One of the questions we are often asked is how we deal with a multi-age classroom. My question in return is how do traditional schools deal with kids with such different abilities from such different backgrounds, with such different home situations, and with such different expectations for their futures?
Our classes may have four years of students in them, but because it’s individualized, it doesn’t matter. We do some whole class teaching, but we use several methods to make sure each student gets what he needs in the way he learns best. One method is Sue Patrick’s Workbox System. Each of our students has four workboxes in math and four in language arts. We may do a whole-class teaching, and then students will look at the daily agenda to see what workboxes they are to do. Inside they may find a puzzle, Hot Dots to drill math facts or subject/predicate, a worksheet, or a book to read. While they are working in their workboxes, the teacher is able to provide attention to individuals or small groups. This also allows us to put more challenging material in the boxes of students who need more difficult work.
Another method we use is stations. Today one language arts class went to five different stations, all dealing with subjects and predicates. One was our Sentence Staging station, where parts of a sentence are arranged on a platform divided into subject and predicate. Articles are pictures of heralds blowing a trumpet, because articles mean “NOUN COMING!” Nouns are small toys, while verbs are written on one inch tiles. Conjunctions are on small cubes. Prepositional phrases are green Model Magic strips, with a place for a preposition-bearing butterfly, an article or adjective, and a platform to put a noun for an object. Adjectives are flags, which, like articles, are on lollypop sticks and go into the holes drilled in the platform. I’ve not introduced helping verbs, linking verbs, adverbs or interjections yet. The students can now sit down at the Sentence Staging table and write the sentence, identifying the parts of speech. Today’s sentence was “The turtle with the red hat eats a hamburger in the volcano.” Other stations included a Schoolhouse Rock video, a Hot Dots teacher-made activity where they showed they could tell a sentence from a fragment, a worksheet, and a sentence puzzle. We’ve also used the station format in math, social studies and science.
With both of these methods, kids appreciate the opportunity to move around and to not have to spend what seems like an infinite amount of time on any one activity. If one activity is a worksheet, they know there will not be an endless procession of worksheets; a puzzle or building activity is coming up next. This also ensures there will be an activity that will support the learning of a visual, auditory, kinesthetic or tactile learner. We also use a lot of manipulatives and drama.
Because we are small, we can individualize. Because we are private, we have the luxury of parents who want their kids to have a better education. And these are not just children with wealthy parents. We are committed to having a large percentage of lower-income children, and those children have parents who have gone the extra mile to get them there and to support us in our work—sometimes literally, as one third of our student body drives from Wake County and another student comes from Chatham. Because we don’t have homework or EOGs, we don’t have to worry about struggles in that area and students can learn at their own rate.
I really do believe we have the easier job.
We’ve tried to stack the deck in their favor. Each child visited at least twice this summer and met some of the other students. We did pre-assessments so we could start them where they needed to be. We listened to their suggestions about how they’d like school to be. Procedures are posted on the wall; they never have to wonder what they do when they come in first thing in the morning—it’s there and it’s the same every morning. We schedule plenty of movement.
But I’ve discovered this week that what makes the biggest difference in their attitudes is that we have structure without rigidity. We are highly structured. They are given procedures for every transition and expectations for every situation. The schedule is posted prominently and any changes are given in morning circle time. There aren’t many surprises.
But structure isn’t the same thing as rigidity. Within that structure there is room to meet each child’s needs. Each room has a popup tent in the corner with a beanbag chair in it. Kids regularly ask to go to the tent for a few minutes. Sometimes they read, sometimes they just sit. Over the years, our kids have been taught multiple strategies for coping with anger and lack of impulse control, but parents report that they often weren’t allowed to use them in school. Taking time and space is a great strategy and one that can be done without a fuss. One child hates stationary desks; he wants to control how far away from his desk he is. Luckily we have multiple seating options. Another likes to sit in a bean bag. Why not?
One child got very upset about where we assigned him to start in his math book. He knew that, he said. “Fine,” his teacher said. “Show me where you think you should start.” He spent twenty minutes looking through the book and finally decided lesson 82. She had him do a few problems and he did them well. He’s starting in lesson 82.
Surprisingly, no one complains that things aren’t fair, because we don’t try to be fair. Students have different needs and need different accommodations and challenges. Because we do that for every child AND include them in setting goals and objectives, they don’t mind that things aren’t the same for everyone. And they know they have different challenges as well. In front of the school is a wonderful but very loud school bell that they love to ring. But they don’t even ask when E. is around because they know he has sensitive ears. Some children have reading tutors; some don’t need them. Some use the computer to write; others don’t need to.
Structure without rigidity. Far too often I see rigidity without the structure. We thought we’d try something different. So far it’s working.