How to Address Overcrowded Classrooms

11/29/2010 04:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the rhetoric surrounding problems related to public education, overcrowded classrooms has long held a special place amongst the laundry list of complaints. Despite growing concern over this issue, little headway has been made in improving teacher to student ratios. The New York Times recently ran an article that found, contrary to a 2007 agreement to lower classes sizes, they have actually grown. The findings stated elementary school classes now have an average 23.7 students, while the middle and high school averages rests around 27 students per class.

I don't think things are slated to get much better. Shortly following the Times article NYC Major Michael Bloomberg released a new budget which would cut many as 6,100 teaching jobs over the next two years. Unfortunately, this tightening of the purse strings, which will also contribute to larger class sizes, is not specific to New York City.

Teachers and parents are entitled to lament over excessively large classes. A classroom of 30 students brings unimaginable pedagogical challenges. Simply getting everyone to sit attentively is a monstrous task. With countless children are crammed into a single room, small variables, like temperature or a buzzing radiator, can inspire a classroom management nightmare. "Miss, I can't work with that buzzing sound!" Before you know it, mayhem descends upon your room. In my lowest moments, I've left it to divine intervention... "Please God, don't let Robbie eat the sugary cereal for breakfast again today!!!"

And then there are the academics challenges. Inevitably, 30 students are inclined to approach your lesson quite differently. Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner posited that people are likely endowed with one of eight areas of intellectual competence. Otherwise known as the theory multiple intelligences, they can range from bodily-kinesthetic to musical to interpersonal. In addition to possessing varied mental proclivities, people (and students) are likely to learn via one of four modalities: tactual, visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Math people, get ready: In a classroom of 30 students, where each student has a combination of one of the eight intelligences and one of the four learning modalities, how many possible outcomes are there?

To avoid the embarrassment of an erroneous calculation on a national media source, I'll just say -- that's a myriad of learning personalities compacted into a single space

As special education programs are notorious for poor allocation of classroom luxuries, my own experience has been no exception to the class size quagmire. My half classroom is shared among three special education teachers, one crisis paraprofessional, two student teachers, and scores of children. While I love my colleagues and students, class periods are rife with interruptions from visitors. The "teacher's desk," shared between six individuals, is more like a document-eating sinkhole. I've learned never to set a valuable sheet of paper on that desk, lest it be lost forever among the endless piles of memos, worksheets, and leftover lunch napkins.

In the interest of sanity and space, I've learned to expand my understanding of what constitutes a classroom. Recently, I took a group of students to a community garden for a volunteer project. We had just completed an English unit that focused on nature and thought a jaunt amid the flora would be the perfect capstone to our work.

For two hours, that plot of land was our classroom. Sans pens, papers, lesson plans, and confining desks, my students learned the ins and outs of composting, beekeeping, and gardening. They asked endless questions about the hierarchical bee society, crinkled their noses at the smell of rotting vegetables, and "rescued" forgotten tomatoes that would soon be turned into compost. My student raked, shoveled, dug, laughed, and most importantly, learned. One student even returned to the garden that weekend with her father to inquire about purchasing a raised-bed for their own joint project.

Moving beyond the classroom is especially important in the education of special needs students. Depending on the severity of a student's disability, the development of life skills can be a critical component of the special education curriculum. Out of classroom experiences, especially those that focus on service learning activities, afford these students an opportunity to access skills and strengths that are sometimes less apparent in core subjects such as math and reading.

Policy makers must support teachers in developing creative approaches to crowded classrooms. Especially in high schools, out of classroom learning experiences tend to be an added component that teachers struggle to squeeze in. For accountability purposes, field trips must painstakingly relate to the current curricular focus. Typically, only highly motivated teachers find the time and energy to create these sorts of opportunities. While I am not advocating for arbitrary extracurricular rendezvous, administrators should laud and encourage teachers taking initiative to get their students involved with their surrounding communities and resources.

If we are going to address the burgeoning class size problem, it is time to think outside the proverbial box that is our classrooms. In a globalized and technologically driven world, the traditional fixtures of our schools, desks, chalkboards, and tome-like textbooks, may need a makeover. As we implement a system of national standards, why not mandate service learning activities or internships for credit towards graduation? Through these experiences we can ease the burden of overcrowding and broaden pathways to learning. Along the way, students may realize that what takes place in a classroom is not isolated, but applicable to the real world and, most importantly, their futures.