Looping in Education – Time to Make It a Fundamental Practice?
I read with great interest the story of retiring teacher Mary Barrera-Gomez. Currently a fifth-grade teacher at Forbes Elementary School in San Antonio she will be retiring after 29 years in education.
What makes her story truly unusual is twofold. First there is the fact she left the administrative ranks six years ago for one last return to the classroom. However, the most unusual aspect is the district’s one time instructional leader returned to a kindergarten classroom where she began a six year journey with a single group of students.
As she is set to retire, she will be turning over her students, her kids, to middle school having taught every subject at every grade level from kindergarten through grade five. The journey has been a long and sweet one for Barrera-Gomez. But it is the journey the students have been on that makes the story so powerful.
The practice of placing the same group of students with one teacher for more than one year is referred to in education as looping. Still considered extremely innovative and used infrequently, looping often occurs for two years and occasionally for three. The situation involving Barrera-Gomez represented my first exposure to someone taking the looping concept through a student’s entire elementary years in America.
The idea of a teacher moving with his or her students to the next grade level rather than sending them on to another teacher is backed by substantially favorable research. According to a multitude of literature, the practice ensures that students move from one grade to the next with a minimum of anxiety and eliminates the transitional period that a new school year often requires thereby providing more time for new learning. The practice also fosters greater relationship building, for students and for parents.
The looping concept is embedded in Italian preschools, considered by experts to be among the best in the world, where it is common to use a three year loop. In Germany one will find that the practice is in great supply with six year loops actually being somewhat common. And the practice is critical to the Waldorf concept where one teacher and the same group of students remain together from grade one through grade eight.
The concept is also being employed with great success at the Met School in Providence, R.I., where one teacher/advisor is assigned 15 students in grade nine and then takes those students through their entire high school program, all four years and in all subject matter.
The practice of looping eliminates a good part of the blame game that happens in the school setting. All too often the pecking order begins when the high school blames the middle school for not preparing the students, the middle school blames the elementary school, and the elementary teacher blames the prior teacher, ad nauseum. Looping puts one teacher in charge of a group with complete responsibility for progress.
The listed advantages are lengthy while the only cited disadvantage of looping is an inappropriate match, or personality conflict, between teacher and student. Of course such an issue can take place in non-looped classrooms as well.
Back to Mary Barrera-Gomez
Given her knowledge of the curriculum, Barrera-Gomez felt confident she could undertake the challenges of a six year loop, a practice that meant she was teaching six different grade levels over a six year span. It is a frightful thought to most teachers today who have been trained and then worked with the factory model of focusing on curriculum at one specific grade level.
However, the stories emanating from Barrera-Gomez’ classroom give rise to the notion that more schools must consider the practice. There is the simple story of Manuel Guerrero, barely 10, who responds to the question as to what he wants to be when he grows up with the statement that he hopes to be a surgeon.
Barrera-Gomez cites six plus years of can-do messages as being critical to helping little Manuel’s future aspirations. It is the type of reiteration that is not likely to occur with but one year with a teacher. According to newspaper accounts, Barrera-Gomez states, “That last piece of my plan is to plant that seed in them to pursue higher education.” To which 10-year-old Manuel adds, “She always told us, ‘Do your best and you can make it to college and have a good degree,’”
In addition to the enhanced personal connections and the creation of aspirations, Barrera-Gomez’s students did better academically than other district fourth-graders in reading and math. While 79 percent of students passed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) in both math and reading, the retiring teacher had a 90 percent pass rate in reading and an 86 percent passing rate in math. In one area her students lagged, only 84 percent of her students passed writing as compared to 91 percent district wide.
Barrera-Gomez insisted her focus was on well-rounded students who were critical thinkers that understood that hard work would be the catalyst to get them into college. Though she sought the positive test results she began to treat the test scores as secondary to her focus on the whole child.
Looping – Time to Make It the Common Practice
With all the data collected, the concept of looping is a proven practice leading to improved classroom social aspects and increased learning. It is extremely disappointing to realize that the practice is still considered radical in most areas of the country. If looping is good for kids then the adults must be the professionals they are hired to be and garner the skills necessary to employ this practice.
Kudos to Barrera-Gomez for being such a professional.