At Last – a Multigrade-Friendly(ish) Curriculum

When school re-opens this fall, teachers in BC will be at the helm, implementing a re-designed, new curriculum for Kindergarten to Grade 9.  Its a time of excitement – and, yes, a bit of nervousness – as we prepare to set sail this September.  We are entering uncharted, but not untested waters; we will be working together to discover new ways of “doing” school, and the possibilities are inspiring.

But as I wade through the many  pages and  links, I am also wondering: how well will our new curriculum serve multigrade teachers and learners?  So often, our unique configurations – along with their strengths and needs – are not acknowledged.

So I was surprised to read this on the Ministry’s Curriculum Info page:

The focus on personalization and the flexible structure of the curriculum support the configuration of combined grade classrooms.  Classes of students of more than one grade provide opportunities for teachers to develop a mindset that sees all the students as a group of learners with a range of needs and interests. Multi-grade programs should find a comfortable fit with the curriculum.

And it gave me a glimmer of hope for three reasons:

  1. The existence of multigrade classrooms is acknowledged, not in an isolated section titled “Multigrades” but with other possible options under “Flexible Learning Environments”
  2. One of the benefits of multigrade teaching and learning is specifically mentioned
  3. Multigrade configurations are a good fit for the type of teaching and learning defined in the new curriculum; the inference is that they may even be advantageous.

Its not exactly an outright endorsement of multigrade  learning, but its the closest thing to it I have read in a Ministry document.  Perhaps we are getting closer to the day when multigrade education – whether it be school-wide, a few classrooms, or one subject area – will be considered a positive way to enhance learning.

The new curriculum will officially be launched this September, but in reality, many teachers have been navigating their way through these changes for a number of years. This shift from the “what” of teaching to the “who” of learning is fundamental, and now mandated.  In multigrade classrooms, that emphasis is present out of necessity, but was at odds with former curricula.  Will the new curriculum make our complex jobs easier?  Time will tell.  Will it make our teaching better?  It must.

As multigrade teachers, we are in a good place from which to continue our voyage of discovery.  Now, however, we have the advantage of company!





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Multigrades – Why? Why Not!

At our small school, like many in rural BC, children are taught in multigrade classrooms where students from more than one grade learn together.  There is a special type of teaching and learning that occurs in such a diverse classroom, and it involves more than just putting students from different grade levels into the same room and hoping for the best.  An effective multigrade approach is one that  intentionally taps into the rich conditions for learning that are possible in a multi- age setting.  When children who are younger and older learn together, one significant benefit is a student’s exposure to “pre-teaching” (listening to the teaching and learning designed for older children) and “re-teaching” (reviewing important concepts by “listening in” as they are taught to and practiced by younger children).

Many people do not realize that the invention of grade levels and the single-grade classroom was, and is, solely for administrative purposes: sorting children into groups based on birth dates is simply a quick and easy way to organize large numbers of children.  The practice of compartmentalizing students and their learning into single grades was never based on models of child development, theories of learning, or current research. Rather, it was, and is, based on the efficiency modelled by Industrial Age factories in assembling products step by step, resulting in the mass production of objects. The assumption was made, and quickly accepted as learning became institutionalized, that the same model could and should be applied to educating children.

Soon the entire education system had centered its structure, supports, and expectations around single-grade education, and multigrade classrooms existed only on the rural fringes of society. But over the years, multigrade education quietly thrived by defining and refining its strengths – many of which are now internationally recognized in the OECD’s Seven Principles of Learning¹ – the most necessary and desirable conditions for a formal or informal education.  By necessity, a multigrade environment is learner-centered (rather than grade-centered), provides a social context that is wider than same-age peers, values and adapts to individual differences, and recognizes how individuals can change over long periods of time.

Teaching and learning is always awash with challenges and opportunities, but during my career as a multigrade teacher, I have come to appreciate the richness and depth of learning that can occur when children who are younger and older learn to learn together.  Prior to the segregation of learners and learning into grades, this is how all learning occurred, and it is how we learn best as children.

For more information on multigrade teaching and learning, visit

¹Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. The Nature of Learning:Using Research to Inspire Practice  Innovative Learning Environments Project (Practitioner Guide)

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Wow – Has it Really Been Three Years?

A lot has happened since I last wrote…After that post “My 19th Year as a First Year Teacher”,  I learned (the week before school began) that instead of teaching my cherished Grade 6-9 class, I would now be our small school’s Kindergarten to Grade 2 teacher.  I was willing, but what a shift to make so quickly!  While I packed up one classroom, and set up another,  I tried to re-acquaint myself with the abilities, needs and desires of 4-7 year old learners.  I had taught primary children before, but only in the context of the one-room school; I had never taught an entire class of early learners, and in many ways I did feel like a first year teacher. But I was also thankful for the lessons I had learned over the years, and I found I could respond to the myriad of challenges with enough wisdom and grace to (mostly) smile rather than cry over all the lessons I was learning. In retrospect, I hadn’t realized how ready I was for a change – ready being different from prepared!  But eventually I found my inner primary teacher, grew to love my new role, and believed this was where I would happily spend the last decade of my teaching career.

But a funny thing happened on the way to retirement: perhaps it was completing my Masters degree, or this recent change in teaching position – both invigorated me and deepened my understanding while honing my skills –  but I felt ready for another step, and after two years with my treasured primary students, I stepped into the role as teaching principal at our small school…

During my first year as principal (which further broadened my perspective and honed my skills and also, unexpectedly, compartmentalized and challenged my teaching; the subject of a future post, perhaps), I learned that a proposal I had written  about studying multigrade teaching and learning in BC had been accepted!

The proposal was submitted on behalf of the BC Rural & Multigrade Teachers’ Association that multigrade teaching and learning be studied as an innovative approach to personalizing education.  Our proposal was accepted in September 2015.  You can read more about our project on my K-12 Innovations page .  And if you are a multigrade teacher, you can participate here until September 30th, 2016.

And so here I am, three busy years later, blessed by a writer’s dream – a rainy west coast July.  Time to reflect.  Read.  Write.  To ponder.  And, at last, to post.

Welcome back.

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Dear new teacher me.

Thank you to Carolyn Durley – just the balm – and courage – I needed!

A Fine Balance

looking back

Shared on Flickr by Sonia Crawford

Dear new teacher me,

You started teaching with a vision; protect and nurture your vision as your first-born.

Teach from your heart, even when it hurts, even when you get hurt.

Bend with the winds but continue to grow. If you lose a few branches in the storms, know you will re-grow new ones.

Try to not let friendships, popularity, or group dynamics cloud your professional judgement. But accept if they do. Move forward from there.

Accept the off days, weeks, months or even years. Know it as part of a healthy cycle.

Know that it is OK to step away from your career for family, children, illness, or relationships. You will come back and find your stride.

Make ‘bubble bath’ reflection time part of each day. And then put the day away.

Accept your practice as not perfect and will never be such…

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My 19th Year as a First Year Teacher

Every year, as September approaches, I feel like a first year teacher all over again; the task before me is suddenly daunting and overwhelming…

Part of my teacher-anxiety this year is that I will not know my new assignment until the week before school begins. I will, however (and thankfully) remain in the same three-room school. The not-knowing means I’ve only semi-prepared myself – and prepared nothing for my students – not knowing whether I will be the Kindergarten to Grade 2 teacher or the Grade 3 to 5 teacher, in addition to a possible block with the Grade 6-9 students (my former assignment, and joy of my heart!).

Uncertainty is familiar territory in teaching, as it is in most of life’s important commitments (marriage, parenthood…) Now is a good time to take a deep breath, to be still, and to focus on my teacher’s heart, rather than my fears. To remember to trust. To reach out to others for help and with help. To be mindful of and thankful for the children who will be placed in my professional care. To acknowledge the trust of their parents. And to appreciate the support of my teaching colleagues, near and far (and of my non-teaching family & friends, as well!)

Yes, I’m nervous, but I’m also excited. And most likely, my students are feeling the same.

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August Reading for September Teaching

I am just beginning to read Book One of The Multigrade Classroom: A Resource for Small, Rural Schools. There are seven handbooks in this series; Book One is a review of the research on multigrade instruction. If you’d like to read along with me, the handbooks are available through my symbaloo (click on the tile Multigrade Handbooks) or here. As I read, I will be posting my thoughts and questions about the material…

These handbooks were updated in 1999, and are based on the 1989 publication by B.A. Miller (Northwest Regional Educational Library). At the time, Dr. Miller conducted a comprehensive review of multigrade research, and collaborated with successful multigrade teachers to refine the handbooks. I am curious as to how current the information in these handbooks will be as I read through them; from what I have read so far, I am impressed by how applicable, practical – and relevant – the writing remains. And looking to the future, I have high hopes for how easily the BC Ed Plan will dovetail with what is already happening in many multigrade classrooms!

The authors describe the handbooks as “a research-based resource guide for the multigrade teacher”.

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Multigrade-Friendly Format: K-7 Language Arts Learning Outcomes

In 2007 I created a multigrade-friendly format of the BC Language Arts curricula (Kindergarten to Grade 7). As a multigrade teacher, I felt I needed a resource that allowed me to see, at a glance, the expected development of individual skills and concepts from grade to grade. The document provides an overview of each learning outcome in the BC Language Arts curricula, and how it develops over a range of grades.

You can access this document here.

Please spread the word! Many multigrade teachers from around our province have told me how much they appreciate this document. I hope you will find it beneficial, as well.

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A “Hands-Off” Approach to Reading

By Heather Johnson © 2004, Revised 2007, 2013

Several years ago, I read a book that changed the way I taught reading in my multigrade, one-room school.  The book, What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing  Research-Based Programs by Richard Allington (ISBN 0-321-06396-1) provided the research I needed to follow through on some of my own teaching intuitions.

My appetite for this book had been building; during a seven year absence from teaching, I had done some reading and informal research into homeschooling methods and philosophies.  I was struck by the fact that homeschooled children often became strong, avid readers, with unusually mature skills in critical reading and comprehension. What, I wondered, were these homeschooled children receiving that many children at school were not?  I was able to draw my own conclusions, but had no way to verify them.

Upon my return to teaching I inherited a multigrade class of ten students which included seven very reluctant readers spanning Grades Two to Six.  What type of reading instruction would work best for these children and also be manageable for me?  I decided to act on my own intuition.  Later that year, I was thrilled to find the success I was seeing in my students also substantiated in Mr. Allington’s book.  His analysis of the research on the effects (positive and negative) of different components of traditional reading instruction spawned many suggestions; suggestions that made teaching reading far more engaging for the children, far simpler for me, and more effective and enjoyable for us all!

Basically, I used a “hands-off” approach to reading instruction.*  I did not impose or attach any written assignments to the children’s reading, other than the requirement that they record the title of every book they read.  I did not assign reading materials, although I did make lots of suggestions, offered lots of attractive and accessible choices, and did a lot of sharing of what I knew and loved about authors, illustrators, and books.  I still designed literature units (Biographies, Myths, Canadian Authors, etc.) to allow us fresh foci for reading themes, but, until these children became eager readers, I left out the written assignments, and even then, kept them to a minimum.  I wanted reading to be non-threatening, if not downright enticing!  Every day we talked about the books we were reading.  Sometimes we did this semi-formally (as in “Book Talks”), but mostly we talked conversationally, and incidentally, as opportunities arose.  We read for an increasing amount of time each day until we were reading silently for a solid thirty minutes every morning and every afternoon (occasionally for longer, when the children asked, or when we were all so absorbed by our reading that time slipped by on us).


* I am, however, still very ‘hands-on’ when I am teaching pre- or emergent readers how to read.  My methods are eclectic and include direct instruction, repetition, whole language activities, and lots of oral practice.  When do I do this?  When the rest of my students are deeply engaged in their quiet reading!  I have two precious, uninterrupted blocks of thirty minutes twice a day, every day (!) to devote to the very important task of getting my early primaries to read independently.


How did I evaluate the children’s reading?  Through discussion, either as a class or individually.  The reading instruction I needed to do, I did conversationally, sometimes (once a week or so) integrating literary concepts with art, drama, or creative writing.  I based these lessons on the stories, poems and novels I was reading aloud to the class, since these provided our common literary experience.  As the children’s repertoire of favourite books and authors grew, so did the depths of our discussions, and the children’s eagerness to read new titles.  This was especially true when a new book was introduced by a classmate.  As the children spent more time reading, their skill levels in fluency and comprehension strengthened with very little intervention other than monitoring and modeling from me.  (Certainly there were no worksheets!)

Two important factors in the success of my reading “un-program” were 1. my gentle but firm belief that each child would grow to love reading, and 2. my consistent expectation for appropriate (ie: reading) behavior during quiet reading times.  I was quite strict, especially in the beginning.  I wanted to communicate that reading was important enough for us to set aside special time each day to read silently and independently; the children, therefore, had the obligation to be engaged in reading (not talking, or wandering around the classroom) for that time.  I was intentional in my training; I knew this approach to reading would only work if the children were capable of engaging themselves in the task.  Once these habits became second nature to the children, I could relax the rules now and then, knowing they had the self-discipline and motivation to get back to their reading.

One of Mr. Allington’s most enlightening points is how little time is actually spent reading in any given school day.  Valuable time allotted for reading is instead spent bringing the class to order, listening to the teacher give instructions, then after a brief time reading, answering worksheets, or writing assignments.  Reading is a complex skill, and one that requires a great deal of practice.  Instead of reinforcing reading, these added-on activities mean a child is reading less than he could be. My own thought is that reading is like sleeping – a reader needs time to settle into “deep reading” (like “deep-sleeping”) which is when the benefits begin.  Children are simply not given large enough chunks of uninterrupted school time to get hooked on reading.  That, and the fact they are seldom (if ever) given the opportunity to read without having work attached to their reading are two weighty disadvantages that many homeschooled children do not encounter.

There is only one way to learn to swim or ride a bike – by doing it.  The same applies to reading.  Take a close look at your school day; are you providing your students with the time they need to practice and master this skill?  So much of their success in and out of school depends on their ability and attitude towards reading.

I have now been reading with the same group of children for more than five years – and reading is what they still love to do!  Due to the success and simplicity of Mr. Allington’s suggestions, I cannot fathom teaching reading any other way.

My Reading Approach Six Years Later….(2013)

I am no longer teaching at our one-room school, but am currently teaching in a multigrade classroom of 15 students in Grades 6-9.  My approach to reading remains much the same, based on its continued success.  Our conversations, given the older ages of my students, are perhaps more in-depth and complex, and often include our observations about the literary elements and devices in shared literature experiences.  Our shared reading includes theme-related novels, genres, picture books, poems, online recitations by poets, and student readings of the opening pages of their favourite novels.  I am also beginning to implement student blogging as a way of responding to literature.  The blogging occurs after a class discussion, and allows the students time to consider the perspectives shared before composing their own responses in a thoughtful and articulate post.  Later, they are encouraged to respond to each other’s posts, to make further connections to their reading, and to acknowledge and extend interpretations, insights and questions about their shared or self-selected reading materials.

“But what about formal assessment?” I hear someone asking.  My summative assessments are also informal:I jot down notes, I ask students to keep a list of their reading, I require some students to read aloud with me regularly so I can help them develop strategies for comprehension and/or fluency. I have informal one-on-one discussions with each student in a given time period, as well as many class discussions.  Students give one book talk a month and then answer questions from their classmates about the book (which has often been previously read by at least one other classmate or myself).  Occasionally, I ask students to write a learning log (perhaps after a particularly powerful experience with literature) to share what they have learned and why each of these things is meaningful and/or will be helpful to them.

I also encourage all my students to develop a “daily reading habit” at home, and converse with my school parents about the importance of maintaining this practice during the middle school/high school years.  Occasionally, I will ask parents to monitor, and/or students to record their reading at home, and to share what this experience is like, what makes it work (or not), and what can be done to make it better.  I offer my classroom to students who want to read during lunch hour rather than at home.

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Six Myths of Multigrade Teaching

Six Myths of Multigrade Teaching
Heather Johnson

Myths & misconceptions create mis-expectations, and, unfortunately, there are many that plague multigrade educators. False expectations make it harder for us as teachers to reassure administrators, nervous parents, and perhaps even ourselves, about the quality of teaching and learning that can occur in such a diverse classroom.

How many of the following concerns do you recognize in yourself or others? Don’t despair! If you have nagging doubts about multigrade classrooms (or know someone who has) then perhaps the following six points will help relieve some of your worries.

Myth #1: Curriculum is your master.
Reality Check: Curriculum is your servant. As a teacher, you are employed to teach children (not curriculum), and as a professional you must pull from the curriculum those specific learning outcomes that you discern will best serve the children in your class. You must choose the skills, plan experiences, design methods of practice, and introduce concepts that will enhance your students’ present knowledge, and move them along the continuum of development that the IRP’s represent.

Myth #2: You Must Teach Everything That is in the IRP’s
Reality Check: That’s Impossible! Even teachers of single-grade classrooms know how difficult it is to cover every learning outcome for every subject. Don’t even pretend you can in a multi-grade classroom! Instead, you will (once again) use your professional judgment to choose those learning outcomes that will best meet the needs of your students.

Myth #3: The Teacher Must Constantly Divide Her Time Between the Different Grades.
Reality Check: Whole-Class Lessons Are Often More Effective & Productive. There are several reasons why this is so. In a multigrade classroom, as in a single grade classroom, everyone works at reading, writing, art, theme explorations, music, P.E. etc.; it makes sense to engage multiaged students in the same subjects at the same time. It is better use of the teacher’s time if she can teach a lesson once (to the whole class), then give directions for a follow-up assignment (once) with grade-specific modifications.
For example, the teacher is teaching an introductory lesson to the whole class on the continent of Africa. In her lesson, she includes information that is simple, thus introducing new concepts to the younger children and providing important review for the older students. Some of the information will be geared towards the older children (perhaps asking them to make comparisons between the continent of Africa and that of North America); the younger children will thus be exposed to more sophisticated knowledge, which helps stretch their own vocabulary and thinking. As a follow-up to the lesson, the children are asked to use an atlas to list rivers, natural resources and countries on the African continent. Grade 2’s are asked to list two of each, Grade 3’s to list three of each. This pattern continues up to the highest grade. While the children work on their assignments, the teacher is available to help individuals and to keep students motivated and on-task, as required. In short, each of the children has benefited from 100% of their teacher’s attention for 100% of the whole-class lesson time.
There are times in the day when the teacher will work with individuals or small groups, but for the majority of the school day, the teacher will likely be working with the class as a whole.

Myth #4: Specific Social Studies & Science Topics Must Be Taught in Certain Grades
Reality Check: In a Multigrade Classroom, the teacher plans long-term “Curriculum Cycles”. In a classroom with a three-grade split, the teacher often has a three year plan, in which all or most of the suggested topics for Science and Social Studies in those grades will be covered in a re-arranged order. These units will often be taught as themes, which, because of diverse materials and open-ended activities, work well with multi-aged learners. Each child gains new knowledge, enhances his understanding and benefits from new experiences at his own ability level. His learning will also be supported and heightened by the very fact he is learning with children both younger and older than himself.

Myth #5: Children in a Multi-age Classroom Lack Socialization Skills
Reality Check: Multi-age Environments Enhance Social and Emotional Development. The research is very clear on this point. As a society, we have become very good at isolating people into age groups. From Pre-Schoolers to Seniors, we tend to accept peer grouping as natural and normal, when in fact that practice is relatively recent, culture-specific, and one that grew out of an economic model of efficiency. Research indicates that aggressive and negatively competitive emotions and behaviors are much more prevalent when children are segregated into peer groups. Multiage classrooms naturally create many opportunities for children to practice and develop both compassion and leadership skills in a real-life environment. The teacher plays a key role by intentionally modeling, nurturing and training her students to develop healthy social skills.

Myth #6: Being Taught by the Same Teacher for Multiple Years Limits a Child’s Education
Reality Check: Learning on a Continuum with the Same Teacher Enhances a Child’s Academic Success. Research again supports what many of us experience in our multiage classrooms. Just as a child benefits from a stable, nurturing home environment, the same is true for his school environment. Key to this fact, obviously, is the teacher.
Even when children are not in a multiage group, the advantages of remaining with the same teacher are evident. “Looping” is the term used when a teacher progresses with her single-grade students through the grades, often for all of a child’s primary years. When children remain with the same teacher, each school year becomes more productive. Setting rules and behavior expectations, assessing abilities, needs, and learning styles, and building relationships with parents is initiated in the first year, and develops from there. It is not a process that needs to be repeated every fall.
* * *

Understanding the differences between multigrade and single-grade teaching is a first step in adjusting your expectations – not lowering them! – of all that is possible in a multiage setting. May this new perspective be the start of something joyful in your own multigrade classroom!


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