When Classrooms Become Lecture Halls

Cramped. My French classroom is cramped because fitting forty-two desks in a room meant to hold twenty leaves little space to breathe, or to learn. Our teacher weaves between chairs and desks, slides around backpacks as she moves from one student to the next, spending no more than three minutes with each. After all, there is one of her and forty-two of us.

My French III class is far from the exception at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. For the past few years, budget cuts on the state and district level have devastated our school, bringing up the average class ratio from 24:1 to 30:1. The average is skewed by special needs classes and specialized classes, both of which have few students, so most classes have well over thirty kids.

The result is a loss of personalization. Most classes have become lecture-based, with students taking notes and having little time to discuss the material with their teacher. Rather than individualized assignments, teachers give worksheets and group projects in the hopes that students will fill the gaps in each others’ knowledge.

Our French teacher takes the worksheet approach. Some students complete the assignment in ten minutes, but others take thirty. These students often require a reteach of the material and individualized help, but the class size leads to an awkward compromise in tempo that leaves no one satisfied. Instead of a one-to-one explanation between the teacher and a struggling student, reteaches take the form of classwide reviews of the Powerpoint, or a brief example question at the beginning of class.

Most teachers acknowledge the lack of one-on-one time and suggest that students go to ESS, Dunbar’s after-school tutoring program, if they feel lost, but ESS is difficult to access for many students, especially disadvantaged ones. Because the program is after-school, they need a parent to pick them up rather than taking the bus home, something which may not be possible considering their guardian’s work schedule.

A senior at my school told me she was falling behind in math last year and wanted some help, but it was hard for her to take advantage of the only free tutoring available to her because “[her] family had to share a car, and [she] had to get [her] mom from work and then go to work after school.” Other students who stayed said that they would sometimes wait upwards of an hour and a half outside of the school until their mom or dad could get them, even in the middle of winter.

It was hard for her to take advantage of the only free tutoring available to her because “[her] family had to share a car, and [she] had to get [her] mom from work and then go to work after school.”

The program itself is far from perfect. It often fails to account for the various teaching styles used in different classes, and as one ESS student explained, “[if your teacher] doesn’t do ESS, a teacher with a different teaching style has to [help you]. Then, you have trouble connecting it to the class because your class isn’t taught that way.”

Other classes are too niche for ESS, like AP Computer Science, and that leaves students with few options for learning the material beyond self-teaching. A former student expressed frustration in the pacing of the class, saying, “it moved way too fast, and only the students with a steady foundation in the subject could keep up,” but mentioned that they didn’t know of any resources that could help them until halfway through the school year.

By that point in the school year, a group of students in the upper-level computer science classes noticed the struggling underclassmen and took it upon themselves to help. They created after-school review sessions meant to guide students through the material in the class, and students jumped at the chance to learn. The sessions became immensely popular and frequently included over fifteen kids eagerly asking questions.

One of the leaders described her surprise, saying that “a lot of the students were confused on big parts of the curriculum.” The large class frequently allotted no time for students to ask questions when they were unsure, leaving kids confused about basic concepts that were used in every lesson thereafter.

While students struggle with foundational concepts in some classes, they comprehend even complex material immediately in others. The curriculum can feel too simple, with some students completing the classwork and homework in a third of the time allotted. The difference in learning rates leaves many students feeling like the pace holds them back from higher-level achievement. One student expressed frustration with her crafts class, which has forty students, saying that there was a three week, in-class project which took her only two classes to complete.

Many large classes move at the pace of the slower students, leading to omission of parts of the curriculum. One of my peers told me, “I only ever talk [in Spanish] with my sister, since we never do in class. Sometimes our teacher asks us to speak in small groups, but I don’t know if I’m saying things right since no one else is good at speaking either.” This group system is the only communication practice students get, as there isn’t enough time for everyone to speak with their teacher in the target language, but in this system, students don’t get the benefit of critiques from a fluent speaker. Their proficiency in speaking, a crucial part of the language, is lagging, but they’re still extremely successful in the class due to the slow pacing.

“I only ever talk [in Spanish] with my sister, since we never do in class. Sometimes our teacher asks us to speak in small groups, but I don’t know if I’m saying things right since no one else is good at speaking either.”

The difference in learning rates in my French class is striking. My friends and I finish our worksheet and sit back to talk, knowing that the next one won’t come for another twenty minutes. A few tables away from us, our teacher tries to explain a simple concept to my classmate while four other hands are raised. She sighs, tells him she’ll come back soon, and moves to help another student. He continues to stare at his paper in confusion and directs his desperate, increasingly-defeated questions to a friend, who only answers, “I don’t know either,” as they both wait for the teacher to return.

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