By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Yolanda Benito, president of the Imperial County Office of Edcation Teachers Association at Del Rio Community School in Brawley.
It's not unusual for Yolanda Benito's classroom to be packed with high school students. Some mornings, she has as many as 50. Amazingly, during a recent visit, most were on task and attentive.
Benito's students at Del Rio Community School in Brawley are considered "high risk" and were not successful in traditional school. But they like Benito's dynamic style of teaching that's jam-packed with activities. During a recent language arts class, for example, they were divided into teams for the following: pairing up vocabulary words in the style of the TV game show "The Match Game"; playing a version of "Jeopardy!" with categories related to literature; and competing to see who could come up with the most synonyms. Then they sat at computers to work on individual projects.
"Every 20 minutes I change my focus," explains Benito. "These students exhaust me and I probably exhaust them. But it works."
Teaching a large class is nothing new for Benito, who serves as president of the Imperial County Office of Education Teachers Association. But it's definitely more challenging than teaching a smaller class, she says.
"I keep them constantly busy, because it decreases behavior problems," she relates. "I do a lot of hands-on activities. I use a lot of auditory, visual and kinesthetic strategies. And I'm always on my feet. If I was sitting at my desk monitoring things from afar, it wouldn't work. I'm always walking around making sure they are on task and checking their notes."
She rewards students by finishing instruction five minutes early and giving them time to chat, which prolongs instructional time by reducing discipline.
"I have to do a lot more preplanning," she confides. "I over-prepare. If I think a lesson might only take 55 minutes, I'm prepared for 70 minutes, and I do a lot of weekly planning instead of daily planning."
"I try to have a sense of humor," says Anh Nguyen, who teaches geometry classes with 40-plus students at North High School in Torrance. "If I am animated and interesting to the students, it's easier to keep them engaged, and it makes the class environment more enjoyable for them — and for me."
Nguyen is always on her feet, going from student to student to make sure they "get it" before moving on to a new topic.
"I need to walk around and monitor whether they understand what I am teaching — I can't just stand up there and recite the lesson," continues Nguyen, a member of the Torrance Teachers Association. "I establish rules and strictly enforce them to maintain control of the class. A class in chaos is impossible to teach — particularly when they are this large."
"Discipline is one of the largest challenges of teaching a large class," agrees Bob Sustachek, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Martin Luther King Middle School and a member of the Oceanside Teachers Association. "With a large class, you can't keep your eyes on all students at the same time. Kids tend to chatter more in a larger class than in a smaller class. And there can be so many more interruptions."
To maintain discipline, an ounce of prevention works best by fostering a personal connection with them. "I eat lunch in my room and students are welcome to come in and socialize as long as they are well-behaved. Connecting to students is important. They know me well and I know them well. They feel that I care about them."
While it's important to connect with students individually, it's important to foster a sense of community within a larger class, he adds. "I try to give them positive reinforcement as a group, saying, ‘You guys did so well on a test, I'm very proud of you,' and treat them as a class, or almost like one person. Otherwise, they will feel like 40 individuals and act like 40 individuals."
Sustachek has more than 40 students in some classes, including students with learning disabilities and English learners. He uses a lot of humor to hold their attention. For each class, he has mapped out a complex seating chart. He places struggling students nearest to him — and also puts them close to students that excel and can serve as "models." Groups sit at tables and frequently discuss open-ended questions. They never know in advance which student will be called upon to answer. To save time, students are given numbers 1-8 at each table and he picks one number out of a hat to pick spokespeople at all tables.
"That way, nobody can hide," says Sustachek.
It's easier for students to hide — and fall between the cracks — when classes are overcrowded, says Lora Novak, a teacher at Westlake High School and a member of the Unified Association of Conejo Teachers. This includes advanced placement classes.
"Students think that when they are one of 38, they can hide and let a few talkative people lead the class," says Novak. "But I have a seating chart with all their pictures on it. I make checks on it when they open their mouths and grade them on participation. When they know they are being held accountable in a large class setting, it forces them to talk and to contribute."