KINGS MILLS, Ohio -- Like many mothers and daughters, Robyn and Anna Bersani spend a lot of their free time together.
But, unlike most mothers and daughters, they also spend their work week together as a teaching team in a single combined class of 53 third-graders in one large self-contained classroom.
Robyn Bersani and her daughter, Anna Bersani, were teaching third grade last year at J.F. Burns Elementary in the Kings Local School District when principal Cheryl Montag needed to reorganize the classrooms due to increased enrollment. Montag approached the mother-daughter pair about moving their classrooms for the 2017-2018 school year.
At the time, the Bersanis were team-teaching with separate classrooms, like the rest of third grade -- Anna teaching language arts and social studies and Robyn teaching math and science. Montag asked if the Bersanis would like to continue to team-teach but to utilize two rooms that are joined by a divider wall.
“There was no hesitation when I brought the idea to them, and they were very excited about all the ways they could create such an innovative learning environment for their children,” Montag said.
The Bersanis ran with the idea, and it grew into a plan to keep the room divider open all the time and teach the 53 students in tandem in a large open space with creative seating arrangements conducive to lots of small group work -- which is a focus for the Bersanis.
Blending the two homerooms into one large room came with some challenges -- including securing the right seating, managing noise levels and setting expectations -- but the positives outweigh any of those challenges, the Bersanis both said.
“The kids are enjoying the class setup and some of the freedoms that this kind of open classroom gives them,” said Robyn Bersani, who has been teaching in Kings schools for 27 years.
“The way we are teaching gives them more independence and ownership of their own learning,” Anna Bersani said. “They come to school happy and go home happy, which is important especially because they are still young.”
Students sit in a different location each day with different classmates and can also choose their seating when gathering at one end of the room for language arts or another subject. There are no traditional desks. Instead, students sit at low round tables, high rectangular tables, stools, bean bag chairs, rugs and lounge chairs -- there’s even a small canoe in a reading nook, which is a nod to the Bersani family’s other job as owners of Loveland Canoe and Kayak.
“With the expectations and standards we have on kids today, I see some of that anxiety is gone,” Anna Bersani said. “They have flexibility as to where they sit and it does allow for a lot of movement and transitioning to a lot of activities instead of just sitting at a traditional desk, which is helpful for a lot of the kids.
"They aren’t having to focus so much on sitting still and being quiet, they can just learn and focus on what they are supposed to be working on in a more natural environment.”
Jaime Shutt, of Loveland, said her son is very happy in the Bersanis' classroom, though she does wonder how he will do when transitioning back to a more traditional classroom next year.
“The kids feel empowered because they get to make some of the decisions,” Shutt said. “(My son) keeps saying if I have to concentrate on something I know I have to sit somewhere different than my friends.”
Allison Hampton of Maineville is impressed with the child-led atmosphere in the Bersanis' joint classroom and thinks it’s a good fit for her son, who is very active.
“This year (my son) doesn’t seem to dread school as much, I think he thinks of it as a more fun environment,” Hampton said. “With the more structured style classroom he feels more repressed in a way, so he’s now able to move around more, interact with his peers and enjoy school more.”
There’s a social benefit to having a larger group of students in one room and rotating where the children sit. The students are able to get to know all their classmates and learn from each other, Robyn Bersani said.
Being mother and daughter has been an asset to their teamwork, they said. The two women both recognize that daughter Anna -- a 2008 graduate of Kings schools and in her third year teaching in the district -- is more organized and she sometimes reins in her mother, who is more laid back.
“It’s a nice thing being mother and daughter because I feel we can call each other out a lot easier than with another co-worker," Robyn said. "We spend a lot of time together outside the classroom too so I feel like we have a lot of time to think about what’s going on in the classroom, talk about it and work things out when other teams wouldn’t normally have that opportunity.”
In planning how they would run their open, nontraditional classroom, the Bersanis were dedicated to finding solutions to any challenge that would arise.
“When a problem came up, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh this isn’t going to work,' instead we just worked to figure out the situation and ways to make it work. We were both really excited about this from the start,” Anna Bersani said.