Looping (education): the practice of moving groups of children up from one grade to the next with the same teacher.
It is the first day of school. Annabelle comes into my room, chooses her seat, knows my expectations, knows me. She is comfortable—no first-day stress locking down her brain. I know Annabelle: her strengths, her struggles, her tendencies. She is on the path to be a seasoned independent learner. We greet and have a quick conversation. The learning process begins immediately. How is this possible?
Foothills Community School, where I teach science, is a STEM middle school (Grades 6–8) and Annabelle is an eighth-grade student. I’ve also had Annabelle in my class as a sixth grader and as a seventh grader. Foothills loops with our students (well, sort of loops).
The classic looping model would have Annabelle in my sixth-grade class. The next year, my students and I would move to seventh, the seventh-grade group would move to eighth, and the eighth-grade teacher would welcome our new sixth graders. This is where the “sort of” looping comes in—we are not the classic model, but a variation that fits who we are.
I work with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders every year. I may have sixth and seventh at the same time, or seventh and eighth in the same classroom—or even all three grades at once. All four of my science blocks are multi-aged in some form. The students are grouped according to data they bring with them from previous schools or the data we collect while they are with us. Also, every student is in a family (homeroom), which is randomly grouped, and they are in the same family for all three years. So as a sixth grader, Annabelle had seventh and eighth graders as mentors, guides, and helpers—helping her stressed brain to not freeze up. And Annabelle moved to seventh and eighth grade being a mentor, guide, and helper. It had been modeled for her and she knew the expectations.
But wait, you have to learn all three grade curriculums in the same year and teach them? Before I address that critical thought that just popped into your head, let us talk about the joy the process of looping brings me. Students are not test scores or data points; they are unique human beings. And in the looping process, we get the privilege to have more time to observe each human being’s personal growth and contribute to that growth. Every student brings a different life experience to class and, therefore, how he or she is motivated will be different.
Throughout this three-year looping process, we have more time to find the key to help that child unlock his or her potential. We, as teachers, deal with plenty of frustrations working with students who we just are unable to reach. However, when you are able to find the uniqueness in that child and find that key to his or her intrinsic motivation—what a joy, when that student begins to chase his or her own learning.
Now back to “wait, you have to learn all three grade curriculums?” Yes, I do. Paradoxically, it is also easier. It makes me a better teacher, and it makes my students better students, more critical learners, and better able to transfer what they have learned.
Science, like all disciplines, is in strands and those strands spiral up through the grades. Sixth- through eighth-grade science are connected to each other and to elementary science and to high school science. I am able to show my sixth graders how to make those connections back to elementary and forward to middle school and high school. So their science knowledge is deeper and their ability to connect what they know to a different circumstance is strengthened. Since we are an interdisciplinary, project-based school, they then use that skill to connect science to language arts, social studies to math, to dance, to art, to baseball, to relationships.
I am more able to point out the connections because if I am teaching it I am immersed in it and able to see the connectivity better. By the time that eighth grader has had ecosystems with me three times, I have touched on all the curriculum. This connectivity makes it easier for me.
Yes, this connectivity could all be done in a single-year class, but looping makes it much more convenient and obvious with more opportunities to connect. And, I get to see my “family” grow in the classroom, year after year.
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