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Engaging small classes in high school science: What to do when you only have a few students

engaging small classes

Have you found yourself this school year with a section or two of small class sizes on your roster? Are you worried about engaging small classes of students when you only have a handful in front of you?

When I was teaching at a large public school, I couldn’t IMAGINE what it would be like to have small classes – let alone less than 15 students in a class. But when we moved for my husband’s job, I found myself teaching in a small private school with several classes that had only 10-12 students in them. Twice I even had class periods with only 6 students in them.

In some ways, I found engaging small classes like these two harder than managing large classes like I had done in the past. But with time I got better at maintaining my energy level despite the fewer students and keeping my students engaged. So today I want to share with you my four best tips for engaging small classes like these!

Tip #1 for engaging small classes: Lighten up.

engaging small classes

I say this with all of the love and camaraderie in the world but seriously – lighten up.

I’ve never been known to be “chill” in any sense of the word. I run at a higher frequency and intensity than the average person. After years of teaching classes with too many students in them, I was conditioned to run a TIGHT ship in order to keep my classes running. This is NOT how I needed to be in my classes of 6 – or even 10.

I had the freedom to lighten up and be more casual with them. This was because I could spend WAY less energy managing and we saved WAY more time in transitions (due to the fewer amount of bodies transitioning) and thus I had the ability to chill a little bit. Even if you are more high-strung than I am, I urge you to consider taking a few deep breaths and letting the reins go a little bit in your smaller classes.

Doing this will allow you to engage those small classes much better because it will create an atmosphere that fosters relationship-building and question-asking. This is a HUGE perk of having tiny classes – you have an increased capacity to care for students on an individual level. Take advantage of that!

Tip #2 for engaging small classes: Encourage whole class discussion from day 1.

engaging small classes

When engaging small classes, I also want to encourage you to incorporate whole class discussions from day 1. You don’t have to worry as much with small classes about students getting “off task” because again, you will naturally find you have way more time to get through things when you have fewer students to get through them with.

Discussion is the easiest free engagement tool ever. Use your small class size to let students ask anything and everything. This will engage them in your content to know that you’ve created a culture where they can comfortably ask questions and seek answers. I have more tips on engaging students with discussions that you can check out here.

FYI, if you get TOO good at this then you may find your smaller classes get more off-task than your larger classes! That’s okay!! Just be sure to rein it in when you need to rein it in. Just know that I’ve officially warned you that this is a potential side effect of engaging in discussions too well.

Tip #3 for engaging small classes: Motivate them with unique rewards.

engaging small classes

Oftentimes we can’t utilize fun rewards just because we don’t have the resources, money, time, or energy to give them to every student in our classes. When teaching small classes, you can often incorporate more fun rewards simply because you are offering them to fewer people!

I loved engaging my small classes this way. When I taught AP biology I had them first period, and we had a strict “no food or drink in lab” policy as a department. But because I had only six AP students, one of the rewards I would offer was coffee and breakfast Fridays. We often spent a good chunk of our Friday class period going over an FRQ (FRQ Fridays if you like alliteration like I do) and this was a great time for them to be able to safely eat (and clean up after themselves). I could offer this comfortably because there were so few of them.

Another time when I had a small section of biology at the end of the day, I motivated them by telling them we could do dissections at the end of each semester if we had no missing work. This would be an impossible standard for a larger class but a smaller class can totally do this! I also couldn’t afford to buy fetal pigs for a class of 30, but I could swallow the cost of 2 for a class of six! Consider how you could utilize unique rewards to motivate and engage your tiny classes!

Tip #4 for engaging small classes: Bring in “special guests” for labs.

engaging small classes

Last but not least, I can’t give you advice for engaging small classes without giving you any advice for labs. Labs are hard to implement with large classes but can honestly be even harder with small because sometimes you physically don’t have enough bodies to collect the data you need to collect! What should you do?

I loved to bring in “special guests”. By special guests I mean, random students I could corral into my class period. My actual students LOVED THIS and it made labs extra special and engaging.

Wondering where on earth I found extra students? Here are a few of my go-to places:

  • Check the halls. Look for wanderers. If they are trying to stall going back to their class then the least they can do is help you with yours.
  • Check the bathrooms. Find a group of girls showing each other SnapChat stories on contraband phones? Instead of sending them to the office bring them into your room to serve as warm bodies for 10 minutes while you collect data.
  • Does your school have ISS? If so talk in advance with the ISS supervisor and see if every once in a while you can borrow a few when you have lab days. This was my favorite source of warm bodies and “special guests”.
  • Does your school have a TA program? If so, make sure every teacher has a master list of who has teachers’ aides and when. Then you can rally a few on your random lab days to help you out! This was something a lot of us did at my tiny school.

Worst case scenario, do the lab with them (you can serve as an extra subject) and make sure to have a THOROUGH discussion each time when you do your error analysis on the importance of a large sample size. Also if you have other sections of the class, combine data from multiple class periods!

I hope these 4 tips assist you in engaging small classes that you have this school year! Have any others you would add? Shoot me a DM on Instagram and tell me! I love hearing from you!

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