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50 or More Students in One Class: The New Reality for Some K-12 Teachers

By Sarah Schwartz — September 29, 2020 3 min read
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In the years that she’s been teaching at Spring Hill High School in Chapin, S.C., Sumner Bender’s theater classes have typically been capped at 25 students. This year, though, she started with an online class of 60.

While her district has gone back to school in person, on a hybrid schedule, students also had the option to choose fully remote learning, in a new, districtwide virtual academy. Because there’s no full-time online theater teacher in the district, Bender is teaching both the in-person classes and the online one: That’s about 85 kids total across her physical classes, plus 60 online in a live, virtual class that meets at a different time than her in-person class, she said.

For the past few weeks, Bender has struggled to teach students who are at different levels and form personal connections with kids. She hasn’t figured out a way to reach all 60 high schoolers at once. “For me, it’s not possible,” Bender said.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Bender’s district. The Arizona Republic has reported that some elementary school students in the state are in classes of 70. In Providence, R.I., elementary students in the city’s virtual academy could have more than 50 students in live online classes, according to local news station WPRI.

In some cases, these bigger online classes may be the result of the administration separating in-person and online teaching responsibilities. This is one staffing approach some districts considered as they planned for instruction this year.

Say, for example, that in a regular year there are four 3rd grade teachers in one building, who each have 25 students. This year, that school might give one teacher 50 students online, and split the remaining 50 among three teachers in the building. Ideally, this gives all teachers more time to work with students in small groups and provide targeted support, while allowing for social distancing.

But Bender said she hasn’t been able to support her students the way she wants to. She has one synchronous session with all of the students in her online class, which includes kids at all levels, in honors and on-level courses. In order to give students appropriate work for their level, she has had to split the class into two, telling Theater 1 to log in for the first part, and Theater 2-5 to log in for the second part, meaning both groups get half as much class time with her.

With so many students, even small tasks can become complicated. “It’s very hard to take attendance in a virtual class that’s that big,” she said. She eventually decided to have every student write their name in the chat—those who did would be counted present. She’s not able to monitor everyone’s participation at all times.

Still, she said, “It’s not a perfect system in any way. In [in-person] class, you can’t just show up and then leave. But you can in a virtual class.”

Focus on ‘Intentional Design’

Is it possible for any online class to be successful with 60 students? It’s not a format that most K-12 teachers have experience with. But higher education can provide some clues as to what might and might not work.

When planning courses for college and university students, a small class is not inherently better than a large one, said Michelle Miller, a professor of psychology at Northern Arizona University, and the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology. “It all comes down to intentional design of learning experiences.”

But a virtual seminar of 12 is going to require a different approach than an online class of hundreds. If instructors want students to be able to interact with each other, they’ll have to find ways—for example, breakout rooms—to put them in smaller groups that facilitate conversation, Miller said.

Tech tools that allow a teacher to get a quick and comprehensive read on student understanding, like polls or quizzes, can support instruction in a bigger group. But trying to monitor a live chat feature in this environment can be “unwieldy,” Miller added, so teachers may also have to find alternative methods of fielding comments and questions from students.

“You’re going to have a harder time setting up structures where students are getting faster or real-time feedback,” she said.

For Bender, the teaching techniques and activities she would usually use in a theater class, which rely on a lot of student-to-student interaction, weren’t possible in such a big online group. After a few weeks, she asked the virtual academy administration if they could rearrange any of the scheduling.

Now, she said, her district is planning to split up the students in her class with another theater teacher in a different school, leaving Bender with about 30 online-only students. “Once you have 60, 30 sounds like a miracle,” she said.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.