Two words that do not immediately fit together in my mind. My immediate connection to the word “platoon” will continue to be the Oliver Stone movie from 1986, starring Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, and Charlie Sheen as Vietnam soldiers on their tour of duty. I don’t know if this film made the act of war more real for an 18-year old adolescent who was just told he had to sign up with Selective Service or if the brutally realistic portrayals left such a strong visual imprint in my mind. Either way, when I saw the word “platooning” as the title of an Education Week report, my interest was peaked.
This special report , published last month, highlighted a small but growing practice in elementary schools. The platooning concept is where elementary teachers move away from the traditional role of “generalist” to content area expert. As an example, the report described a school in Walla Walla, Washington, where the 2nd grade students spend the morning with one teacher who is an expert in reading and writing, followed by a mid-day break for a “special”, and then off to another teacher for math and science.
Mixed reaction? Me too. On one hand, it makes a lot of sense. Teachers who can gain expertise in the content at a much deeper level are typically more excite to teach the subjects they really love, and become specialists at identifying the problem spots that students encounter in that specific content. It would also mean fewer preps for our elementary teachers which might lead to more creativity in lesson delivery simply because they have more time to prepare fewer lessons. I doubt if there would be too many complaints if we asked a 3rd grade teacher, “Would you be OK with two preps next year?” One school even added the practice of looping to this model so these platooning teachers were able to spend two years with students in a specific content area.
On the other hand, when is such a model age-appropriate? It might appear to be another example of pushing down (e.g. what we used to teach in 1st grade we now teach in Kindergarten). What about the teacher-student bonds that are created in the lower elementary classrooms? Will their ability to teach the whole child suffer?
While I am not sure on which side of this concept I lean, I am most appreciative of the spirit of innovation and change, the way these schools are experimenting with different methods to meet the needs of their students and leverage the professional capital within their building. These attempts represent a culture where change seems to be expected and there is a freedom to try, knowing that some attempts will fail.
Consider these self-reflection questions (maybe some to ask during your next faculty meeting?): How does my school fostering this spirit of innovation? Do we ask “What if…” questions? What if we changed our grading system to standards based or tried competency-based education? What if we attempt to assess the spiritual development of students? What if we increased class size and put two teachers in a larger classroom? What if we integrated a service learning program that was integral to our social studies curriculum? What if…
Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.