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February 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 5

The Bear Den: An Elementary Teaching Team

Educators often find it hard to maintain a strong community and a coherent curriculum in large school settings. A vertical teaching team can create a school-within-a-school, providing benefits for students, teachers, and parents.

Outside the window of my elementary school classroom, construction crews frantically work to complete two new wings on the school before a new crop of students overflows the present facility. This scenario is being played out all over Osceola County, the fastest-growing school district in Florida.
Many educators remember with fondness the small, supportive communities of our own school wyears. Some of my own most vivid memories are from Melrose Park Public School. I knew that next year I would be in Miss Burstadt's class, and my friend Ida would be in the same class, as she had been for years. Miss Burstadt knew me and my family long before I entered her class, a familiarity that gave me a sense of belonging and confidence. What a wonderful way to spend my early years!
Although we may long to duplicate this scenario for today's students, often we cannot. Osceola County's rapid enrollment growth, combined with limited land and funds, means that we'll have to accept bigger schools as a fact of life for some time to come. We can find solutions, however, that recreate the benefits of “the good old days” within our current realities. Just ask all of us involved in the vertical teaching team known as “the Bear Den” at Narcoossee Community School in St. Cloud, Florida.

Planning to Create a Small School Setting

A friend planted the seed for our solution as she and I discussed how students suffer when they experience inconsistencies in instructional materials, skills, and expectations from grade level to grade level. We agreed that large school environments often made it hard to avoid such inconsistencies, whereas smaller school settings fostered greater curriculum coherence as well as the ability to meet individual students' needs.
Planning for a solution began when three other teachers and I were temporarily housed in portable classrooms on a school playground as we waited for our new facility to be completed. The rest of the staff was housed on a campus across the county.
Our small group had worked together at our previous assignments, and we knew that we worked well together. From this beginning, we developed our idea for a school-within-a-school, a vertical teaching team serving about 120 students in grades 1–4. Because Narcoossee comes from the Native American word meaning “black bear,” we called our team the Bear Den.
  • Create an atmosphere where students experience a sense of belonging and confidence.
  • Adhere to continuity of texts and skills across grade levels.
  • Use texts by the same publisher that support the state content standards at all grade levels.
  • Cooperate in planning content progression and extracurricular activities.
  • Conduct team evaluations of student capabilities and needs from year to year.
  • Individualize student programs to meet each student's needs.
  • Cooperate in the use of neighborhood time and space.
With our vertical team goals in place and a clear picture of where we were headed, selling the idea to our administrators was easy. We approached them with a proposal to form a vertical teaching team, in which students would remain intact as a group from 1st through 4th grades. We proposed to create a continuum of skills and texts for these students, the kind often experienced in a small school setting, and combine it with best teaching practices. Our administrators readily approved, and we were on our way.

Setting Up the Space

Our first challenge was to find space where we could be close to one another. We requested four separate rooms connected by a common planning area. Instead, we were offered a much different setup: an “open neighborhood” configuration, in which separate teaching areas for each grade level are connected to a large central room. After much discussion, we agreed, but stipulated that only grades 2, 3, and 4 be placed in the open area, with 1st grade in a self-contained classroom. Fifth grade has since been added to the neighborhood in an adjoining room with a connecting door.
In our large central room, called “The Gathering,” a variety of activities take place. You might see students from all grade levels singing and dancing, small groups working on projects, or individuals in beanbag chairs enjoying silent reading time or working at a computer. Our space includes a common science/art area and a classroom library used for tutoring. In other words, we have space conducive to almost any student configuration or activity.
A recent interdisciplinary technology project, “As the Earth Turns,” shows how we use our neighborhood space for special activities. In this project, students learned about time zones, the earth's rotation and revolution, language arts, and environmental studies. After six months of preparation, as a culminating activity, we held a 24-hour, full-day program in which our students videoconferenced with and e-mailed other students in 21 time zones around the world, asking them, “What are your environmental concerns?” and “What are you doing to address them?” Sixty-one students, 36 parents, and 3 teachers participated in the overnight program, which included an international dinner and activities centered around science and multi-cultural experiences.
“The Gathering” became our technology center for this unit, with computers manned by parents and students. The science/art center became an international restaurant serving dinner and breakfast. The library, entryways, and balcony bustled with activities related to science or multicultural activities. Classrooms became dormitories where students, parents, and teachers bedded down for a few hours in between talking to students around the world.

Deciding What to Teach

Our next challenge was content. Fortunately, Florida's Sunshine State Standards and Benchmarks make it unnecessary to reinvent the wheel. These guidelines simplify coordination of skills and content, leaving us free to accomplish our goals as creatively as possible.
  • Understands the interaction and organization of the Solar System and the Universe and how this affects life on Earth.
  • Understands the competitive, interdependent, cyclic nature of living things in the environment.
  • Uses the scientific processes and habits of mind to solve problems.
  • Understands that science, technology, and society are interwoven and interdependent.
Standards in mathematics, language arts, and social studies were also addressed at levels appropriate for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades.
To ensure that all standards are covered, we use one publisher's textbooks across all disciplines. This publisher has coordinated science units, language arts themes, and the state social studies continuum with state content standards in each of the disciplines.

Coordinating Instruction Across Grade Levels

The “As the Earth Turns” unit also illustrates how our team coordinates instruction across grade levels. Each grade level's study of time zones, the Earth's rotation and revolution, language arts skills, and environmental issues was coordinated within the grade-level standards. As the project progressed, students in the various levels shared with one another what they had learned. For the culminating 24-hour videoconferencing program, 1st grade students participated during the regular school day, and the other grade levels participated in the overnight program.
We don't consider our configuration multi-age, because each grade level retains a great deal of autonomy. We do move exceptional students who require special attention at both ends of the spectrum from grade level to grade level, however. For instance, two low 4th grade readers tutored two high 2nd grade readers. Guess who did the learning without losing dignity or confidence? These students kept their affiliation with children their own ages while getting special attention in specific areas.

Benefits to Teachers

While our vertical teaching team benefits students both academically and socially, it also offers advantages for teachers. One of the greatest of these is the ease of transition from one year to the next. Like Miss Burstadt back at Melrose Park Public School, we already know and love our students. We are a family. And what information we don't know can be readily obtained from the students' previous year's teacher.
For example, take something as simple as student placement within seating groups. This year, I put name tags on my students' desks and asked their last year's teacher to check them. I made good placement choices in all but two instances. These were corrected, and a difficult learning period was eliminated.
Transitions are also eased by the fact that students who have been part of the continuum know our procedures and are ready to work from day one. A new teacher to our team said, “I thought I would have a week to get these kids ready to work. They came in ready.”
Having a team that works well together and supports each other is another great teacher benefit of this program. Teacher cooperation, as we coordinate student academic progress, helps us stay focused on individual students who may need remediation or advancement. Over the long haul, this helps us prevent any student from “falling through the cracks.” Along with administrators who cooperate and encourage in any way they can, we are fortunate to be a team of helpmates and friends.

Benefits to Students

  • Do students opt to remain in the Bear Den?
  • Are they and their parents satisfied with their accomplishments and attitudes?
  • How do the vertical team students compare with other students on state testing?
To date, no student has requested to be removed from the neighborhood. Instead there is a waiting list for entry. Informally, when we ask students what they like or don't like about staying in the Bear Den, the predominant response is, “I like being with the other kids.” The interaction among the various ages yields wonderful results.
While we have fun, do we produce? On the state-mandated SAT, Osceola Writes, and Florida Comprehensive Achievement Tests (FCAT), students in the Bear Den have done as well as or better than their peers. For instance, for the FCAT writing portion, the state, county, and school 4th grade averages in narrative and expository writing were 3.2 (on a scale from 0–6). The Bear Den averaged 3.8. Student reading averages ranged from high average to high. Recent SAT results show rising 2nd graders slightly above grade level and 3rd graders a full grade level higher. Fourth grade Bear Den students scored on average at the 5.8 grade level on SAT Reading and the 6.95 grade level on SAT Math. As our 1st and 2nd graders progress through the continuum, we expect even greater advances.

Parent Reactions

As long as students are happy, parents are happy. We include our parents in as many activities as we can. The Bear Den is always open for parent observation, but most parents come to help. When we studied earth science, one parent with two students in the Bear Den brought his rock collection and did an in-school field trip. Others have done everything from selling frozen popsicle treats to helping organize our videoconferencing program.

Smaller Is Better

As time passes, we find that students who are part of a small learning community achieve as well as or better than their counterparts. We also find that the heart of the program is found just there—in the heart. As students return from summer break, their display of affection and anticipation shows us that smaller isbetter—that they develop those kinds of relationships that were once exhibited in the “good old days”—and that we can combine modern technology, up-to-date teaching practices, and old-fashioned camaraderie and love of learning. The result is a wonderful blend of the best of both worlds.

Gail McGoogan has been a contributor in Educational Leadership.

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