Sunday, April 14, 2013

Working and Lovin' It in a Departmentalized Elementary School

You all probably know that I moved to a new school and grade this year... I love it!  :)  But, I wanted to post today because my building is a departmentalized elementary school and I've seen a lot of questions about departmentalizing floating around the web... so I just want to give you a day in my shoes and my 2 cents on departmentalizing in elementary...

Strap in for a long one!

There are grades 3-5 in my building with four teachers per grade.

Our "departments" are... 1 math teacher in each grade, 1 sci/ss teacher, and 2 ELA teachers in each grade.

So, we start our day in "homeroom".  In 3rd grade, we have our kids from 7:35-8:35.  We do normal classroom stuff at this time... lunch count, morning work, morning meeting, AR, etc...

At 8:35 until 9:10, 3rd grade has "success time" which is our intervention time.  I posted about this once before.  It works like clockwork in 3rd grade.  It's GREAT for our kiddos!

Then 3rd grade has their specials from 9:15-9:50.

At 9:55, 3rd grade switches for their first two blocks.  Fouth and fifth grades begin around this time too.  Our blocks are all running at about the same time, school wide, it's just a few minutes difference because our lunch times are a little different.

My students gather up their things and go to math for 50 minutes.  They go to their sci/ss teacher for 50 minutes after that.

During that time, half of the 3rd grade (2 classes) is in ELA.  And I teach ELA to one of the classes for both blocks and the other class goes to the other ELA teacher.  We have about 110 minutes and do writing and then use Daily Five to run and manage our guided reading groups.

At 11:40, the first two blocks have ended and it's time for lunch.  Kids return to their classrooms and we have lunch and recess for almost an hour.

After lunch, I do my class read aloud until about 1pm and then I have my own kids for ELA for the rest of the day.  We usually end at about 2:40/2:45ish.  We pack-up, pick-up, and dismiss at 2:53.

The thing that is confusing when I try to explain this to others is who is where and when.  When the year started, each grade level had 1 ELA teacher, but we found that there was not enough time to get all of our ELA in during 1 block.  So, we went to 2 ELA teachers so kids had twice as much time in ELA.  It's hard to explain... so check out the table:

So, in each grade level, the math and sci/ss teachers teach all 4 sections, but each ELA teacher teaches 2 sections each for twice as long.

Here's what I love about just teaching ELA...

*ummm... lesson planning!  It's so much easier!  I love focusing on just one thing and doing that one thing really well.

*It is definitely my strength and passion.  I am excited everyday because I am teaching what I love.  Don't get me wrong, I loved teaching everything when I taught self-contained, but reading and writing are near and dear to me and I definitely LOVE teaching them more than the others!

*Our students get their core subjects every day.  When I taught self-contained, it was so easy to let a math lesson or a reading lesson go over (or find a craft or project the night before and just HAD to do it the next day!) and just shove science or social studies out of the way until tomorrow... and, sometimes, tomorrow never came!

*There is no time for wasting time... and I use "wasting time" because I don't have a better word or phrase for it.  I felt like I used every teaching second before, but I realize that there was a lot of "extra" time in my day that I didn't know was there.  But, because I am on time constraints since other people are depending on me to do my job in a timely manner, I can't waste a second.  I never realized how much extra time I really did have during the day because I had my own class all day and knew I could make up anything we missed during the other time that I had my kids.  I have to be twice as aware of my time now because others are depending on me!

*Our students are constantly moving.  We really don't have a lot of behavior issues.  Our kids are up and going to the next activity.  They get to bond with three teachers every day and feel success in different ways in different places.

*I am no longer an island.  I'll admit, I LOVED being an island.  I LOVED doing what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted.  LOVED.  A lot.  But now that I am part of a team that depends on me and whom I also depend on, I love being part of something that is working toward a common good for all 3rd grade students.  And not that I wasn't part of a team before, but we didn't have to depend on each other or coordinate with one another.  We didn't have to have a common goal because we were all islands.  Which, like I say, I LOVED... but working together in such a way as I do now, is awesome!

*Consistency!  Holy smokes are we consistent.  Every student in my school is getting the same message as every other student in their grade level which will SO prepare them for the next grade!

*From a money standpoint, you wouldn't need sets of everything... we do have four sets of the reading series from the time when each teacher taught each thing... but now only the ELA teachers are using them, so if we have the need to buy another series at some point, we'd only need half as many.  You know what I mean?

Some things you need if you are going to departmentalize...

*Staff buy-in.  Enough said.

*An administration that will be flexible as you adjust and who can provide you with time to connect both with your grade-level team and your subject-area team.

*Common expectations and procedures among your grade-level team.  We accomplish this with "clip sticks" which are portable clip charts that travel from room to room (and even to specials!) and by having common "finger signals" in our classrooms for needs that require movement.  Click either picture for more info! 

*Along with common expectations and procedures, comes having a team that can accomplish commonalities together.  My 3rd grade team is the best... we work together very well and depend on each other to make the whole grade level work.  The other 3rd grade ELA teacher and I plan together every week and are always talking during the week about what's working, how things are going, and things we need to keep working on.

*You also have to re-train your way of thinking about your students... because they aren't "your" students anymore.  They are "our" students.  I love knowing that so many people are working together for the common good of our students.  And though my homeroom kids are "my" kids, I also know that they are someone else's kids too.  We share successes, brainstorm solutions to problems, and are all ultimately responsible for the success of all the students, which I think is super cool.

*Simple, but something to think about.  Your kids need a way of transporting their materials from one place to the next.  In 3rd grade, each subject area classroom has the text books and things kids need there, so our kids aren't carrying text books or anything from place to place.  Our kids have these big plastic bags that they store their FALCON folders, which are folders they take home each night with homework etc... (if you saw my HORSE when I taught before, that's what this is but FALCON is our mascot and we needed folders, so Families and Learning Communicating & Organizing Nightly was born!), pencils, books they need, or whatever else.  We also have a Google Doc that is our weekly homework sheet.  Each of us adds what we need to for the grade-level for the week and there is a spot at the bottom where we can add our own personal notes to our classroom families.  We print them off on Monday and the kids have a weekly homework sheet that touches base with each teacher.  They keep their HW sheet in their FALCON.

I'm not a fan of desk cleaning/seat sack cleaning or other such things, so my students' bags need a good going through, but you get the idea.

Sometimes people say things to me about being departmentalized and how they think it's too hard for the kids, or we're making it less "elementary school" for them because they aren't connected to one teacher only.

In my opinion, that is just not true.  The 3rd graders adjusted quickly and our transitions are smooth and quick.  Because we have such similar expectations and share a common behavior management system, there isn't much confusion among students about what to do or how to do it.

As for students not being connected to only one teacher, that's GREAT!  I don't see that as a negative at all.  Now they have many teachers who care about them.  Not only that, but all of the students have opportunities to bond with other adults.  When I taught 2nd grade, I had a former student come tell me once that he knew his 3rd grade teacher didn't like him.  It broke my heart!  How miserable for that student to have spent an entire year with a teacher that made him feel unliked!  Our students get a chance to connect with more than just their teacher.  They get to experience different teaching styles and interact with their learning in different ways throughout the day.   We still take days where we don't switch classes.  We still do holiday parties and field trips.  We all still have student art work of some kind or another hanging in our classrooms and friendly competitions between classes and grades.  We haven't taken anything away from our students or made the day any less "elementary" for them.  We have made learning consistent and accessible.  We have ensured that everyone learns all core subjects every day.  We have made a place where collaboration and communication help everyone be more successful in 3rd grade.

So, what if you're in a small school?  Do a two-way switch!  One of you could teach ELA in the morning to your class and then ELA in the PM to the other class, while the other teacher does math/sci/ss or whatever!

If there is only one teacher of your grade, do a switch with the grade above or below you... you can teach 1st grade reading in the AM and 2nd in the PM while the other teacher does 2nd grade math and sci/ss in the AM and 1st grade in the PM.  It's totally doable!

I hope that gives you a glimpse into what we do each day... and answers some questions!  As summer approaches and we're all thinking about how to make our schools and classrooms better for next year, hopefully this gives you something to think about!

I'd be happy to entertain other questions or concerns... just leave a comment!


  1. Love the way your departmentalization is set up! I teach 4th grade and we departmentalize in 4th-6th grade at our school. We have 75 minute rotations because we only have 3 teachers at each grade....I like the way you do it better because it gives more time for ELA. We just found out last week that our new principal does not like departmentalizing and thinks 4th graders are too young. He has decided not to allow us to do it next year :( I'm heart broken, but there is a very good chance that I will be moving to a different school and teaching Kindergarten next year. I am so excited about this possibility that I could just burst!!! Since we take the state assessments in Reading, Math, and Science in 4th grade I just feel like it is too much to handle without departmentalizing so I've decided to seek out my passion for Kindergarten. Thanks for sharing the way it works at your school....sounds awesome!!

    Super Pig and Tyrant King

  2. Last year we departmentalized in First Grade. We didn't do it this year but are going to do it next year. We also loved it. We all taught our own Guided Reading and then the classes rotated for the rest of the day. I taught Reading, another teacher taught Math, another Science/Social Studies and another taught Writing. We have 4 50-minute blocks. As you mentioned, it was AWESOME to be able to plan for only one subject area because you got to go so above and beyond with your lessons! I got to plan and do things with my students that I wouldn't have had the time to plan otherwise.
    And best of all, they learned so much more because of this. Even in First Grade, it works like a charm.

  3. I am lucky enough to be departmentalized, too. It has completely changed my direction as a teacher- for the better! I can focus on my instruction for one subject and work hard to put into place only the best possible instruction. I love it! We have 90 minute blocks, but split the subjects the same as you do. It works!! :)
    Fun in Room 4B

  4. Hi Christina, thank you for your thoughts and insights into departmentalizing. Our school (K-5) started doing that, for reading only, about 7 years ago. I had mixed feelings because a lot of our children come from homes lacking structure so I felt like they needed a "home base" at school. (I teach first grade) Another worry for me was we had a teacher on our first grade team who had "checked out". He no longer enjoyed teaching and was basically just passing time until he retired. It was very hard to send my students to him for a subject that I hold near and dear to my heart. I think it's so important that every child should view them self as a reader no matter what level they are, and he had a different view point. To make a long story short, I now work with a first grade team that are all on the same wave length- so it's wonderful. Next year we might go back to meeting the needs of all of our students, except our far below basic, in our own room. We do not have the funds to hire aides as part of our RTI team. I am toying with the idea of starting daily 5. Anyway, I did enjoy reading your viewpoint and know that anyone all of the children and teachers you work with are thanking their lucky stars to be on your team! Julie

  5. A comment and a couple of questions:
    I work with a team of 4 second grade teachers. We have mini-departmentalized for years with science, social studies, and health. This year we added library to the mix because we gained a 4th teammate. We don't "switch" kids every day, so I only get to see everybody once a week for science. We have really liked it for the same reasons you expressed.

    What was the 4th class before you made ELA 2 periods long?
    Do you see any difficulties with common core? We have been talking about how common core seems to be pushing toward a more thematic way of teaching and are not sure if we will continue "switching" or will need to integrate science/ss throughout reading and language arts.

    Thanks for the "food for thought" post. :)

    1. Hi Amy- thanks for the comments and questions. I think that, with Common Core being so rigorous, there is no way I could do all of the components "justice" if I had to do them all. The way we are arranged helps us do one thing to the absolute best of our abilities and I just love that! I think Common Core is the perfect excuse for trying out departmentalizing!

    2. Oh- and before we made ELA 2 periods long, there as a math, science, ELA, and social studies teacher. After we made ELA 2 periods, science and social studies combined so that teacher alternates units.

    3. you don't mention any time for specials. they iinterfere with either all am or pm instruction.

  6. I worked at a Dual Language school and we departmentalized for language and subject area. It was a lot of fun! The kids learned so much and thrived in both classroom.
    Buy in is a huge component!
    Thanks for this post... it make me wanna try it again at my new school.

    The Tutu Teacher

  7. Hi, thanks for sharing your point of view about departmentalization. I've had mixed feelings about it for years. I currently teach self contained fifth grade. I love having my kids all day. During my first year in 5th we departmentalized a little. We had 4 teachers. We each taught our own ELSE then switched for science and math. So two of us taught science to two classes and the other two math to two classes. I loved it but I also trusted my teammates completely and I knew that the teacher teaching my kids math was doing what was best for them. This worked great for us that year. I've also seen departmentalization not work at my school because the teachers did not work as a team. They only cared about their subject and had no clue about what the other teachers were doing.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with departmentalization. It sounds like you have a great team and you are doing what's best for children and that's all that matters.

    Teacher of Scholars

  8. Hi! I totally agree! I am the fifth grade ELA teacher in a departmentalized school and I feel it is the best thing we ever did! I truly feel like I am a much better teacher now because I am more focused and can truly dive into my area of expertise without feeling spread too thin! Being departmentalized turned my job into a passion that I can share with others. Great post! I've been a lurker for a while but I am definitely connecting via Google so I can follow more closely! Thanks for sharing!

    Creating Lifelong Learners

  9. Wow, this is an interesting concept. It sounds great! Thank you so much for sharing, I will be sharing as well!
    Second Grade is Out of This World!

  10. I would love to departmentalize. I have been "an island" for 22 years and it is challenging and often frutrating to be the "jack of all subjects and master of none." You are right though- you have to have complete buy in from the entire team or it won't work. I am part of a team of 2 and my partner doesn't stay after school and is always so "busy". We collaborate but this would take a real team effort to make sure that every student met with succes. Just wishing....

  11. I love how you always have me thinking...I forwarded this post to our new principal for next year...I'm in 2nd, with 9 classes...this could work!

  12. I taught departmentalized for ten years. This is my first year of doing self contained. I wished I had stayed departmentalized. You are so right about so many things: less lesson planning, kids are less of a disciple problem (including the ones who can get under YOUR skin), less prep work, and kids get every subject everyday. I also didn't realize how much time is wasted being self contained. It seems like we spend so many minutes waiting on someone to finish something so we can move on. I 100% love departmentalized.

  13. I love your description of departmentalizing. I have heard of this and when I did my student teaching they did a little of this--more with science and social studies and math. The reading was a whole different story...which I really liked too. (kids were grouped by their level and 1-3rd grade teachers each had a level and taught reading and writing to a group of students all at the same level) As I look at my teaching partners (I teach 2nd), we are 3 very different personalities and do things in our rooms very different. One teacher is very old school and does a lot of paper/pencil stuff but says it's centers but there's nothing hands on. She keeps kids in for recess for corrections when they may have only missed one or two or missing work. Another teacher is very high strung and doesn't do well with change. I've used the clip chart but my teaching partners use something else or nothing. I guess I'm wondering how to have a departmentalized grade level IF we are all so very different with our styles and expectations? I liked what you said about it and can see some benefits, I'm just not seeing it work with my partners....I guess I probably wouldn't have the "buy in" like you said. Oh well....maybe some day. Thanks for your input!

    1. That's too bad. If your school has a "it's what's best for kids" mentality, it's easy to have buy in even if everyone doesn't love the idea. We are so lucky to have a leader who "keeps it real" when it comes to doing what's best for kids... in some cases if we wait for 100% buy-in on everything, change will never come. I'd say, if you had a lot of your staff interested, you might try it and see if you can get your few nay-sayers on board!

  14. I loved reading this. I taught math only to a group of 2nd graders in the morning and 1st graders in the afternoon. I loved the concept. (I also got the science and social studies in with another teacher helping me out.)

    My question is, How do you do conferences with parents? We would sit together (the two of us) and share what we saw with each kid. It took a lot longer because between us we had 50 kids, but it was a very thorough conference. Sometimes there would be problems in one area and not in another area, so we would all be able to see strengths and weaknesses!
    Second In Line

    1. Great question, Patty!

      When we did our conferences (we only have them in the fall) each "homeroom" teacher did them for their class. We each communicated with each other about things we wanted to discuss about our own subject area if there were concerns. We've had a few individual conferences throughout the year about specific concerns and then whichever teacher needs to see the parents have. There's about 110 kids in 3rd grade, so I'm glad we didn't all have to go to each conference!

  15. Wow! We departmentalize from 3rd grade on up, but in different ways in each grade level. Our students are required to have 150 minutes of ELA, 90 minutes of math, 45 minutes of science, AND 45 minutes of social studies every day! In 3rd grade we only switch for science and social studies. We have our homeroom all day, then switch for 45 minutes. I am teaching 4th grade. We have 3 hours in each block. ELA is taught by 2 teachers. Because the block is longer than the required minutes, all pullouts (dyslexia, content mastery, OT, speech) occur in this block. The other two teachers teach math, science, and social studies. 5th and 6th switch like middle school. The science class incorporates 15 minutes of math a day and Social studies incorporates the writing standards into their class to make up the differences in minute requirements.

  16. How does this work for students who get special ed. services? Are they missing a portion of you class or getting services in class? Since I teach 3-6 I could see the schedule being hard to provide support in but I still think it's a great idea! We currently switch but it's done by ability level so I still teach all subjects I just always get the lowest group, another teacher takes the middle group, and one teacher has the high group! Not the best plan, I've got the majority of behavior problems for math ant ELA because I have all the students who are struggling and all of the students with disabilities. We do Success which I LOVE!

  17. Thank you so much for your post! I know I am a few months late, but I was browsing the web for "departmentalized" blogs because I just found out that I will be moving to third grade reading after teaching self-contained first grade for 4 years. I am so excited! Our school has three third grade teachers. We will teach reading/writing, math, and science/ss. I am anxious to see how it pans out. I am also looking into doing the Daily 5. Any words of advice? Thanks!

  18. Hi, sounds exciting. I am starting a new job teaching 5th grade & we are departmentalizing too, so excited and nervous...first time! Our team is working on figuring out homework, similar to what you've mentioned. Could you share an example?

  19. Its really good to know about that, the procedure and the other facts mentioned here are quite considerable and to the point and it would be a good idea to have these kind of informative points needs to be kept in a view.

    Construction Service Management Software

  20. I just found this, and I love your post. I am departmentalized and absolutely love it. I teach math and science to my homeroom in the morning while my team teacher teaches ELA/social studies to her homeroom in the morning. We switch right before lunch and teach the other's class. It has worked out so well! We actually have 3 teams of 2 teachers plus a reading intervention teacher. The schedule sounds chaotic, but it runs like a well oiled machine and our kids learn a lot and love school. It's neat to watch all 6 classes switch at once! As the science teacher, I love that the kids get science everyday. It's never shoved under the rug or shortened because we have 45 dedicated minutes. Social studies is the same way. I get 90 minutes for math, and my team teach gets 90 for ELA. Life is good. I wouldn't have it any other way.

    For the Love of Fourth Grade

  21. A week and a half before the school year is supposed to start and my principal comes to me to see if I might be interested in doing something similar to this in our school...the problem is we are a very small private school with only one class at each grade level. She is looking to do it with my class (Grade 2) through Grade 4. She wants me to teach ELA to all 3 and divide the other subjects up with the other teachers. Any thoughts on if this will work as easily with different grade levels as it does across one? Seems like a ton of planning to me. I think my kiddos might be too little. But the principal has a teacher she cannot get rid of, but does not feel confident letting them teach their own not know what to do!

    1. I think it can definitely be done, Suzy, but you need buy-in! If you are unsure, it might be best to put some more thought and planning into it before you jump in. It can definitely work... especially if you could ever do cross grade level grouping to get some true differentiation! It would be more planning to do three grades for sure, but I love just teaching one subject!

  22. I really loved reading about your experience with departmentalization in elementary schools. (And the chart was very helpful:-) I'm actually doing my dissertation on the topic, but my focus is more so on departmentalizing math at the elementary levels, although, all of the benefits that you spoke of apply to all subjects. My question is, how is it decided as to who teaches what subject? At your school, did the teachers decide amongst themselves? Was it based on seniority? Was it based on who has more college credits in a particular subject area? What happens if there are two teachers that want to teach the same subject, or no teachers that want to teach a particular subject?

    1. Hi Nicole- it is based on teacher strengths. In my grade, two of us have Master's degrees in reading so we teach ELA. Two are former middle school teachers with backgrounds in math and science, so that is what they teach. It works out well!

  23. I am looking into departmentalized schools myself, but am having a difficult time finding schools in my area that departmentalize. Is there an area/region that seems to departmentalize K-5 more? Is there a search that I could perform to give me a list of local schools?

  24. I'm very curious about your testing scores.
    We departmentalize in our building (3rd-5th). We have one teacher for each subject...Reading, LA, Math, SS, Science. I.m a 3rd grade Science teacher & love being departmentalized. I'm able to focus on one subject, give a great lesson, and make connections with other subjects.
    We've had a few complain (as you stated above) that we are letting kids be kids & they are too young for this. From what I've seen, not only do they do OK, but a lot of students thrive in this learning environment.
    One concern has been is it an effective teaching method for testing. Of course, with 3rd grade being the first testing grade for our kids, it's really hard to gauge if it's beneficial or not because we have nothing to compare it to.
    Just wanting your insight on the testing impact. Thanks in advance! :)
    P.S. LOVE following you! :)

  25. I teach sixth grade, and our school is kind of different in that we don't departmentalize much at all. We all teach math, but at the same time, and ability-group for this subject only. Otherwise, we're in two-teacher partner teams within teams of six teachers. This is the first year my partner and I got smart. I teach all the science, and he teaches all the social studies. We both keep our kids for ELA, however, on the other team, they departmentalize for reading / writing. I feel such a breath of fresh air this year since the content is so deep in SS and science. I don't miss the SS nearly as much as I thought I would. I certainly don't miss the extra prep, and feel like I can finally do science some justice! We're considering further departmentalization in the future.

  26. We are wanting to departmentalize in our school (in the 4th grade). Our principal has asked us to come up with a letter to parents. Did you have something like this to introduce parents to departmentalization? We are all very excited and really want to get the ball rolling for next year!

  27. Please help... My school is considering departmentalizing next year and our principal has asked us to go out and do a little research. Is there anyone who is at a school where they departmentalized in the 2nd grade and would be willing to give me some information? Thank you so so much.
    She asked us to find out about schedules, parent communication, what subjects, how do IRR and ELL fit in the schedule, and general pros and cons that you are experiencing.
    Thank you so much!!!

  28. would you mind sharing a bit more about your FALCON folder? My school happens to have a falcon as our mascot, and we struggle with effective parent communication. I'd love to hear more about how you use the folders, what's in them, etc. to see if it's something we could adapt to our school!

  29. I'm going to be switching from 2nd to 4th next year and it will be my first year in a departmentalized grade. I am really looking forward to it! However, I'm struggling a little about how to fit ALL of the ELA (including writing) into a 100 minute block, knowing that I can't just move things around like you can in a self-contained classroom... Do you have any suggestions or a "formula" that worked for you? Thank you so much!

  30. I'm go glad I found your blog! I just learned today that grades 3-5 will be departmentalized for the 2014-2015 school year. This is all new to me and my school. I teach third grade, and this is my third year as a teacher. I will be teaching math, science, and social studies, while my grade partner will teach, reading, word work, and writing. It kind of works out great because I love teaching those subjects. I'm excited and nervous to begin something new, I hope it turns out well!

  31. How would it work with 5 teachers?

  32. Simple question here....what do you do with the name tags for the different classes?

    1. The kids bring nametags with them for the first few weeks. Once we learn the names, they don't bring them.

  33. How would you work this out if you had five teachers?

  34. How would you make this work for five teachers?


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