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Self-Contained Classrooms: Day Designers

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I am a self-contained teacher. Although I don’t really like the term self-contained. It sounds too much like working all alone, shut off from the rest of the world.  I actually prefer the term “Day Designer”.  I design days, through each content area. Much cooler. Teachers who teach one subject often tell me they would never want to be self-contained, for a variety of reasons. Some of them are:

I have 6 subjects and 3 STAAR tests. Three out of five days, I am either at grade-level PLC, Math planning with the math team, or LA planning with the LA team.  Teaching all subjects requires one to be a sort of Jack (or Jill) of all trades; having a firm grasp on each content area and the state assessments that align with them. So why do I prefer this? It’s simple. I don’t teach content, I teach kids. For me, this is the best way to do that.

I know several teachers who are currently considering a move to self-contained classrooms, or their administrators are.  So I wanted to share my experiences and some of the good stuff you can find in this type of arrangement:

Relationships

I get to know my students much better when I have them all day. We develop a close bond, and I am keenly aware of their strengths and weaknesses. And I don’t just mean academically. I know personal strengths. Learning strengths. Learning struggles. I get to know them in their entirety rather than just “as a math student” or “as a reader”. I know them as learners. We just happen to learn all subjects. Because of this, I am able to design extensions and interventions that provide just the right support each of my student’s need. Because I am so aware of their needs, I am better able to target, manage, and follow them. Learning is much more personal.  The students develop a very close knit community, and truly form a classroom family.  They freely question, commend, and challenge each other-without prodding or prompting from me-and a sense of safety and inclusion is felt not only by us, but visitors to our classroom as well. I have supported the development of this type of climate in departmentalized and team-teaching systems as well, but I would have to say it seems to be just a little bit different-more pronounced- in the SC class.

Flexibility

I am able to adjust my schedule in such a way that learning isn’t bound to a clock. At any given time, you might see a group of students engaged in a writing conference, another group collaborating on a challenging math problem, a small group with me engaged in a reading mini-lesson, a few students blogging about their science lesson yesterday, a book club in the back of the room…We learn throughout the day in a way that makes the content meaningful, relevant, and connected. Just because it is a certain time doesn’t mean we are all engaged in the same content. Such a time fixation is a system for departmentalization and I’m not sure it’s relevant for the self-contained classroom.

This is usually the point where departmentalized teachers become very nervous. In fact, it does require me to do more follow up and individual check-ins. It also requires a good set of rituals, routines, and procedures in place to make sure student’s are staying engaged and on task. There are times when they are not, and then we have to address it. But most of the time, we are.

Integration

Some say that there is no way they would want to plan for all the different subjects. Even with good, strong team planning, one still must tinker with and tailor the plan to capture the “how” for their own classroom and students. But really, it is much easier for me than you think! I am able to fully integrate content. We engage in writing and reading during math and science. We engage in PBL units or projects that encompass multiple subject areas and actually spend less time on some things than otherwise. Integrated content helps to reinforce concepts and helps children retain material. Cross-curricular units are much easier to design and facilitate because I know exactly what we are doing in each content area.  More importantly, I know where each student is in each content area. I can use this to front load or spiral back. I am able to bring to departmental meetings an awareness of current units of study in the other content areas and ideas for time-savers and cross-curricular connections.

Time and Tool Management Skills

We are now fully 1:1 in my classroom; each student has their own device and it resides on their desk or in their own charging area. They have customized their desktop, built their bookmarks, and are completely free to use their device to facilitate their learning throughout the day. I specifically did not establish any control over this, other than our digital citizenship lessons that we have. I wanted them to make mistakes so that we could learn from them how to best manage our time and tools. And yes, they did!

Now, my students will power up when they need to look up additional information or decide to present their essay using a form of technology…This is not controlled by me, and I think it has really empowered them to become independent learners. Many times I have students finish their writing assignment early, only to go get on their device to continue working on a lesson for math. That’s difficult in departmentalized situations. We have established norms, and we revisit and revise those as we go along and learning opportunities present themselves, but as a general rule, they are encouraged to be self-driven. An important goal for me is that my students come to recognize when- and how- to take advantages of both time and available tools to support their learning. They won’t develop those skills if I am the one dictating what, when, where and how to use them. And so the self-contained setting affords us the freedom to experiment, make mistakes, and learn how we as individuals can best manage our tools and time.

Classroom Ownership

The desks are “theirs”, the lockers, the anchor charts, the reading nooks, the tables…all theirs. My students feel an ownership over the physical space, which I think helps build an ownership over their own learning and how they go about it. Radically different from just “visiting” my room for an hour and a half. I think this subtle shift in thinking is important. The physical space is often an area we overlook, but I think it really helps build ownership when they are not sharing it with another class. At least, that seems to have been my experience when it comes to elementary students.

Some other bonuses: We don’t lose time packing up and switching classes; I am able to arrange for extra learning opportunities designed to enhance their critical thinking, motivation, and “connectedness” to the global community. For example, this year my students have participated in an Hour of Code, Genius Hour, and even a Google Hangout with some computer designers. We’ve read about the start up of Khan Academy and generated a list of traits that were instrumental in seeing this creation flourish, including visionary thinking, problem solving, patience, and service to others. We make connections with and highlight these traits often in our classroom. Now, we are reading biographies and generating our own list of “Habits of Successful People”, employing these throughout our day, in whatever content area we are working in. Because I have the opportunity to design learning experiences within each subject area, I can make sure to highlight, reinforce and include opportunity for the development of these habits.  If I were not the math teacher, would I have even had reason to explore an online learning startup company with them? Not likely. Would they have recognized the same “innovative” mindset in both “Mr. Khan” and “Pa”, the father in a historical fiction book we are currently reading? Making it a point to spend time on such things in one area just seems to make things so much more meaningful and real to them in other areas. I have found the self-contained setting to be a great opportunity to do this.

I have tried to find research into the effectiveness of self-contained vs. departmentalized settings in the elementary classroom, in which areas, and to what extent. I found exactly none.   At least none since 1965.  I immediately think of the following quote by Toni Morrison, “If there is something you want to read, and it isn’t yet written, you must write it yourself”. And so, that’s a current “hmmm” I have.

There are positives around being departmentalized, teaming, and being self-contained, and each has merit. I have been a teacher in all three types of classrooms, and I would say that without a doubt, this design has been the most rewarding.  I think my fourth graders would agree!

What about you? Are you departmentalized or self-contained? Which type of structure do you prefer, and why?

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4 thoughts on “Self-Contained Classrooms: Day Designers”

  1. I am self contained in 1st grade, which I assume most classrooms are. We do have 45 minute intervention period daily where I we split the students into leveled groups. I like the variety, but all that planning can be daunting at times! Also, you don’t get a break from any sort of behavior problems.

  2. I wish my children were students in your class. Your posts are truly inspiring- stories from a fantastic classroom. Favorite quote: “I know them as learners”. I am at the HS level, so we are Dept., but most of the Ele teachers I talk to prefer self-contained. I love the way you captured the strengths of this model.

    1. Thank you for your kind words! You have made my day! To be read and complimented by such an outstanding educator as yourself is truly amazing to me. You continue to inspire me!

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