master’s and being a stay-at-home dad, I have taught nine school years. The two of those years in which my class had the greatest academic growth were the years when I looped, moving from 2nd to 3rd grade with my students.

Why did looping have such a powerful impact on learning? Here are the top four reasons.

1) I knew the kids really, really well.

I knew their needs. I knew their strengths. I knew their interests, their personalities, and how they learned best.

I knew that Joel needed tough love, LeeAnn really was paying attention even when she was sprawled sideways on the rug, and Caleb responded better to positive affirmation than threats or consequences.

I knew which kids needed tactile experiences in math and which ones could work out the problem in their heads. I knew which students would thrive as readers if you just put great books in their hands, and which kids needed tutoring or daily guided reading to fill their gaps in phonics and phonemic awareness.

When you teach the same grade every year, you hold the curriculum constant and cycle through a new group of kids every year. When you loop, the kids are the constant.

That shift has profound implications for the way we teach. When I looped, I was able to differentiate more effectively in every way—by academic needs, ways of learning, and student interests. I knew Josie wanted to be a vet and Francisco loved trucks, so I could connect the standards to what they cared about.

2) I knew the parents really well, too.

Every parent is an expert on her or his own child. We rely on parents to do the right things at home to support our work in class: making sure their child reads each night, talking about the book afterwards, and getting their child to class or early morning tutoring sessions on time.

But we also go to parents for insights about their child. We go to them to get their ideas and hear their concerns. They have entrusted us with the most precious person on earth. Simply dropping off their son or daughter at school each day is a tremendous act of trust.

The parents of the children I teach often had bad experiences at school. Most of them are immigrants, and many did not complete high school in their countries of origin: Mexico, El Salvador, or the Marshall Islands.

School is not a comfortable place for many of them to be, because of the language barrier, the cultural barrier, and their own history as students who were often made to feel dumb.

An extra school year gives a teacher more time to build a partnership with these parents based on mutual respect. For the same reason, I always love having a former student’s little brother or sister in my class, because there’s such a comfort level with families you have already come to know.

For children anxious about who their new teacher will be next year, knowing they will have the same teacher again can be a tremendous relief. Parents often feel the same way, especially if their race, language, or culture is different from that of most teachers and administrators at the school.

3) I had an extra year to build rapport and routines with the class.

Every teacher knows the foundation of our craft is relationships. We work hard on behalf of those 25 little human beings because we care about them. They work hard, in part, because they know we care.

It’s a lot easier to get rid of external consequences once you have built rapport with your class. Sticker charts, letters home, and threats of missed recess are shortcuts. They’re no substitute for the relationships that make up the fabric of teaching.

I usually reach a point with my students around the middle of the year when suddenly everything is clicking. The behavioral issues have been mostly resolved, the kids trust me, and they’re comfortable with each other. They know the routines for everything from homework to resolving conflicts with one another, so almost all our class time can be devoted directly to learning.

In a normal year, that golden period lasts about five months. When I loop with a class, it lasts 14. It didn't surprise me when I heard of research that looping has been shown to add six weeks of instruction to kids’ learning, and that looping to a third year can add a full academic year of growth.

That is, looping lets us provide those 25 kids with the equivalent of summer school or an extra year’s enrichment, and it doesn’t cost anyone a dime. At a time when high-poverty schools in particular are desperate to raise test scores, it borders on the miraculous to have an innovation with such powerful potential that is absolutely free.

4) I got a second chance to fill the gaps—in the kids’ knowledge and my own instruction.

Each summer when I reflect on the school year that just ended, there is something I wish I had done better. When I loop, I can improve on what I didn't do as well the first year. I can also make sure to focus on any subject I didn’t emphasize enough the previous year.

The first time I looped, I knew my 2nd graders had gotten a solid foundation in reading and math, but I hadn’t found the right approach to writing. At the beginning of their 3rd grade year, I sought out resources on Writer’s Workshop from our literacy coach, and writing became a major strength that year.

When I looped again a few years later, I knew I hadn’t done enough technology integration with the 2nd graders. In their 3rd grade year, we started a class blog, did much of our writing and research on student laptops, and created an online “browsing box” of digital texts on the class website.

Looping also provides a second chance to reach individual students who need support beyond effective classroom instruction.

Fifteen years since I began teaching, I’m still waiting for that magical school year where I’ll know in May that I brought every single child to where she or he needs to be. Every year, there are at least a couple of students who did not make the gains they needed to make to reach proficiency in reading or math.

This year, only seven of my students were reading on grade-level when the year began. Nine of my 15 struggling readers caught up or surpassed the grade-level expectation by the end of the year. The other six made a year’s or more growth, but they’re not there yet.

If I were handing these six students off to a new teacher next year, I’d simply communicate what I could about their needs, then check in on them from time to time. Instead, with looping, I get a second full year to make sure all six students catch up. I plan to hit the ground running with tutoring, targeted guided reading, and communication with their parents to make sure they’re doing everything they can at home and school to catch up.

The (Shaky) Case Against Looping

Part of our school’s long-term improvement (in eight years, we have gone from 28 percent proficiency in Literacy to 73 percent) has to do with the increase in looping.

When I started at Jones Elementary eleven years ago, I was the only teacher who looped consistently. Last year we had 13 teachers loop with their classes. I would love to see us make looping even more systematic with multiple grade-levels or the entire school.

Every time I bring up the profound advantages of looping, I hear the same argument against it: “But what if a child gets stuck with a bad teacher?”

There’s an easy fix: If a particular student isn’t a good fit with a class or teacher who loops to the next grade, that child can always be placed in a different classroom at the parent’s (or teacher’s) request.

There’s also a deeper problem implicit in the question. A school should not let a bad teacher remain in the classroom. That teacher should either improve or leave the profession.

If a school does allow bad teachers to remain, a student could still end up with two bad teachers in a row, even if her class doesn’t loop.

I sometimes hear a second argument against looping: “It’s hard for teachers to learn the standards and curricula for two different grade levels.”

I understand the desire to truly master a particular grade level, but I also see a benefit to teaching multiple grades.

Much of what I do with my 1st and 2nd graders comes out of my understanding of what they’ll need in 3rd grade, which I learned firsthand by teaching that grade.

Teaching Students, Not Just Subjects

There’s a deeper reason to teach multiple grades, too. Ultimately we don’t just teach reading, writing, and math; we teach Jahlissa, Salvador, and Ariana. We teach students, not just subjects.

True, teachers need to be content experts in literacy, science, and math. But we are better teachers when we’re also experts on the individual children in our class.

Our job is not to shape students to fit the system, but to shape the system to fit students—their needs, strengths, and interests.

Looping can be a giant step forward in that regard. Every time I loop, I see boys who were angry and mean become calm and gentle. I see once-timid girls become confident and assertive. I also see a community of 25 students become more than the sum of its parts.

I witness that annual alchemy of personalities, interests, and talents working its gradual magic. The children become better readers, writers, thinkers, artists, scientists, and mathematicians, and I become a better teacher.

With one week left in our school year, I told my 1st graders that we will have another year together in 2nd grade. They cheered wildly. I rejoiced, too.

Video taken by the author

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