Tuesday, July 16, 2013

REWIND!- Departmentalizing in Elementary School

Before I hit the rewind button, this is a little reminder that this Thursday is our next Michigan Blogger (or blog fan!) meet up.  Please click the pic below to go to the blog post to find out more and sign up!

And now...

*****Originally posted on April 14, 2013*****

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. I teach first grade and will be departmentalizing with my neighbor this year. I will be teaching math/Science/Social Studies and she will teach writing/ELA. While we are both very excited about the change, coming up with a schedule has been tough! We're still unsure exactly how we are going to set it up. Reading your post was VERY helpful! Thanks so much for writing it. Do you know anyone who has done this in first grade or with just two teachers?


  2. I will be moving down to 2nd grade from 4th this coming year and I will be departmentalizing with my partner this year. I am a little nervous because I began last year departmentalized but the classes were so different (one was an advanced/gifted class and the other was just a step above the ESE group) administration decided to turn us each into self-contained rooms. This post on the positives was helpful and encouraging. Thank you!

  3. This sounds great! Teachers can teach what they are passionate about. In our school board, each homeroom teacher is required to teach math and ELA to their own class. My school is lucky enough to have a music specialist teacher but only 40 minutes each week.
    Grade 4 Buzz

  4. Thank you SO MUCH for this post. I am preparing for my FIRST year as a teacher. I will be in a small town in 6th grade (elementary setting) There is one other 6th grade teacher, and she asked me if I would be interested in departmentalizing. The thought of it really scared me! I wasn't sure how it would all work and how it would change the dynamics/ classroom management. Your post (along with some other great finds.... thanks google) helped me realize that it is worth a shot.

  5. We are departmentalizing this year. We will have one math teacher and there are 3 of us. We don't have word on how everything will be split up but I know I will be teaching all reading to three rooms. Writing might be taught by the other teacher or I might have writing for my homeroom. It has yet to be decided but I am wondering how you manage the D5 book boxes. Do kids bring them from their homerooms. I simply do not have room for 60 book boxes!!!

    I LOVE you stick clip chart modification. I used the clip chart for the first time last year. I am trying to talk my team into going in that direction. I would even make the sticks for all of us myself. I loved it that much!

    1. My class has book boxes. The other class just brings two books with them each day. I barely have room for book boxes for my class! :)

    2. I just found out that I'm moving from a self contained class (that I prepared for) toa departmentalized one. I had planned on them having canvas bags for book boxes, with command hooks on their side of the desks. Do you think it would practical for, as the classes switch, to each have their own bag? and does your homeroom take their books with them to read for extra reading time or do you make them keep them in your reading only for D5? Last one, do you still do CAFE?

      You have been so helpful. I've shared your site with all on my hall!

  6. I'll be teaching 5th grade next year in a small school and will switch with 4th grade (I'll teach ELA/SS and she'll teach Math/Sci). I'm excited to read how well this works for your team! I've only taught self-contained before and had some apprehension about how this would work, but I'm always willing to try something new. I feel reassured that this can work, and work well. Thanks!


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