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8 Problems Elementary Schools Face when Making Classes

Each year thousands of elementary school teachers around the country meet to make new classes for the upcoming year.

Which students should be together, which students should never, ever, EVER be together again.

Who should be with what teacher and who is going to teach “Tyson Hammer”?

Schools put a huge amount of thought into creating classes because they know that creating positive learning environments will lead to better academic and social outcomes.

They know that the classes they make will be the foundations the next year is built on.

Get them right and everyone is happy (students, parents, teachers and principals).

Get them wrong...well it ain’t pretty.

Forgotten Separation

Ms Perkins taught Alex Morgan and Michael Trance in grade three.

They were not a good combination.

As a result the boys were separated the following year in grade four.

That same year Ms Perkins retired middle way through the year.

As a result when classes were made for grade five Alex and Michael were put in the same class and their was no one to point out “there’s trouble brewing in that combination”.

The following year Alex and Michael were back to their old tricks.

Their teacher was a victim of The Forgotten Separation effect...and their parents were knocking on the principal’s door asking “Why are they back together?”.

Chummy Teacher

Most educators would recoil at hearing this...but unfortunately it can and does happen.

Unfortunately we have heard plenty of stories of teachers “stacking classes” for their friends.

Putting all the nice kids in the class of their best friend and leaving the challenging kids for someone they don’t like so much.

As a result of this stacking some schools have understandably taken student placement completely out of the hands of their staff.

However the reality is teachers know their students better than anyone, so ideally they should be involved in student placement decisions.

“Perfect Class” Problem

When we started Class Creator one of our developers said “We make perfect classes”.

As an elementary school teacher of 13 years I had to explain to him that there is no such things as a “Perfect Class”.

Each student is a universe of complexity.

Trying to combine 20+ universes of complexity to make a “Perfect Class” is not realistic.

All any educator can do is gather as much raw and anecdotal data as possible and make the “best classes possible”.

The problem occurs when educators believe and will only accept Perfect Classes.

They will spend countless hours of their own and others time to make classes that don’t exist.

Placing 110 students into five classes results in billions of possible combinations.

It would take an army of teachers hundreds of years to go through all possible combinations...and it is very likely each one of them would have reason to make them not perfect.

Class creation is not black and white...I’m not even sure it’s grey...personally I think it’s a chameleon walking across a rainbow.



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Near Enough

The other end of the perfectionist's spectrum is Near Enough.

Schools are busy and new classes are usually created at one of the busiest time of the year.

As a result sometimes classes are slapped together and “created” with little consideration to what makes a good class.

This is not a judgment of those schools.

It’s a sad, but commonly known fact, that schools have limited resources and they have to priortize.

The problem is when these 'Near Enough' classes are created the school ends up dealing with the fallout the following year!

Imbalanced classes can lead to lower academic performance.

Placements without social considerations often lead to well-being and discipline issues...and that's just the teachers ;-)

The reality is if schools do not invest in making better classes, they pay ten times the price in the future.

The Impossible Kid

If your school doesn’t have at least one student that is difficult to place in a class, count your lucky stars!

If a student can’t be in a class for their own good, or the benefit of others, the reality is something has to give.

Like with the Perfect Class Problem, at some stage educators have to gather as much information as possible, analyse it and make the best decision they can.

Imbalanced Classes

“My class is so much lower academically than everyone else's”

“I have all the naughty kids in my class”

“Didn’t anyone notice that my class only has four girls in it when they were making the classes last year?”

If you’ve been teaching for a while these comments are not uncommon.

Sometimes their hyperbole (maybe not in the case of only having fours girl), but often they are true.

Traditional methods of making classes struggle to cope with all the information the is involved with student placement.

Each student has masses of information relevant to their placement.

Gender, academic achievement, behavior, family history, special education/IEPs, ethnicity, sports/arts/language programs, students they should be with, students they shouldn’t be with, social and emotional considerations...just to name a few.

Using all this data, multiplied by hundreds of students, to ensure classes are balanced in all areas is like solving seven rubik's cubes while blindfolded...underwater….with your feet.

Making balanced classes is hard, especially if data is not presented in a user-friendly way.




The Last Minute Changes

Wouldn’t it be nice if schools were static and unchanging...even for 20 minutes.

Reality is schools are a living organism.

Students join and leave on a delay basis.

Friendships breakdown and, at times, result in a Lex Luthor vs Superman situation.

And it’s not just the students.

Teachers leave, and new ones join.

For some reason two teachers can no longer work together.

Budgets change and resources are reduced (are they ever expanded?).

Schools are expected to be flexible enough to cope with all these changes and all these changes have a significant impact on student placements.

When classes have been made using sticky notes or spreadsheets and seven new students enrol in a grade level it generally leads to...starting...all...over...again :-(


The Domino Effect

Speaking of starting all over again, The Domino Effect is most common in schools that ask students or parents for placement requests.

Let’s say it’s school policy is to guarantee students are placed with one or more friends. That’s certainly a nice way to start when creating a positive learning environment.

The school puts a lot of time and thought into making great, balanced classes.

They have considered all the data, discussed how the relationships work and feel comfortable they have made the best classes they can.

Everyone one is happy.

Until...someone notices Jenny Ashton doesn’t have a friend.

Oh well, an easy fix, just move Hannah Brown into her class.

Ooops….Hannah Brown was Becky Dawson and Tom Pound’s only friend in the other class and now...you get the point.

Creating classes while taking into account social dynamics is key to creating positive learning environments that lead to better academic and well-being outcomes.

But it’s hard...especially when making classes using pieces of paper.


How can schools avoid these problems and make better classes?

We always want to do best by the kids in our care. Therefore most schools spend a lot of time in order to avoid making the mistakes listed above.

Here are a few ideas that might save your schools some headaches and produce better outcomes for your school.

An excellent policy is a great place to start.

Some points you may like to include:

  • An overview of your procedures (including a timeline)
  • Who makes the final decision on placements?
  • What information is taken into account when placing students?
  • Where does student information come from?
  • How is student history stored?
  • Can parents/students have a say? If so, how and when?
  • Can specific teachers be requested?
  • Does the school have multi-age classes? If so, why?
  • What if a parent has a complaint after classes are made?

(I have compiled an extensive, and editable, placement policy. If you would like a copy please contact me here with the subject “Placement Policy”)

Keep data consistent across your school is also key.

Data is useless if one teacher’s “Excellent” is another teacher’s “Unsatisfactory”.

Having a common understanding of what descriptors or levels mean, and some form of monitoring, is a must.

We provide schools with this editable rubric to ensure all teachers are on the same page in regards to grading student behavior, academic, special education needs, etc.

Make the data user-friendly

There is enough data involved in student placement to build the Pyramids, four Effiel Towers and have enough left to fill the Grand Canyon.

All that data is useless unless it can be easily analysed.

Some ways schools organized their student placement data include:

  • Sticky/Post-it Notes
  • Spreadsheets (Google or Excel)
  • Strips of Paper
  • Placement Cards
  • Cupcakes (okay..maybe I dreamed this one)
  • Magnets
  • Class Creator

I believe this is the greatest challenge when making classes, and it’s the main reason we developed Class Creator. I searched for the best way to make classes and I couldn’t find a solution that would help us create classes for our 900+ students.

If your school is small you will likely be able to use any of these methods, but as enrolment numbers exceed 400 students spreadsheets quickly become overloaded and unworkable, and don’t even get me started on trying to figure out if classes are balanced by looking at 150 coloured pieces of paper.

Communication

We all know how important communication is in schools. It’s doubly important when creating classes. If two people or groups are working on the classes without being in alignment they can easily waste both their time and end up in disagreement.

We recommend schools make classes at the same time so they can collaborate, or if the are using Class Creator they can use our “Share” function to get feedback from their colleagues.

Student History

Make sure you record all history relevant to student placement.

This history should be easy for school administrators to access in case parents ask why placements were made the way they were and so additional information can be added throughout the year.

It’s also important that this data is provided to the educators making the classes the following year. We have heard of plenty of cases of schools having this history, but it not being available to those making the classes.

Another good idea is if you allow parent requests/notes, ask them to always include history they believe is relevant. This puts the onus on them. The only problem is this does not affect history recorded (or not record) by teachers.

For the record, Class Creator saves all student history and even provides alerts about history in future years :-)


Thank you, good luck and...hello?

I hope this post provides you with some warning signs and helps to avoid student placement nightmares.

After working with hundreds of educators, to create classes for tens of thousands of students, we certainly understand why many educators feel dizzy when someone mentions making new classes.

If you have any stories,comments, ideas or questions about student placement and class creation please leave a comment below or send me an email at tim@classcreator.io

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Tim is a passionate educator. At times has been labelled a "Maverick" (amongst other things). He is also the founder of Class Creator and author of "88 Ways to Teach Effectively" (Out mid 2016).