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ImageDifferentiated Instruction, Flexibility Make Multi-Age Classes Work

Multi-grade classes sound like a lot of work for teachers. But by regularly assessing students, differentiating instruction, and using flexible groupings, the experience can be revitalizing for a teacher. Included: Tips for planning lessons in multi-grade classes.

Assigning teachers to multi-grade classes used to be considered a last-ditch effort to save money and avoid hiring more staff.

But while that still may be the case in some districts, other educators see the practice as beneficial for students and renewing for teachers.

"It allows you to be a teacher again; it's not like following a scripted curriculum," said Terri Peterson, a retired multi-grade teacher from Van Buren Elementary School in the Thompson (Colorado) School District.


The district formed several multi-grade classes this year for first and second grades and fourth and fifth grades. "Several teachers in the district had experience teaching multi-grade classes, began researching the idea, and learned about the benefits of such classes," said Diane Lauer, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. "Next thing we knew, we had five to seven schools with teachers interested in multi-grade classes."

Administrators started considering the idea after construction of a new elementary school in the district resulted in the shift of some students among other schools and bigger classes, but no additional staff members. We didn't want very large classes at some grade levels, Lauer explained.

You have to look at kids as duckies in a rubber ducky race. Some get ahead, some get stuck in the reeds. Your job is to get everyone into the flow and moving forward.

A multi-grade class is different from a combination class, in which instructors teach curricula for two grade levels in one year, which is both challenging and stressful for the teachers, noted Peterson.

Several teachers with multi-grade experience, including Peterson, conducted a two-day workshop this summer for teachers new to teaching multi-grade classes. The key to success in a multi-grade class is being able to effectively differentiate instruction, said Lauer. That includes looking at students needs, pre-testing students to determine their abilities, using flexible grouping to meet those needs, assessing their progress, and making changes to the groups when students master skills or need additional help. Some of the multi-grade classes in the district have two instructors and some three.

"You have to look at kids as duckies in a rubber ducky race," Peterson told Education World. "Some get ahead, some get stuck in the reeds. Your job is to get everyone into the flow and moving forward."


After giving teachers some background information and data about multi-grade classes, Peterson, who taught for 32 years including 17 in multi-grade classes, and the other facilitators reviewed national and state standards for different grade levels with teachers. The facilitators pointed out what students in each grade needed to know. Then teachers analyzed the standards and determined what they already were doing to meet them. Once they knew what they needed to teach, she said, they could decide how to teach it. Often teachers must step back from the research-based, scripted curricula many districts adopt to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, Peterson added.

Workshop leaders also shared different ways to develop curriculum maps, units of study, and unit organizers to support their multi-age classrooms, said Wendy McNaney, a second-grade teacher, interventionist, and another workshop facilitator. Curriculum was one of the teachers' biggest concerns -- especially in the areas of science and social studies, she told Education World. "We tried to gear teachers to look more specifically at the science standards as they planned, rather than already-developed grade-level science units. Many of the teachers are committed to multi-year plans, so they will be rotating units -- either all one grade level the first year and the second grade level the next or rotating grade-level units throughout the year."

Only in public education do we say that because you were born between this date and that date, you get a certain magic box of knowledge, and we know this is what you need because we're old.

Multi-grade teachers need to use lots of flexible groupings, Peterson noted. Don't do the same thing with everyone at the same time, she said. If kids don't need three days on a skill, just don't teach it that way. Look at where students are as opposed to where they should be. You want them to go as far as they possibly can. If a fourth grader is ready for fifth-grade skills, teach him or her those.

For a unit on fractions, for example, all three teachers in the classes would be involved, Peterson said. Students would be assessed before teachers started the unit and divided into groups based on whether they were abstract or concrete learners. After a concept was finished, students would be retested and regrouped if necessary, and the unit would continue. You are not a Bluebird forever, joked Peterson, referring to traditional elementary school reading groups.

Students in multi-age classes tend to grow at least one academic year in the first year and about a year-and a half in the second. Higher achieving students always show growth, according to Peterson. "For about six years, we had at least one student skip sixth grade every year."


Grouping children by ability rather than age makes more sense for students and allows teachers to be more creative, McNaney and Peterson said. "Only in public education do we say that because you were born between this date and that date, you get a certain magic box of knowledge, and we know this is what you need because we're old," Peterson said.

The biggest problem she had teaching multi-age classes, Peterson joked, was finding furniture for students of various ages and sizes. We had to have lots of furniture in different sizes.

The years teaching in multi-age classrooms were the ones she enjoyed most, said McNaney. I firmly believe that children are most successful in classrooms where the learning environment is positive -- where instruction is differentiated to meet the individual needs of students but where, at the same time, we are developing a community of learners.

By Ellen R. Delisio  
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