TOWER- Three of Bonnie Magnuson’s fourth-graders were busy planting seeds. As they wrote on popsicle sticks that were being used to mark each pot, they needed to figure out how many of the 25 pots …
TOWER- Three of Bonnie Magnuson’s fourth-graders were busy planting seeds. As they wrote on popsicle sticks that were being used to mark each pot, they needed to figure out how many of the 25 pots should be planted to spinach or lettuce. They soon realized this meant they needed to put their newly-acquired divisions skills into action. As one student went up to the whiteboard to work out the division problem, they quickly realized they had a remainder.
“It’s going to be 12 plus 13,” they said.
And this real life problem helped cement the idea of what a remainder might mean in a real life situation.
This teachable moment is happening much more than normal in Magnuson’s classroom. In fact, students were planting seeds because they decided they wanted to grow their own salad greens this winter. And because of the unusually small class size, Magnuson is often able to accommodate her students’ growing curiosity and sense of adventure.
Due to the natural variations seen in year-to-year student enrollment in a small school, there are only four students in fourth grade this year (one student was absent the day I was in the classroom).
While Tower-Soudan Elementary has seen relatively small class sizes in recent years, with many classes running between 10-15 students, this year’s fourth grade was a surprise. Last year, as third-graders, there were eight in the class. But due to families moving or choosing to send their child to a different school, this year the class was basically cut in half.
Magnuson is having one of her best teaching year’s ever, though not all of it, she said, is due to her small class size.
She said the small school atmosphere at Tower-Soudan means students have built long-term relationships with almost all the teachers and staff. In addition, Magnuson taught this same group as the third-grade teacher last year, so she started the year knowing the students quite well.
In such a small school, this actually happens almost every year.
“The kids have relationships with every teacher,” she said, “and the teachers know all the kids.”
“Kids like to come to school,” she said, “and I look forward to coming to work.”
School-wide attendance this year is 94%, she said, which is higher than normal.
The school-wide focus on building respect and cooperation also helps. Her students understand that they need to get along with each other.
“When you only have four (two boys and two girls) they have to respect each other or they’ll have no one to play with,” she said.
Other teachers at the school also note the benefit of the small school atmosphere and small class sizes.
But, as one teacher pointed out, small class size doesn’t necessarily mean an easy year.
“Nine kids can be harder than 27,” said first-grade teacher Jo Holen.
Holen noted that small class sizes almost always mean a more relaxed classroom.
“Twenty-five little bodies in a room is a lot,” she said. “I have 13 this year and it’s not so overwhelming.”
Holen said the biggest advantage of a small school is the feeling that school is a safe place to come to. And it’s a feeling that just doesn’t come from the staff, though the fact that almost all the staff know all the kids does help.
“The older kids really care for the younger kids,” she said.
Second-grade teacher Charissa Dahl said the small class sizes means she can spend one-on-one time with each student every day.
“I get a good idea of exactly where they are at,” she said. “It’s easier to modify a lesson for each student, and more time to focus on learning.”
Dahl has taught classes that included a combined third/fourth grades with 34 students.
“This is more like a family atmosphere,” she said. “I call them ‘my kids’ and they truly feel like my family.”
Dahl said she couldn’t imagine teaching in a large school where you wouldn’t even know all the students in a single grade. She loves watching the kids grow up, and is truly sad to watch them graduate from sixth grade and leave the school.
“I’m more attached and more invested,” she said.
Sometimes this means she also worries more. The long-term relationships built with families mean that teachers often have more insight into the challenges a child may be facing at home.
Principal John Metsa credited the staff at Tower-Soudan for creating such a nurturing environment. He said the district has committed to maintaining current staffing at the school, which means each grade will have their own teacher next year. Some parents have worried that the lower class sizes would prompt the district to try to combine grades, something that hasn’t been successful at Tower-Soudan in the past.
“This is a pretty good place to be,” said Magnuson, “for both students and staff.”
A year with four students
Magnuson has taught classes that range in size up 21. Class size, she said, isn’t always indicative of how easy a year will be.
But this year, she has the opportunity to give one-on-one attention to all her students, every single day.
“I can give instant feedback,” she said. “It’s easy to get them straightened out before they start a bad habit.”
While she has only four students, she said their skill levels, especially in math, cover a wide range.
“I can see where all the kids are at, all the time,” she said. “And I have the flexibility to change a lesson plan if they know less, or more, than I thought.”
This has been especially apparent in math, where she has seen great progress in her students, who have also gained much more confidence in their math ability.
“Kids will learn at their own pace,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you have four in the room or 30.”
The small class has also given her the opportunity to grant more independence to her students. While you might think they would become overly dependent on their teacher, they actually are spending more time becoming independent learners.
“The kids taught themselves to make movies on the iPad one day,” she said. “Then one day when the third-graders were visiting, they taught them too.”
The small class has also seen some interesting discussions. Every one of her students enjoys participating, she said. The small class size means more time for extra projects and art, something all the students enjoy. But when asked, all the students said their favorite subject is math.
“We are learning to add fractions,” they told me, “and to multiply two and three-digit numbers.”
Magnuson is able to incorporate real life situations into her math lessons. The students spent time with the Zup’s Grocery flyer this week, figuring out the best bargains in the meat department (whole chickens, if you’re interested) by analyzing the cost per ounce.
The one big problem they’ve run into with only four students is not having enough data points when doing science experiments.
“So we ended up making fake students to get enough data,” she said.
The students are grouped with grades five and six for music and phy ed.
“Multi-grade friendships are common,” she said.
“These kids work hard,” she said. “They come up with ideas on their own and are so willing to experiment.” She keeps a list of what her students have questions about, and when the time arises, they are able to explore these topics.
Magnuson said she still keeps very busy throughout the day. And the teaching strategies she is practicing this year will benefit her students in coming years, no matter what the class size.
“I don’t have time to sit with my feet up,” she said with a laugh.
With the small class size it is much easier to oversee technology use and resolve problems students may encounter when logging in and out of the different online educational programs they can use.
At the end of most school days, the students take turn being “teacher,” standing in the front of the room and leading their classmates as they review a lesson from earlier in the day, making corrections to sentences which have incorrect spelling, grammar or punctuation.
And these young teachers were certainly modeling their real-life teacher by showing respect for each other’s opinions and ideas, offering suggestions on how to solve a problem, and readily taking turns in the spotlight.
These types of skills will serve these youngsters long into the future, and the attention they receive in the small school environment will go a long way in creating confident, life-long learners.
There is a growing amount of research that shows increased learning as a result of small school environments, especially for students from lower income families. Advantages include stronger relationships with teachers, more opportunities for leadership, and getting to know a wider variety of people.
Research has shown that teachers have higher expectations of their students when they have smaller class sizes.
You can find out more about research done on small schools and small class sizes at www.eric.ed.gov, a website dedicated to education research.
In 2013, students at the Tower-Soudan Elementary School made the greatest academic performance gains in the state, according to the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now.
The rankings were developed based on testing data from the 2011-2012 school year using the scores from the top elementary grade tested, in this case sixth-graders. Students at Tower-Soudan showed a 43.4 percent average increase in reading and math from the previous year. The school as a whole posted a 31.1 percent gain (compared to a 5.1 percent gain showed by the district as a whole). Overall the school gained an A- ranking.
Tower-Soudan was also recognized as a Minnesota Reward School, for being in the top five percent of Title I schools in the state.
As of 2015, the school has a higher than average number of free/reduced lunch students, at 71percent, and the school’s percentage of minority students is close to 50%. At the same time, they posted some of the best scores in the district on statewide testing.