© 1998 Renee Goularte - all rights reserved
Components of a Successful Multiage Classroom
An eight year old and a six year old read together on the floor of the classroom, holding a book between them. The older child reads a page to the younger one, then invites him to read. When the younger child has trouble with a word, the older child says the first sound to help the little one out.
A seven year old reads a rough draft of a story she has written to an eight year old. The older child says, "I like the way your story ends." The younger child asks for help with spelling.
A six year old wants to write a letter to his fifth-grade brother during writing time. The teacher is busy with another student, so he goes to his classroom buddy for help. His classroom buddy is a seven-year old who was in the class last year. She knows how to use the letter writing materials, and is able to help the younger child begin his task.
A second grader and two first graders read poetry together from charts on the wall, taking turns using a pointer.
Four first, second, and third graders work together at a writing center. The first grader is drawing a picture for a story. One second grader chooses a sticker for a writing prompt; the other second grader is halfway through a story he started the day before. The third grader is publishing one of her stories by making a book.
Interactions such as these are daily occurrences in the Multiage Primary classroom I share with a teaching partner and thirty-eight children in first, second, and third grades. Our children sometimes work on collaborative projects independent of grade level designation; other times they work on grade-specific work. Whatever they are doing, they work alongside each other throughout the day, sharing materials, ideas, and expertise.
The term Multiage is one which can be used indiscriminately to label a variety of classroom structures. Some use the term multiage classroom to describe any classroom in which there are children of more than one grade or age, including mixed-grade classes which are created for economic reasons. For example, when there are not enough students for each of two grades, the grades may be combined into one class, with the teacher teaching two separate curriculums to the two groups. The next year, as school demographics change, these temporary classes are dissolved and the children move back into single grade classes. These classes are usually called combination or mixed-grade classes rather than multiage classes. The basic structure of a true multiage learning environment is one in which the teacher views the entire class as one learning community and which supports students staying with the same teacher for more than one year.
One of the greatest benefits of a multiage classroom results when students remain in the same class for more than one year. When children have this opportunity, there is a minimum of beginning-of-the-year transition time because most of the students know the procedures and the teacher knows where the majority of students were performing at the end of the previous year. Instead of spending weeks getting to know all the students personally and academically, a teacher only needs to assess the new students who have entered the class each year.
Encouraging continuing students to mentor the new ones in classroom procedures makes for even less transition time for the new students. Procedures do not need to be explained repeatedly because many of the students already know how the class "works" and are able to teach the new students where to find supplies, how to head their papers, how to use the tape recorder, where to store personal items, how to collaborate on story-writing, and so on. This makes the beginning of the year easier for the teacher and students alike.
The familiarity of students with each other is another benefit of having students continue on in the same multiage classroom. When students work alongside each other day after day, even the youngest, shyest children become comfortable asking for help from older students. As older students teach younger ones the procedures, read them stories, and help them write their names, they develop valuable leadership skills and nurturing behaviors.
The multiage philosophy accepts that students of a particular age or grade will be working at a variety of academic and developmental levels. This acceptance is supported by the set-up of an environment which offers materials and learning strategies which include individual as well as group needs. Thematic lessons and concepts may be presented to the group as a whole, with different expectations for students of different levels and abilities. Students may work in flexible, ever-changing small groups based on ability rather than age or grade, so cross-age collaborations are accepted and encouraged. As a result, the lines between grades and ages start to become invisible. Students sometimes work in groups delineated by age, grade, or ability, but the overall structure is one which looks at the children as one group of learners with varying levels of needs.
The success of this combination of individualized learning, small group collaborations, and whole group interactions is dependent on the development of self-direction and independence in the children. This may be acquired by setting up centers with task cards, bins of individualized learning games, a classroom library of leveled books, shelves of math manipulative materials and games, a science discovery center with task cards, an art supply shelf, and a supply shelf with paper, staplers, tape, markers, and pencil sharpeners which children can access as needed. When students are not dependent on their teacher to meet all their needs, they are empowered to take ownership of the classroom environment and to develop individual responsibility for the classroom community. The interplay between older and younger students in the same classroom can facilitate this development of self-directed behavior as older students provide models for younger students.