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.
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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!