A team approach to teaching
Both entering their 21st years of teaching last fall, Cara Slattery and Aran Hartl were ready to try something new and innovative with their fifth-graders at Rahn Elementary.
Their first step was to slide back the partition between their classrooms. That simple act has allowed Slattery and Hartl to create and share a space well-suited for project-based learning and collaboration. The pair has served as co-teachers in the double classroom since the start of the school year, maintaining an energetic learning environment that keeps all 41 of their students engaged.
“Cara and I work really well together and play off each other all day long,” Hartl said. “The way the room is set up, it feels like a classroom where the kids are getting ready for middle school. The kids feel like they have a little more independence. They’re sitting at tables. We’ve got two smart boards. It’s a nice, open space.”
Another benefit to co-teaching is that while one teacher provides instruction to the class, the other can move throughout the room and answer questions or give individual support to students. The pair also tag-teams to provide differentiated instruction that meets the needs and strengths of each student. A special education teacher and an educational assistant join the class to provide additional support throughout the day.
“While (Aran) is teaching I can provide direct instruction without skipping a beat. Learning is collaborative, so we work in different pairs and groupings in everything we do. It creates a positive, engaging culture that is off the charts in here,” said Slattery, who herself was co-taught in fifth and sixth grade and taught in a multi-age classroom in Mendota Heights before coming to Rahn Elementary. “Working together is energizing for both of us and for the kids. We can seamlessly transition from one thing to another all day long and it’s effortless.”
The additional space provided by the double classroom setup is also advantageous for larger projects like the Living Museum fifth-graders hosted earlier this year. Students researched historical figures and presented using slide shows and poster boards. They had plenty of room to work on their projects and, once completed, welcome parents and other students to tour the classroom gallery.
“With these projects, we’re finding what kids are interested in and going with that. We’re appealing to what they’re interested in as far as materials, allowing them to collaborate and perform, and we’re able to invite families in. All those different things have been so great,” Slattery said. “When you have this kind of set up, you’re inspired to do things a little differently.”
To make sure co-teaching is working for their students, Slattery and Hartl have conducted surveys and have regular conversations during the school day. They said the feedback they’ve gotten from parents and students has been very positive.
“We are student-focused. We want to make sure no one gets lost in the large group and everyone has a voice and a say. Everyone has a chance to say what they like or don’t like. We’re always up for something new to make sure the kids are engaged and having fun,” Hartl said. “It’s amazing, I feel like I get to know the kids better (co-teaching) than I do when it’s just me.”
Saynab Ibrahim and other fifth-graders enjoy the fact that having two classes together allows them to be with more of their friends. Ibrahim also appreciates the family atmosphere present within the group.
“Keeping everyone together makes it like a big family and having two teachers is like having two extra parents to take care of us,” she said.
Hartl and Slattery are both interested in working as co-teachers again next year.
“Fourth-graders walk by and look into our classroom and they’re interested in what’s going on. It’s something they’re looking forward to,” Hartl said.