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Teaching a Multiage Class

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These articles may be useful for preparing to teach in a multiage classroom.

Teaching a Multi-Age Class

In a multi-age class, learning is promoted by taking advantage of the diversity of the learners. Units are organized thematically, and students at each grade level work on different assignments within the unit. Students are encouraged to help each other in a nurturing environment and to value differences between students of different ages and ability levels. In cooperative work, older students become role models and mentors to the younger learners.

Teachers in multi-age classrooms are encouraged to use a range of teaching and assessment strategies to address the different ages of their students, implement flexible patterns of grouping, accommodate specific learning goals, engage all students in active participation, and promote a climate of respect for oneself and others.

The multiage challenge - multiage classroom

Instructor,  Sept, 1999  by Jill Ostrow

In the multiage classroom, all strengths, abilities, and learning styles are welcomed, valued - and celebrated

Think a moment about your friends. Most likely, they are people, older and younger than you, whom you rely on for wisdom, guidance, inspiration, and support. Friendships span a wide range of ages.

The guiding principle behind the multiage classroom is not so different. Why restrict children to groupings of peers their age when there is so much to be learned from a diversity of individuals? In a multiage classroom, varied approaches to learning - natural in children of all ages - become the norm, and are valued and celebrated.

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5 tips for teaching in multi-age classrooms

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A Basic Understanding of Multiage Grouping

 

My experience with multiage classes began several years ago. With our principal's help, colleagues and I started a first-, second-, and third-grade multiage program with 28 students at Wilsonville Primary School, in Wilsonville, Oregon.

A multiage classroom is technically one in which the developmental range is wider than that in a single-grade classroom. Grade levels may range from first through third grade, third through fifth, and so on. Students remain with the teacher for more than one year, starting as the youngest in the classroom and finishing as the oldest. I found that this setting both challenged and nurtured the children in a way that I had not experienced in traditional classrooms.

Strengths and Differences

In a multiage classroom, teachers can observe students' developmental changes over a longer period of time. The belief that children can be assessed by evaluating their own growth - in relation to themselves rather than peers of the same age - is fundamental to the multiage philosophy.

Good teachers have always viewed each of their students as unique learners who progress as individuals. In a multiage classroom, the range of skill levels and learning styles is not much greater than in a regular classroom.

Youngsters benefit by being surrounded by thinkers who are more accomplished. The older kids benefit as well, since acting as a guide and explaining how to do something requires an in-depth understanding of one's subject.

I soon noticed that it wasn't just the oldest students who were the strongest learners. For instance, Ross, age eight, was the expert on square roots and taught even his older peers this sophisticated concept. Kyle, at age six, was the acknowledged art expert. As students learn to respect their classmates' talents, regardless of age, they interact naturally.

Workshop Principles

Here are some important principles for teaching in a multiage classroom. I have used a math workshop as the focus, but these same principles apply across all disciplines.

* No ability grouping. I let the children adapt their learning to an assignment. They learned that there isn't one right way and that experiments are acceptable and encouraged. I once posed the problem "You want to share 43 cookies with 25 friends. How many cookies will each friend get? Explain your thinking." First grader Chelsea used Unifix cubes to solve this problem. Second grader Kyle used drawings. Third grader David used a more common division formula.

* Choice. Not only did my students choose what to write about and what to read, but they were also able to choose how to solve any problem: through manipulatives, drawings, fingers, algorithms, talking through a problem with a friend, or mental imaging.

* Challenge. I made it clear that I expected all my students to take risks. Once I posed the following problem: "During math workshop today, you need to challenge yourself and show and/or write how you did that." Six-year-old Melissa decided to work on adding numbers to six using Unifix cubes. She knew she needed to practice this difficult task in order to meet her goal of manipulating numbers to 10. Nine-year-old Carly wrote and solved a complex word problem that the entire class later tackled and solved.

* Presentations. Sharing and presentations are vital across the curriculum in a multiage classroom. From the time the students entered my class as first graders, they became immersed in academic language, concepts, and ideas that were beyond their grasp initially but soon became part of their vocabulary. Presentations foster a respectful community of learners and deepen understanding of concepts. When you have to explain something to those with varying abilities, you really have to understand it.

For example, I asked my students to look through their portfolios and choose one completed problem to solve again in a new way. They were also asked to create a formal presentation of their thinking process that they could share with the class. Anna, age seven, chose to present the following problem: "There are 36 dogs on a team of dogsleds and 6 people. Each person needs to take care of a group of dogs. To make it fair, each person will take care of the same number of dogs. So, how many dogs will each person need to take care of? Explain how you solved it."

Anna used manipulative cubes to solve her problem the first time. Weeks later, she made a poster instead. She cut six people out of construction paper and glued them onto posterboard. She cut out 36 dogs. At her presentation, she set her poster on an easel and explained, "There are 6 people and 36 dogs, and each person needs to take care of the same number of dogs. So what they do is, they go one for you, one for you, like this." As she spoke, she glued each dog to the poster. When she finished she took questions and comments. Watching each child take the lead in this way was an excellent opportunity for assessment.

Challenges and Hurdles

The hardest part of teaching a multiage class comes in June, when the oldest students move on to a new grade. After being together for three years in a row, everyone finds it painful to separate. You need to help the children who are leaving prepare for a new classroom environment and a teacher who may have a very different style.

Multiage classrooms won't work if they are mandated because of numbers rather than philosophy. In some schools, the administration creates split classes - mixing two grades, for example - to "even out" the numbers of students in each class. A teacher may be required to teach both a first- and a second-grade curriculum. Keeping track of two separate groups will only perpetuate age and ability grouping and frustrate the teacher.

Parents must be educated about the multiage experience, too. Until they understand the multiage philosophy, they may suspect their child is being "held back." Parents of current students can provide great support. You might set up an open house for new and returning parents to meet, observe the classroom, and ask questions.

Students will be your best advocates. As Jacob, age eight, said, "It's not an age thing in this class, it's a respect thing." I hope he carries this respect into other learning communities. This is my goal for all my students.

Multimedia Resources

BOOKS

* Making Problems, Creating Solutions, by Jill Ostrow (Stenhouse, 1999).

* Methods That Matter, by Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar (Stenhouse, 1998).

* A Workshop of the Possible, by Ruth Shagoury Hubbard (Stenhouse, 1996).

* A Room With a Different View, by Jill Ostrow (Stenhouse, 1995).

* Exploring the Multiage Classroom, by Anne A. Bingham (Stenhouse, 1995).

WEB SITES

* Multiage Education www.zepcom.com/michelle/multiage.htm  Links to multiage-classroom information.

* ProTeacher www.proteacher.com/020058.shtml  Articles from experts and veteran multiage teachers.

* TeacherNet http://data.teachernet.com  Bulletin board talks on K-8 multiage classes.

 


Last changed: 11/23/10