Social Education 57(2), 1993, pp.62-62
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

The Desperate Dilemma of Bing Masters and His Three-Ring Combination Class: A Case Study

Karla M. Hartzog
Bing Masters is a 7th and 8th grade teacher at Ringlingboro School in Big Top, North Carolina. Ringlingboro is a small K-8 school of only 350 students; this year, Mr. Masters's homeroom is a combination class of 14 7th graders and 12 8th graders.
Mr. Masters is lucky enough to have a large classroom that he organizes in the following manner: He divides the student desks into two groups, one for each grade level. He then arranges the desks in each section in semicircles to facilitate group discussions within each division. In a small area to the left of these circles, Mr. Masters has a few chairs clustered around his single ancient computer. (Ringlingboro's school plant is too small to have a computer lab, so it is the teachers' duty to schedule computer time for each child during the week.) Mr. Masters oversees these three major work areas from his desk at the center-front of the room.

Mr. Masters is responsible for teaching social studies to his homeroom class this year. In North Carolina, 7th grade social studies is a continuation of 6th grade world geography and the prescribed curriculum for the 8th grade is North Carolina history.

Mr. Masters finds it virtually impossible to correlate the two topics, except for a single unit on mapping skills. Consequently, he spends most of his time and energy trying to keep the two groups on task while allowing two students per day to work independently on the computer. A typical class scenario follows.

Mr. Masters begins class by passing out worksheets to the 7th graders while directing his attention and verbal instructions to the 8th graders. (The 8th graders generally get most of Mr. Masters's attention, not because they are in the center ring of chairs, but because they are the ones who will take the North Carolina Social Studies Test in the spring.)

After seeing that the 7th graders are all actively engaged in jumping through the hoops of their geography worksheets, Mr. Masters attempts to initiate a discussion of the Lost Colony with the 8th graders. Two hands immediately go up. They belong to Emitt and Kelly, the class clowns.

"It's our turn to use the computer!"

Masters stops to check his computer schedule. He nods affirmatively, but in dismay-what could he have been thinking when he agreed those two could work together?

Emitt and Kelly boisterously take their seats at the computer and Masters resumes his attempt to start the discussion. A hand goes up from the 7th grade side of the room. It is Paula Bare, a student with a reading disability. Masters tries to ignore her, but her hand begins swaying back and forth.

"Yes, Ms. Bare?"

"I'm stuck on number five."

"Skip it and go on to number six."

Once again, the teacher begins the discussion, while Paula, equally stumped by question number six, begins writing a letter to her best friend.


"Emitt! Kelly! Put that thing on mute! Now, let's get back to our lesson. Where do you think the colonists had gone?" Masters finally engages the 8th graders in a stimulating discussion of the probable fate of the first colonists. Ten minutes before the end of class, he gives the 8th graders a writing assignment and turns his attention to the ring of 7th graders.

"Are you ready to check your worksheets?"

The 7th graders look at each other and then at Mr. Masters. One of them, Leonard Lyons, gets enough nerve to raise his hand.

"No, sir. We didn't get finished."

"And why not?"

"Most of us was listening to you tell about the lost colonists."

Just then, the 8th graders start to snicker. Instinctively turning his attention to the computer, Masters finds the world fart written across the screen in large ornate letters. He writes Emitt and Kelly in the upper right-hand corner of the chalkboard just as the dismissal bell rings.

Later that year, driven by the need for change and renewal credit, Bing Masters enrolls in a weekend workshop entitled "Thinking Skills in the Social Studies Classroom." Monday morning he arrives at school renewed, refreshed, and armed with the latest techniques in issues-related instruction, conflict resolution, democratic decision making, and global education. He arranges his students' desks in two large interfacing U-shapes and shoves his computer in the closet. When the students arrive, he hands each of them a copy of the morning newspaper, and so begins a series of new lessons that he believes will successfully engage thought and preserve his sanity.

One day, however, the noise from a rousing discussion (about how lifting economic sanctions on South Africa might affect industry in North Carolina) draws the attention of the principal, Mr. Barney Bailey. Later that day, Mr. Bailey calls Mr. Masters to his office.

"I just want you to know, you're walking a mighty tight rope, Bing Masters."

"I'm not sure what you mean, sir."

"Well, let's begin with the fact that Ellie Fant's parents have called me three different times to complain that you're putting thoughts in that child's head that she's too young to be bothered with. Now, I don't have to explain to you how big her family is in local politics. Furthermore, they say she has not brought home a graded social studies paper in three weeks, but you gave her an 'A' on her report card."

"But, sir..."

"But nothing. I know you've got the greatest show on earth going on in that class, but what about the achievement test? How can all that pony poop possibly be getting your content covered? You know we've got to meet our performance goals or lose our Senate Bill II monies. I don't have to remind you that here at Ringlingboro, Barney Bailey always sees to it that we have the highest test scores in Big Top! And by the way, where the heck is your computer?"

Seeing no point in arguing, Bing Masters dejectedly leaves the office and goes home to the loving arms of Mrs. Masters, Sarah Moany.

"Bing, what's the matter? You look so tired and upset."

"Honey," he replies, "there are some questions about education I just can't seem to answer."

Can thinking skills and content be merged so that content is covered while engaging students in thought?

Does critical thinking about an issue build a child's knowledge base better than rote memorization of facts surrounding that issue?

Does focusing on a central issue engage students in learning better than several individual and unrelated projects occurring simultaneously?

Can a central issue be used to correlate unrelated topics?

Which is more important to the education of citizens, achievement scores or the ability to think critically and make decisions?

Which is more valuable, the study of history and geography or the study of history and geography in connection with current events?

And finally, can a teacher remain sane in a combination classroom?

Karla M. Hartzog is a science, reading, and social studies teacher at Union Elementary/Middle School in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.