Multi-Age Handbook

We are privileged to live in a city which has a university well-known for its education program. This year, all of the multi-age teachers at our school were able to get an intern for four months. I have had an intern in my classroom, since January and I will be sad to see her leave in a week. As an intern, she has the responsibility to teach half of my teaching load, which means that I have only been teaching half of my regular teaching load. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to develop something tangible for teachers who are interested in or will be teaching in a multi-age classroom. So I decided to develop a multi-age handbook for these teachers, as well as administrators and support staff.

Before starting on this journey last year I had done a lot of research on multi-age learning, but in developing this handbook, I did even more. As well, I had the added resource of my wonderful colleagues who joined me in the multi-age journey this year. Although I did the writing, I based a lot of it on the conversations I have had with multi-age colleagues on what they are doing and the challenges they are facing, as well as questions I have been asked by my non-multi-age colleagues. I know that this handbook does not answer all the questions or address all of the challenges, but I hope that it can provide a starting point for those teachers embarking on the multi-age journey in the next school year in our district as well as those teaching multi-age in other jurisdictions.

It may seem overwhelming at first, but teaching in a multi-age environment can be rewarding for both students and teachers. Please click on the link below to access the Multi-Age Learning Handbook.

Multi-ageLearningHandbook.docx

Identity Day 2015

Back in June, the four 3/4 multi-age teachers got together to plan for 2015-2016 school year. As we were talking about how to teach the curriculum, as well as allow for choice, one of the teachers suggested holding an “Identity Day.” We loved the idea as it could be tied in with the Social Studies curriculum for both Grade 3 and Grade 4 and allowed for student choice.

So we spent the month of September talking about identity. Students listened to stories, watched videos and completed other activities to discover their own identity and heritage. This project did require a lot of parent involvement, but I had several parents comment  how they enjoyed that aspect of it, as it generated discussions at home and with other relatives. Parent Information Letter Identity Activities

Some of the activities the students completed were:

“Who Am I?” poster – After watching a couple of videos/slide shows on identity found online, students used the questions raised to create a poster defining their own identity.  Identity Who Am I?  Mind Mapping Identity Project

“Identity Box” – Students were given a shoe box to fill with 8 items which reflect their interests, skills, family and culture. They wrote a sentence about why each item was included in the box. The students then shared their box with the class. The students were so excited to share their boxes with each other. After each student shared, we would discuss as a class what word(s) we could use to summarize their identity (i.e. for a student whose items had to do with sports, they said “sporty” and for a student whose items had to do with dancing, visual arts and writing, they said “creative”). Identity Box

Family Tree – Students took home a template of a family tree (to which we added place of birth) to complete with their parents.  They also shared these with the class.

Family Heritage Interview – Students took home a question form and interviewed a relative about their heritage. They then shared the information with the class. The class filled out a chart including the country the ancestors came from, why they came to Canada and what are some of the traditions from that culture that have been kept. The students observed that most ancestors came to Canada for a better life and food was what most families kept from their heritage. This started a discussion on what might have been happening in the “home” countries that an unknown country provided hope for a better life. Family Heritage Interview   Family Heritage Table

After these activities, it was time to do the final project. Students picked one aspect of their identity (interest, sport, family, heritage, hobby, etc.) and created a display of pictures and artifacts. They had to include how the topic reflected their identity and explanations of their artifacts/pictures.

On September 24th we held our Identity Day. This included all four 3/4 multi-age classes, which was just under 100 students. We set up all the displays in the gym for the afternoon. Parents, grandparents, other classes and the media came out to look at the displays. It was an amazing afternoon! We were thrilled with the turnout and the positive feedback. Identity Project assessment

Beginning Year 2 of the Journey

We are excited to be starting year two of our multi-age journey! We are thrilled to have new classes join us in our adventure this year. Our school now has a 1/2 multi-age class, four 3/4 multi-age classes and a 5/6 multi-age class. We welcome all the teachers and the students on board!

The first day of school is always busy and buzzing of both excitement and nervousness. It was interesting to experience the calmness of the students returning to the class (for year 2) and how quickly they fell back into routine. The returning students were also very quick to guide the new students in the routines and many of them took on leadership roles with the younger students. This was great to see, especially given the fact that these were some of my quieter, less confident students last year. This comfort and predictability of established student-teacher relationships is one of the benefits of the multi-age philosophy which benefits both parties. Both teachers and students have an understanding of what to expect in the coming year, which allows the focus to quickly shift to teaching and learning, instead of “getting to know you” activities and formal assessments.

The challenge for me this year will be finding a balance between keeping the comfort of the familiar, but also making things “fresh” for the returning students. This is one of the reasons that I am excited to be working directly with three other teachers plus two intern teachers to develop the curriculum activities for this year.

I am looking forward to this year and hope that many of you continue to follow our journey here on the blog!

The Power of Choice

Having choice is a huge motivator for most people. Children are no different. Compared to adults, they tend to feel like they have very few choices. So in our class, we allow them to have choice; however we make sure that students know that with those choices come responsibility. Here are some ways in which we incorporate choice into our classroom.

1. Choice of where to sit: 

  • We have 5 small tables, 2 swing desks and 1 large table in our classroom. Students each have a name tag. At the beginning of the week, students come in and place their name tag at either a table or desk. This will be their spot for the week. Last year and initially this year, students picked their seats daily. However, it quickly became apparent, that this group would do better with a weekly choice rather than a daily choice. They tended to choose to sit with the same people each day, so by changing it to a weekly choice, we’ve seen more variety in table groups. Being given the opportunity to work with and learn from a variety of students is essential to the multi-age philosophy. The expectation that comes with this choice is that they must be respectful (listen to the teacher, listen to others) and responsible (get their work done in a timely fashion).  If they demonstrate that they can not work effectively in the seat they have chosen, they are moved either temporarily or permanently to a new spot.

2. Choice of what to learn: 

  • At the beginning of the year, students were asked to pick 3 topics that they wanted to learn about this year. We then picked the most popular choices and integrated them into our year plan.
  • During our themes/topics, we have a teaching portion and a project portion. For the project portion, students are allowed to choose what topic to research within the given parameters of the theme/topic. For example, when they were learning about the Alberta Regions, they chose which of the six regions they would research more in depth and when they were learning about ecosystems, they chose the ecosystem they were going to research. The skills and objectives remained the same, but the students are more engaged because it is a topic they are interested in and want to learn more about.
  • We use the Daily 5 framework and the CAFE menu to implement choice with literacy development. Most teachers are familiar with the Daily 5 framework and how choice is built into the system. More information on Daily 5 and CAFE is available at http://www.the2sisters.com/.
  • In Math, we have a couple of ways we incorporate choice. Our “Numbers of the Week” activity (adapted from: http://www.k-5mathteachingresources.com/4th-grade-number-activities.html) allows students to choose two of the randomly generated numbers to work with each week. The activities that they complete with these numbers remains the same each week. To provide practice of skills in the various strands, we have math centers. Students are allowed to choose which centers they complete and in what order, depending on which skills they feel they need the most practice in. This gets the students self-evaluating their skills and goal setting. If students do not choose a center in a timely fashion, or are not working at the center they have chosen, or it is not an appropriate center given their skill level (too easy or too hard), we will guide them into making a choice. It is hoped that with guidance, students will learn how to make appropriate choices that will benefit their learning.

The keys in providing students with choice, is that the choices are limited and guidance is provided so students learn how to make “good” choices.

 

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Multi-age Planning

The thought of planning for a multi-age class can be overwhelming at first, especially if you are unfamiliar with one or both of the curriculum. It may seem that you now have to plan and teach two grades simultaneously; however that is the thinking from a “split-class” perspective. With multi-age learning, the focus is on the individual development of each student. The goal of the teacher is to take each student from where they are at and help them progress through the developmental stages or skill levels at their own pace. This being said, it is still necessary to understand the curricular expectations of each grade level represented in your multi-age class.

 Reading and Analyzing the Curriculum: 

1. This initial planning stage is where the team teaching aspect of multi-age is beneficial. The teaching team for each mult-age level (1/2, 3/4, 5/6) needs to go through both curriculum for their level and see where the expectations overlap or build upon similar skills. In Language Arts, Math, Health and Physical Education, the skills tend to develop in depth from one grade to the next with some new skills being introduced at each grade level. For these subject areas, it is easy to visualize and build a continuum of skills on which to evaluate the students.

2. The next step is to look at the themes used to teach these skill sets. Now, some might decide the easiest thing to do is to cycle the curriculum. For instance for a 3/4 multi-age class, do the Grade 3 Science curriculum one year and then do the Grade 4 curriculum the next year. The problem with just cycling the curriculum this way, is that the philosophy of multi-age is not being applied. Teaching each subject area independent from each other, does not allow students to see the connections between the different subjects. Often the outcomes from a variety of subject areas overlap. Broader themes can be created by looking at combining themes or outcomes from Social Studies, Health, Science, Language Arts and Religion. The primary focus for the teacher is teaching skill acquisition, rather than sharing knowledge on one particular topic. Students should be learning “how to learn” and “why we learn,” not just “what to learn.” This will allow students to gain the skills to learn other knowledge as they get older, without being dependent on someone “teaching” it to them.

Creating a 2 Year Cycle:

1. Once the teaching team has a better understanding of the curriculum themes and outcomes for each of the grades at their level, it is time to create a two year theme/topic cycle. If you are creating a multi-age class for the first time in a school previously following a graded system, it will be necessary to take into consideration what the upper level has already learned. For instance, in a 3/4 class, the “4s” will have already covered the grade 3 curriculum, but the “3s” will need to cover those stepping stones, before being presented with material from the grade 4 curriculum. This may seem like a daunting task, however, if the themes are broad enough, it is possible to ensure that students are working on the same topic, but learning the skills at their level. There will be some “4s” who still need more practice with the grade 3 (or in some cases even lower) skills and some “3s” who are ready to advance onto grade 4 skills. This is where the multi-age groupings come into play. Students are grouped according to what skill(s) they need to develop, not their age or grade level. These groupings are fluid and change frequently as students show progress, as well, the groupings may be topic/subject specific. For instance a student may be working at a grade 2 level in Math, but at a grade 4 level in Language Arts.

2. After a 2 year cycle for themes/topics has been set, the teaching team can sit down and list which outcomes from each curriculum they will be covering with each theme. As there are many outcomes, this is where it is necessary to prioritize the essential outcomes and only include these on your plan.

3. As student voice and choice is an important part of multi-age learning, it is vital that this is considered in the planning. At the beginning of each year, ask the students which topics they would like to learn and then see where those topics can be fit in with the broad themes the teaching team has come up with. It will not be possible to have all student choices to be included, but do the best you can. This year we had students brainstorm as many topics as they could and put them on sticky notes on the board. Then each student was allowed to pick their top 3 choices and write them down. We then calculated the top 3 choices based on those lists to incorporate into our year. It was surprising as to how many of those topics fit in with the existing curriculum!

To help with the above steps, I have created a planning guide template (see link below). I have combined the subject areas I found have outcomes in common and have not listed each subject separately. I have also have included a link to our 2 year plan. The plans developed need not be set in stone and can be adapted/changed as needed.

Multiage Classroom Planning Guide Template

C-MA Planning Guide

Unit Planning:

After the 2 year plan has been created, the individual units can be planned. How the units are planned, is up to the teaching team. Teachers may decide to divide up the units, so each teacher is only planning a few units. Or a few weeks prior to each unit, teachers may want to collaborate and come up with a plan together. There is flexibility in the unit planning, as not all units need to be planned by the beginning of the year.

Lesson Planning:

Again, as with the unit planning, the lesson planning can vary depending on how the teaching team decides to divide up or share responsibilities.

The important thing is that the teachers (and students) are working together to make the multi-age classroom work. In the multi-age philosophy, teachers are not working in isolation and teachers are not the sole source of information. The best way to look at it is as “multi-age learning” not “multi-age teaching.”

Multi-Age Learning

When we’re talking to other teachers about our “multi-age” class it is usually met with apprehension and/or confusion. Most think of it as “split” grade just by a different name. It isn’t. They don’t understand why we would mix grades on purpose as it is more work for the teacher, as the teacher now has to teach to two different curriculums. We don’t.

I think I have figured out where the confusion lies. We, as teachers (myself included) generally talk about “teaching.” We think about “teaching.” The children in “our classes” are “our students.” Now here is where the difference is with the multi-age philosophy: it is multi-age learning, not multi-age teaching. There is a shift from the focus in the classroom being the teacher to the focus being the students. The philosophy is all about how students learn, not on how teachers teach.

This year our focus has changed from “what are we going to teach” to “what do these students need to learn.” My planning has never been as fluid as it is this year. As I am reflecting on this, I realize how often we say to each other, “oh, they need more work on this,” or “this isn’t making sense to them, we need a new strategy,” or “hey, they’ve got this now, let’s move on.” Our lessons this year are truly based on our observations and assessments of the students, which may not necessarily mesh with the year plan we came up with at the beginning of the year. I understand now why it is referred to as a “working document.” Yes, you need to have a plan for the year, but you also have to look at the needs of your students, which you don’t know, until you have had them in your class.

Now all this being said, many teachers already do this. They use the curriculum as a guide, but they observe their students, listen to their students and then adapt their lessons accordingly. For these teachers, switching to a multi-age class is mostly a change in label, rather than a change in teaching style. For other teachers, the switch may be more difficult to make, because it requires a shift in thinking and perspective.

 

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A Student Perspective

This past week, I was asked by my principal to do a short presentation on multi-age learning at the next school council meeting. I thought it would be neat for the parents to hear the student perspective, as well as our own, so I had the students write their thoughts and feelings on multi-age learning. I then shared some of the comments at the meeting. Here are what some of the students wrote. (The samples here are from boys, girls, “grade 3s” and “grade 4s.”)

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The common themes that most of the students mentioned were: having a choice in topics/activities, the availability of learning tools, tables instead of desks, new friends and that it’s fun! We know that the students are learning in this multi-age environment because we witness it every day; but it is great to see that the students recognize the differences and benefits of the multi-age class as well.