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What It Takes to Learn Your Way: Small Class Size

Authored By: 
Michelle Koza, English Teacher

This post is part of a series inspired by Dream School: NYC, a SundanceTV docu-series that follows 15 New York City teenagers who left high school and are now trying to get back on track to graduate. The Beekman School partnered with the show to help customize the learning experience for the students. Follow this blog to learn more and participate in the social media conversations using the hashtag #LearnYourWay

After watching the first four episodes of Dream School: NYC, it’s easy to see how handling only 15 students—half the size of a regular class size—improves the quality of time teachers spend with students.

But what if your child would be one of only 8 kids in a class? For starters, there is no hiding in a corner behind the other students or even from themselves. The intimate setting encourages them to face their shortcomings head on, but it also fosters a can-do attitude that students take with them outside the classroom.

The small classroom adds a dynamic that cannot be replicated in a traditional setting. Students contribute to the learning environment just as much as teachers. In fact, teachers harness student insights in order to teach other kids.

Charlie Sitler, beloved math teacher here at Beekman for 25 years, famously applied this method to do test corrections for his exams. If you earned lower than a 90%, your homework is to answer the questions you got wrong.  The kids who earned 90% and over were paired with their lower-scoring peers and tasked with teaching them the material. Charlie acted as facilitator, but let the students do most of the talking. It turns out that this “lateral intervention,” as Charlie likes to call it, is extremely successful. In fact, there was “more learning per minute” than if he were lecturing about each problem, because not only were the lower-scoring students more likely to internalize the material, but the proficient students were getting a second crack at it as well. As Charlie says, “when you teach, you learn twice.”

Students sometimes support each other in ways that adults cannot. Small class sizes like the ones at Beekman allow for relationships to form between students who would likely not even speak to each other. Take these two kids couldn’t have been more different: a rebellious Russian boy, and a confident New Yorker. In what school would they ever give each other the time of day? But here at Beekman, our feisty New Yorker was the reason our rebellious boy was able to pass his math class at all.

How might your high school experience be different with only eight kids in your class? You won’t be able to hide, but you also don’t want to hide anymore. You get to know your peers have a lot more to offer than you had anticipated. Lastly, you learn your way!

To learn more about why and how we got involved in the "Dream School: NYC” project, check out our earlier post: Learn Your Way: What it Takes to Build a Dream School