George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teachers -- and Students -- Love to Loop

The idea of looping classrooms is on the rise. Here's why.
By Cynthia Roberts
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Principal Janet Link and teachers Rachael Tubiello and Linda McBride are strong advocates of looping.

Credit: Jeff Cary

On the first day of school in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Rachael Tubiello looked out into the eager faces of her tiny second graders and this is what she saw: old friends.

Tubiello's students this year are the same children she guided through the highs and lows of first grade. Together, students and teacher have advanced to the second grade through an innovative approach to learning known as looping.

Also called continuous learning, multiyear placement, or family-style learning, looping -- in which the same teacher remains with a group of students for two or more years -- is a concept as old as the one-room schoolhouse. And yet, its proponents say the practice has a solid place in the 21st-century classroom because looping has been known to strengthen student-teacher bonds, improve test scores, expand time for instruction, increase parent participation, and reduce behavioral problems and placements in special education programs.

When Principal Janet Link approached Tubiello fours years ago and asked whether she'd consider looping with her first graders, "I jumped on it, because I loved my class that year," Tubiello recalls. "The end of first grade is such an amazing time. You want to keep going, because it's just beginning to click." When a teacher has an opportunity to work with the same children for another year, she adds, "you can take them to the next level of anything."

Looping at Durham Nockamixon Elementary School, in Kintnersville, began -- as it does at many schools -- when one teacher learned about the practice and found another willing to work as a team. (As one teacher moves up a grade, another must drop down to take the next group of children.)

The Palisades School District, of which Durham Nockamixon is a part, sent a small group of interested teachers to a national conference on looping and multiage classrooms where, Tubiello says, they were inspired by the writings of educator Jim Grant, a passionate advocate of continuous learning and author of several books about looping.

One-Room Schoolhouse

Parents and teachers are tired of America's "time-bound, lockstep school systems," Grant says in an interview from his offices at Staff Development for Educators, a provider of professional-development training and resources in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

"We have literally tried everything" to improve educational standards, he says. "One of the last things we've got left to try is an element of the one-room schoolhouse."

"We don't change dentists every 36 weeks, or pediatricians, or auto mechanics," Grant adds. "It makes no sense to change teachers."

Although staff must prepare to teach at least two grade levels, looping costs a district virtually nothing. Since it requires extra classroom preparation, it usually attracts a school's most energetic teachers and gives them an opportunity to push the limits of their professional development, Grant says.

"The very best staff development experience a teacher can have is to change grade levels" and experience the class at a new developmental stage because, he adds, "a seven-year-old isn't a large version of a six-year-old."

The eighth annual Conference on Looping, Multiage, and Best Teaching Practices, held last summer in Indianapolis, drew more than 2,000 participants representing all 50 states, many Canadian provinces, and about a dozen foreign countries. Though there are no reliable statistics on how many districts employ looping, Grant says, "I can tell you that every school is either doing it or thinking about it."

Looping is characteristic of the private Waldorf schools -- one of America's fastest-growing education movements -- where teachers stay with the same group of students in grades 1-8. It's also widely used in Germany, Israel, Italy, and Japan, where teachers remain with their students through fourth grade.

Growing, Learning Together

Back in Pennsylvania, Durham Nockamixon offers exactly what Grant says parents are hungry for: options in education. Parents of kindergartners are invited to information nights in the spring, where they learn about the school's special blend of placement opportunities for first graders. Parents can opt for a traditional classroom, a looping classroom, or a classroom that goes to the next step with a multigrade/looping combination.

That's the class taught by Linda McBride, a 30-year teaching veteran who welcomes a new group of first graders each September, while the other half of her class consists of second graders who were with McBride the previous year.

"I really like it," she says with a grin. "I like having the kids come back to me. The little first grader who's not even reading in the beginning of the year -- you get such a sense of accomplishment when you grow with them."

Because looping teachers already know their students' strengths, and the children understand what's required of them, September isn't lost to establishing classroom routines or student assessment. Advocates like to say the first day of school is actually the 181st day of school for a child in a looping classroom.

"There's no lost time," McBride says. "You can just pull out the books and get started."

Principal Janet Link says her district isn't doing any formal long-term study to measure the success of looping. "We are seeing stronger readers going into third grade," she adds, and placements in special education classes have declined, a trend reported by other districts that have adopted looping.

In a looping classroom, Link says, "teachers feel they can give kids extra time to grow because they know they'll be with them the following year." Looping allows for a wait-and-see approach to a student who's struggling; otherwise, a teacher may feel pressured to move a student whose grasp of material is tentative into special education classes for fear of not responding to the child's needs.

One district that has quantified the benefits of looping is in Attleboro, Massachusetts, where the technique is used for all students in grades 1-8. According to surveys conducted by the Attleboro Public Schools, retention rates -- holding students back -- in grades 2-8 decreased by more than 43 percent, special education referrals dropped by more than 55 percent, and discipline and suspensions -- especially in the middle schools -- declined significantly, while attendance rates improved for both students and teachers.

Looping's Pros and Cons

The downsides to looping are few but not insignificant: Parents worry about the prospect of a child drawing a weak teacher two years in a row. Educators worry about being stuck with a difficult class (or, as Grant puts it, "the classroom from the Black Lagoon," where the student mix is intolerable). In every case, problems can be handled the way they would if the same situation occurred in a traditional classroom -- reassignment.

"Looping and multiage don't work for everybody," teacher Rachael Tubiello says. "If it doesn't work, you have to change it and be open to the possibility that things won't work out."

The intangibles of looping are what really delight the teachers at Durham Nockamixon. Tubiello keeps in touch over the summer with her students by meeting for ice cream or a play date at the local park. Parents develop classroom attachments as strong, or stronger, than the ones their children form. McBride had so many parent volunteers this year that she had to make up a special schedule to accommodate all the extra help.

"For young children, looping is ideal," Tubiello says. "They bond with you. They're more willing to take risks, because they know you. They are willing to try something and make a mistake."

Come September, when they are returning to a teacher they already know, children naturally feel secure. Happily, the feeling is mutual.

"With loopers in the second year, there are no first-day jitters," Tubiello says. "And I sleep like a baby the night before my second year begins. There's no stress worrying about whether they'll like me, too."

Cynthia Roberts is a freelance writer and the former publisher of Parents Express, a monthly parenting newspaper based in Philadelphia.

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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Anonymous (not verified)

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Herve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It seems that the possitive effects of looping are mostly emotional and behavioral. Perhaps academics are affected in the long term, but where is the data to support that presumption? Clearly, more credible research studies are needed to propperly assess the academic effectiveness of looping. Is 3-year looping more effective than 2-year looping? What about 4-year and 8-year (Waldorf schools) looping effectiveness?

Rosie Latto's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was a classroom assistant at a looping school before I got certified to teach grades 1-6. I loved the idea of having the same class 2 years in a row. Yes, it helps behavior, but it also gives you a head start on the academics. A teacher doesn't have to spend the first 2-3 months getting to know the learning styles of the students or building a classroom community. I'm not sure about the test scores, but the day-to-day learning benefits from a 2-year grouping.

Tammy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Last year I taught all 7th graders both English and Science. I established a very strong bond with this group of students. This year I got them back as 8th graders for English only. So far it has worked great.
Usually starting the year with a new group of kids requires a teaher to spend many days trying to figure out the learning styles and abilties of each student. Having this group for two different subjects last year I learned many things about each students strengths, likes and dislikes. This year I didn't have to waste one minute trying to figure this all out.
The students also already knew my expectations of them. Not one student tried to challenge me, they knew the consequences that they would receive!
I would highly suggest all schools move to this concept of looping. Even in Jr High and High School classes! I love it and see a lot of benefits and postives from this.

christian louboutin uk's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Last year I taught all 7th graders both English and Science. I established a very strong bond with this group of students. This year I got them back as 8th graders for English only. So far it has worked great.

Patricia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a looping teacher. I looped for the first time two years ago. Taking my second graders through third grade was a wonderful experience for all of us. In second grade we became a family and great friends. The children were comfortable with each other becoming risk takers as a result. The last day of school was stress free. We knew we would be together again in the fall. I know I actually slept the night before the first day of third grade and from what parents said so did the parents and children. The first day in third grade was like a family reunion. We were so excited to be back together. It was so nice to begin the year and not have to spend time going over rules, procedures, behaviors, etc. We were able to start where we left off in the spring. I knew the students' strengths and could begin challenging them from the very first day as well as the students' weaknesses. I was very fortunate to get a class that was easy to take to the next grade. I am in second grade again and have another class that will be great to move with into third grade. That is that part of looping that I love. The part that is difficult for me is that I am always learning new curriculum. I don't feel as if I am getting better at either grade due to going back and forth. For me, it is hard to remember exactly how I would change a particular lesson, story, or activity to make it better. It is also extremely time consuming and costly for me as I take down the majority of my room to prepare for each grade including my room library. Our school does have a library, however it is nice to have a collection of books in my room from which my students can choose. The day-to-day learning is a big advantage with looping. The teacher time and expense is a big disadvantage with looping.

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andi's picture
ESL teacher

When I first began teaching in Los Angeles in 1989, I was in a pilot program which had to be approved by my principal, students' families, myself, and the students every year. I followed a group of bilingual students who then became mainstream students from Kinder to 6th grade. I loved it. I never had any discipline problems and the students excelled. I was very close(like family) with the students' families. They had very high test scores and never turned into those upper elementary personalities who made fun of others. I am still in touch with all of them. 100 % went on to college and this was in East L.A. I took them on LOTS of field trips especially during the summer. I wasn't hispanic, but their families and I loved each other. At the beginning of school, I already knew what they knew, so I didn't have to continue to repeat lessons, routines, and procedures. None of the other teachers wanted to do this because of constantly changing grades, but I never ran out of ideas and liked teaching new things each year. The only thing that worried me was that I am a very unique teacher and I was afraid when they went to middle school and didn't have me and my teaching style, they may not be able to handle it. I was wrong. They all handled it just fine. Our classroom was like a family and we learned way more than academics, like character, morals, and more. They all loved to read and learn new word, because I did. Those were my favorite teaching years. There was nothing like it. I think looping is great as long as EVERYONE agrees with it.

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