When fifth-graders at Tecler Elementary School in Amsterdam returned from summer break, they found themselves in a familiar place: the same classrooms with the same teachers.
Four years ago, the school adopted a new system for its fourth- and fifth-grade classes. Half of the teachers were assigned to specialize in math, the other half assigned to English language arts.
So, instead of students spending most of the day with a single classroom teacher, they shift between a math teacher and an English teacher. When they move from fourth to fifth grade, they stay with the same teachers, jumping right into curriculum work without days of familiarization with new instructors.
“Fourth grade has the usual beginning-of-the-year growing pains, but our fifth-graders have spent a year in that environment; our fifth-graders are able to hit the ground running,” said Dale Comley, who teaches fourth- and fifth-grade English language arts. “I’m preparing them for fifth-grade better than anyone else, because I’m preparing them to come back to me.”
Comley’s classroom library takes up most of one wall and includes texts that cover a wide range of reader skills. That’s because he must be prepared to meet the reading needs of any student in fourth or fifth grade.
Above the main whiteboard in the room, Comley detailed the day’s work: one lesson plan for fourth-graders and a second for fifth-graders.
Tecler Principal John Miller, in his third year on the job, watched from the side of Comley’s class as Comley worked with students on a visualization exercise: Comley read aloud from a book and then asked his students to draw what they pictured in their heads as they listened.
“You find out the teachers really express their interest for ELA,” Miller said. “You get what the teachers are — in some cases — most motivated to teach.”
The teachers are able to focus their training in a particular area, becoming experts in teaching either math and science or in English language arts, rather than trying to keep on top of all topics. They can then serve as schoolwide specialists, assisting other teachers throughout the school.
Comley partners with math and science teacher Heather Mello, whose room is directly next door. When he is working with fourth-graders, she has the fifth-graders.
“The kids laugh at me. I tell them I love to read, but I don’t teach reading,” Mello said. “Now, being able to do just math, I love it.”
Mello, who has taught in other grades and was at Tecler before the school shifted fourth and fifth grades to the current model, said she could never go back to teaching all subjects, as most elementary school teachers do.
“Am I allowed to say: No, I don’t miss it?” she said.
For the students, they get the benefit of coming back to a familiar space and the chance to get to know two teachers.
“Mr. Comley likes to talk; he told us that,” fourth-grader Ryley Russell said. “He likes to teach.”
And while the model prepares students somewhat for middle school, it’s just a small step toward the increased freedom of hallway lockers.
“My sister says it’s hard because she has to go from the basement to the second floor,” fifth-grader Nathan McGaffin said.
Michele Downing, an assistant superintendent, said the model has proved to be effective for Tecler and is something other elementary schools are looking into. But the desire to implement what Tecler has needs to come directly from school leaders, she said.
“It is something that can be considered in other buildings,” Downing said. “But I would suggest we want it to come from the buildings.”