Monday, January 2, 2012

How a Multiage Model Made it Possible to Meet 21st Century Goals

Multiage classrooms are not new in the world of education; they have existed from way back into the one room schoolhouse days and open concept schools of the 1970’s. Yet when we accepted the position of teaching a 3-4-5 multiage classroom last year, many questions quickly arose. How would three different grades be served? How could the various ranges in academics and social-emotional needs be handled? Would these students receive the expected district curriculum? Would they be ready for the next grade? Why were we pursuing this idea? Because there would be three different grades within our two rooms it quickly became apparent that the traditional factory model of education was not going to work. A multiage experience is more like what students will face in their adult world, so why was the idea so hard to grasp? Many of the questions had centered on the curriculum and materials that students learn in school. To us though the question was no longer about WHAT to teach, but HOW to teach it? Asking this question led my teaching partner Celina and me down an entirely new path.

HOW TO TEACH IT? OUR MINDSET: We knew we wanted to create an environment of collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking that would meet the needs of our diverse learners. We wanted the classroom to be student centered where personal awareness of learning needs and strengths are developed and celebrated, therefore we knew we would be working from a student then standards then curriculum type focus. We felt that goals would be outlined continually and students would have ample choice in seeking out the learning they recognize they need from self-assessments. We developed a classroom pledge of “Work Hard, Be Courageous and Celebrate Growth”. This promoted a growth mindset in our students as well as helped to build habits of mind around personal responsibility, engagement, and respect. Our ultimate goal was to create a collective sense within our classroom community of students who were focused on learning, growing and achieving goals, individually and as a group, and having fun in the process!

OUR PLC MAKES IT POSSIBLE: The year started with a total of 52 kids within our two rooms, with the dividing wall opened up to facilitate a larger classroom community space. Celina and I work together in developing curriculum, facilitating whole group mini-lessons, providing small group instruction and conferencing with individual children about their academic goals. Our micro PLC means that we interact every day in deciding what will work best to meet the students’ needs, have a far wider perspective on the students themselves and at the same time are accountable to each other, meaning we push each other to bring our best every day!

STUDENT LEARNING COMMUNITY: We began the year developing our SLC (Student Learning Community, see Celina’s Whole Child Blog Post) around respect, collaboration and communication. Students worked together to explain and define what each would need to be safe and successful in our environment. Each child created an individual learner profile using assessments for the multiple intelligences, learning styles, personality indexes, and brain preferences. In an effort to further build learner understanding we studied William Glasser’s How We Learn quote and how the brain learns using work from D. A. Sousa and M. Sprenger. Children learned about how their brains are affected by stress, how the brain attaches meaning and significance to events, how material that is not continually rehearsed will not be retained and how the brain is best suited for focus on activities for short periods of time rather than long extended single topic sessions. Empathy, awareness and acceptance of others were built around recognizing individual differences, connecting through talents and strengths and finding common ground in terms of classroom needs.

OUR FUNDAMENTAL BUILDING BLOCKS: Academically we developed our essential idea of building blocks of learning through a theme of structures, something we could integrate through all subject areas (place value as the structure of math, the scientific method as a structure in science, geography as a structure of how cultures have shaped the world around us, etc.). Using building blocks as our essential idea we outlined the targets and standards that students needed to know as a continuum of learning, developed pre-assessments to gauge where students were on the continuum and then taught students how to self-assess their understanding. Students began to recognize that if they needed a reteach they were a Level 1, if they needed more practice or a learning partner to achieve the target they were a Level 2, if they were comfortable with the target they were a Level 3, and if they felt so strong in their understanding they could teach someone else confidently to a high level they were a Level 4. Given our work building our SLC students quickly accepted that everyone learns differently and that without the essential building blocks (even ones that were targets of a lower grade level) the tower of learning would not be strong. The safe environment that had been built helped students to work together to support and develop their understanding. Age was not a factor in grouping kids, it became solely about learning needs. Our students that were above grade level in their targets had the opportunity to move along at a pace that suited them, as we continually supported them in seeking challenges at higher and higher levels. There was no longer a ceiling or a floor to our curriculum, just a sense of owning their learning, attaining personal goals and meeting targets.

CONNECTIONS MAKE LEARNING RELEVANT FOR STUDENTS AT ANY AGE: Rather than focus on discreet and disconnected learning skills, or dividing students into groups based arbitrarily on age, we chose instead to build connections between ideas and concepts through critical thinking skills. These thinking skills became the common thread and organizational framework throughout our daily experiences, incorporating metacognition across all content areas, as well as in the real world. Essential questions became the cornerstone of our content focus in science and social studies, connecting students with cultural universals, enhancing a greater global perspective, and building an appreciation of innovation around the world. The use of open ended tasks, metaphors and analogies made learning visible to students, as well as to link new information to what they already know. Students began to see that communicating, comparing, contrasting, connecting and creating were integral in learning about math, science and social studies, as well as in understanding their own health and well-being. They quickly discovered that the use of various resources, technology and skills in reading and writing would help them to further enhance, share and build their individual knowledge base, filling in necessary building blocks. Celina and I also included the learning we were developing through our own personal reading, research, and classroom observations, further illustrating our equal partnership in the learning process, as well as revealing to students how they were teaching us and each other.

WHAT WE FOUND: The Multiage delivery model created within our classroom, and the resulting shift in HOW to teach three different grades, was less about controversy and more about success. We discovered that we can easily integrate the needs of 21st century learning into our classroom because we have created a student centered learning environment that promotes content knowledge and life learning skills, while allowing students to be supported and challenged. Students are empowered and engaged, driven and dedicated, celebrated and championed. Just by letting go of traditional mindsets, we were able to enter the future, which is what every 21st century classroom needs. I think that creating a multiage model was the impetus for the change. By no longer being held to the tenets of a single grade age band, curricular focus or formal grouping, Celina and I were pushed to create a new model that would effectively meet the needs of our students in this generation. This is the highlight element of 21st century learning, preparing for an unknown future through instructional models today that start first and foremost with the students. Students and their needs can no longer be the end result of an educational system, but must be first and foremost the driving force. The world is a continually changing place, and our perspective must evolve as well to meet new challenges.  ~ Ann

Sousa, D. A. (2006). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Sprenger, M. (2005). How to teach so students remember. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

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