April Moments

Maybe, just maybe, telling the story is just as important as the story itself

Thrown for a loop: Why my son’s experience with a looping classroom was awesome

Soon after my son Elliot started fourth grade, we met his teacher, who I will call Mr. K for this post, at a parent meeting. Mr. K admitted he could talk to 10-year-olds all day long, but speaking to parents made him very nervous. I liked him right away because he told an inspiring story about one of his childhood teachers. He explained how he wanted to help his students set and achieve goals – you know, be long-term thinkers. Also, he did not assign homework, so obviously, he was my favorite teacher ever. Just to recap – storyteller, check; big picture thinker, check; and homework hater, check. Everything is awesome. Fourth grade is going to be great.

Then, he informed us parents that, because our children were assigned to him as a teacher, they were automatically part of a looping classroom. Say what? Don’t worry, he had some PowerPoint slides to explain.

To put it very simply, looping means a group of students has the same teacher for two school years in a row. In our case, Elliot would have Mr. K for fourth and fifth grade. Parents can opt out at the end of fourth grade, but that would be silly. Why go to a teacher who assigns homework when you have one who doesn’t? I’m kidding.

On the last day of fifth grade (also the last day of elementary school!), Elliot stands with his sister outside their school. I was particularly sad because our time with Mr. K was over.

On the last day of fifth grade (also the last day of elementary school!), Elliot stands with his sister outside their school. I was particularly sad because our time with Mr. K was over.

To be fair, there are pros and cons to a looping classroom. As a parent, I found it to be all positive. Mr. K truly became like an extension of our family. He sent me emails or Remind app texts if something was going on with Elliot that needed our attention. He came to one of Elliot’s Boy Scouts events on a Saturday. Now I’m sure Mr. K would’ve cared about Elliot just as much if he had been only his fourth-grade teacher. Mr. K is a wonderful teacher whether he has a looping classroom or not. But when Elliot started fifth grade at his school, which I am calling North for this piece, it was such a breeze. I mean, I didn’t have to worry at all. About anything. Because – Mr. K. Elliot was in good hands. I loved that about the looping classroom concept – we already knew the teacher, and he knew us.

Honestly, I couldn’t think of a single con when it came to looping, so I had to ask the expert. I interviewed Mr. K by email and got all kinds of good information. I started to write this post by working in Mr. K’s comments here and there. But as I reread his answers, I decided to just publish Mr. K’s words. As you’ll see, he’s a great writer and thinker, too. (For the record, Mr. K used the serial comma in his answers, but I deleted it. It’s my blog, and I am a loyal AP Style follower. Sorry, Mr. K!)

Whether or not you’ve heard of looping, I hope you will learn something new. It was such a wonderful adventure. I hope more parents and students get to experience this educational gift.

How did you hear about the looping classroom? And what prompted you to want to implement it?

I had never heard of looping before coming to North. When I became a long-term substitute at North, I was placed in a fourth-grade classroom. At that time, the teacher was in the second year of her student loop, having had her class as third-graders the previous year. I came to her classroom as a second teacher due to an overflow of fourth-graders at North. I was amazed at how well she knew her students and how close-knit they were, even as new fourth-graders were placed in the classroom.

When I was hired on full time as a fourth-grade teacher the following year, I continued to watch some of my colleagues loop, normally between third and fourth grade. This was my first full-time position, having subbed for several years, and I wasn’t ready to be adventurous enough to try looping. I stayed in fourth grade for three years before I realized that it was time for a change – I’m not one to fall into habit comfortably – and knew that looping could provide that change for me. Another fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. P, previously looped and was ready to begin the system again. We started by focusing on a third- to fourth-grade loop but quickly realized that we would be more interested in a fourth- to fifth-grade loop due to student personalities and maturity that happens during those grade levels.

Were your school colleagues supportive? Did you have to gain buy-in from administrators, and were there challenges in doing so?

The administration was extremely supportive of looping. They had seen the benefits of looping in the past and were always proponents of thinking outside the box. There were a few colleagues who also supported looping because they had previously tried it, or they were currently implementing it.

What benefits did you experience as a teacher? And how did the looping classroom help your students?

One of the greatest benefits I have seen as a teacher is the relationships that I am able to foster with the students in my classroom. I spend a lot of time getting to know my students and try to find ways to be present in their lives outside of school at sporting events or other hobbies and interests they may have. By spending two years with them, this bond only grows stronger.

When they come back for the second year, you already know what they have been taught. It also helps because it makes you a more reflective teacher. When they aren’t understanding something that should be a review of the previous year’s content, then you have no one to blame but yourself and you have to figure out why that knowledge didn’t stick. Though I’ve only gone through one looping cycle, it has helped me to plan better, especially for next year. When you do something new for the first time, you do a lot of experimenting, and not everything works out well. These past two years, there was definitely a lot of experimenting. Now, having gone through this process, I feel more prepared to go through it again because I have a better grasp of the content for each grade level and how to connect them.

Another benefit is that you get to know the families on a deeper level. When entering a looping classroom, it’s not just the teacher who is making a commitment. The students in that classroom and their families are also making a commitment. Two years together definitely builds a deeper trust between teachers, students and their families.

For my students, it’s amazing to see the growth that they are able to make in two years. I think that the transition into fifth grade was easier for them as well because they already knew me. Having the same teacher means you have the same expectations, and there’s none of that awkward “getting to know you” time at the beginning of the year. The classroom becomes a small family over the course of two years.

Is there a certain age or grade level that benefits most from looping? Why does it work well for fourth and fifth?

I don’t personally think that there is a specific grade level band that would benefit most from looping because I don’t think the benefits of looping are necessarily age related. Mrs. P and I decided on fourth to fifth grade simply because we liked that age range. In third, fourth and fifth grades, many concepts and skills overlap, and there is a continuation of the previous year. That does make it somewhat easier to create learning experiences in those grade levels, and it doesn’t feel like such a stretch between them.

Are there any cons for students?

They tend to argue like brothers and sisters during the second year as they become more comfortable with one another. I don’t know that I necessarily see this as a con because sometimes those arguments lead to great teachable moments. They also aren’t exposed to as many different teaching styles or teachers, but they have ample opportunities for that during the duration of their school career. One con for students and teachers, especially with the fourth- to fifth-grade loop, is the end of the year. There were a lot of tears the last day of school, but I think that just means you’ve done something right.

What are the teacher’s challenges with a looping classroom? Is it logistically difficult to switch curricula, materials, supplies, etc.?

I was worried in the beginning about teaching fifth grade. I had been in fourth grade for a few years and did my student teaching in fourth grade as well, so I was definitely comfortable there. When I moved to fifth grade, I quickly realized how I was just building on things I had taught in fourth grade. Many of the standards were similar, with the main difference just being a deeper understanding.

The materials really weren’t that big of an issue either because I don’t necessarily use a lot of textbooks to teach the curriculum. I was able to take things that worked well during fourth grade and modify them for fifth, or come up with something completely new to better meet the needs of my students. At the beginning of each year, whether it be a traditional classroom or a looping classroom, there’s a bit of prep work that goes in, and even when I stayed in fourth grade, there were always things that I would change from the previous year. I don’t feel like having a new grade level added to that prep work.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I think the biggest thing for me with looping is that it gives me a chance to do something different. I’m not the type of person who likes to habitually do something, and I definitely don’t want to be one of those teachers who just pulls the same lessons from the filing cabinet each year. Looping forces me to think differently about how I teach things and gives me an opportunity to really hook students. Someone recently said that as elementary teachers, one of our biggest responsibilities is to show our students that learning and school can be fun. Looping with my students gives me the time to do just that.

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