Edge of Chaos

"I encourage you to come to the edge of chaos and learn with the children what life is really about." Raymond H. Hartjen

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Gentle Touch

As I began my course on "Multiage Learning" I was drawn to this picture. My daughter is placing her hand firmly on a piece of clay that will forever immortalize her at this moment in time. The hands surrounding her are gently guiding her to where she needs to be, but not overpowering her so that cannot make her own mark. Essentially, this is what I think "Multiage Education" is all about. It is about each learner, not defined by age or grade levels or other arbitrary delineations. It is about looking at this one child, understanding where they are at this time and guiding them to move beyond this point.

Recently I watched a video about "Williston Central School" and how they set up the school. In the beginning of the video the initial conversation was "What would be your ideal school?" The question left me breathless. "I know, I know... it would have this, and this, and this," I thought to myself.

However, the lessons learned from the successes of this school (and perhaps the failures of others) is that multiage learning is a commitment of all of the stakeholders. It requires much planning, much meeting of the minds, and an openness to real change.

I will continue to post my thoughts as they evolve on this subject and include some work that I have previously posted in another venue for my university studies on this subject. Also, I would like to note that I have posed the question, "What would be your ideal school?" to my colleagues. I will post their replies in a tab so that others visions so that it might be a starting point for discussion for others.

Multiage Vs. Split

***See sidebar for references.

In my ten years of teaching I have primarily taught split classes. (I should note that I refer to these classes as “split” classes as I have been directed to work with two different curriculums with my two groups of students.) During one period, I had taught one group of students for two years in a row. This was a particularly interesting experience as I learned a lot about students progression through curriculum and the dynamics of working with the same group of students over the course of two years. So, it was with great interest that I read the articles and power-point presentations on multi-age classrooms.

I believe that I have a unique perspective on this topic given my practical experience on split-grade education as most of my professional colleagues have avoided these classes. Teaching a “split” is understood to mired with pitfalls such as the constraints of attending to two curricula. Trying to get two distinct groups of students to achieve their specific sets of outcomes is not willingly embraced by many educators. In fact, on a daily basis I am told, “I don't know how you do it.”

The issues that are raised regarding “combined/split” classes spill over into the term “multiage” and as such there are misguided impressions of the latter. What does multiage really mean? More students? More of an age range among the students? More curriculum concepts to “cover?”

These fears were not easily placated as I read Dr. Stone's article, “Multi-age Education” as I felt overwhelmed by the messages contained therein. Repeatedly the phrase “the students will” and “the teachers will” kept popping up in the article and I kept interrupting the flow of the reading with the question, “How is this achieved?”

For example, Stone wrote, “You would see teachers using whole group, small group, and individual instruction based on the needs and interests of the children” (Stone, p.1). While this should not seem herculean or very far removed from my own practice, I was concerned as I reflected on the phrase “...instruction based on the needs and interests of the children.” Currently, the system that I am engaged in is focused on grade-specific curriculum that may or may not be of interest to my students. As much as I compact the curriculum and open the topics of one grade to another (very often in the guise of language arts) and I feel pressured to provide opportunities for students to meaningfully engage in topics of their specific grade.

Another area that I struggled with as I read Stone's article was the description of the  usage of curriculum in a multiage classroom as he wrote, “...the teacher uses the available curriculum like an assortment of tools from which to choose the most appropriate ones to fit the child’s learning needs” (Stone, p. 2).  While this may seem innocuous or perhaps idyllic to others I have grave concerns about how this may be done.

From my own experience I have had problems that have arisen when students come to me without the prior knowledge or experience that are required for my grade levels. If teachers chose their tools without little understanding or regard to the continuum of learning, gaps within a child's education may result. Currently I have the benefit of the wisdom of two particular math teachers in my school who I consult on a regular basis as they teach two grade levels above my own. These conversations are invaluable in helping me to effectively plan and support my students for not only where they are now, but   where they need to go with respect to the curriculum.

Obviously I am writing from my own experience of grade-level and curriculum-based teaching, but the central concern still holds in my opinion. If the choice of tools is not deliberate and based on the sound understanding of a child's development or of a sense of purpose than gaps may ensue. For example, in my conversations with others I have been horrified to hear how some teachers glibly admit that they hate teaching geometry and do very little work in this area in their classes. When questioned, these teachers assert that the students will get it eventually when they come to my classroom.

I found solace in reading Dr. Mulcahy's article, “Multiage and Multi-Grade: Similarities and Differences” as I understood the “virtues” that arose from the necessities that rural teachers in Newfoundland faced. In particular I felt vindicated as he wrote about “the two different timetables” as he wrote, “Such teachers often operated with two different timetables. An official one sent to the district office detailed the required graded format and 'time allotments.' An unofficial one kept in the drawer of the teacher's desk reflected a more flexible and responsive approach to learning and teaching actually followed in the classroom (Mulcahy, 2000).” If truth were to be told, I have an official copy of my own schedule and my unofficial one that is often put into place. To negotiate the myriad of outcomes I tend to “switch” things around to try to attend to both the demands of the curriculum and the needs and interests of my students.

I readily agree with Dr. Mulcahy's belief that many teachers would be willing to make changes to how their classes are structured as he states, “All they are waiting for is 'official' permission to do so” (Mulcahy, 2000). In my own practice I have enjoyed working with students whose age range is three years. The myriad of interests, experiences and places on the progression maps of various topics has made for rich discussions and wonderful learning experiences. However, having such a broad range of topics to “cover” and pigeonhole students into specific learning experiences can be a frustrating experience for all concerned. Often I feel as though I am doing a disservice to my students as I feel rushed to hurry them through a given topic so that I can meet deadlines and other constraints. As Mulcahy states, “Time and curriculum must be made flexible so learning is not held hostage to inappropriate schedules of coverage (Mulcahy, 2000).” Ultimately, I would love to experience a multiage classroom so that I could once again enjoy the wide scope of ideas and experiences that comes with teaching students with a three-year range of age. However I would like to do so without feeling “hostage” to the dictates of two curricula.

If were were to move away from “split/combined” classes and move towards multiage classrooms I have some unanswered questions which are as follows:

1. If students were moving from another district that focused on traditional grade based structures, where would the child be placed and how would this placement affect the child? Do we consider a child's development, age, previous school experiences, parent/guardian expectations?
2. How do we prepare students who are moving from a multiage classroom to a more grade-based classroom?
3. How do we support teachers to plan the curriculum for their classroom to reflect students developmental stages so that they are ready for the next stages of instruction, etc. in subsequent years?
4. If multiage classrooms are designed for both the teacher and students to move along together for two or three years what happens when their are severe behavioural or social issues at hand and the it is not recommended to keep certain children together in a classroom?
5. While the power-point presentations helped me to have a clearer vision of the pragmatics of a multiage classroom, I am curious to learn more about how a teacher can effectively plan, assess, and support the needs of students of various age levels in one classroom?
I look forward to learning more about the answers to these questions and other topics as I continue through this course.

Benefits: It Depends on Who is Asking

Having taught split classes for a number of years I would cheerfully welcome the opportunity to work in a multiage class. The benefits have been enumerated and elaborated upon not only in the readings within the confines of the current course that I am taking, but also in literature elsewhere.

As I reflected on one of the assignments/ creating a benefits chart, I was thinking of my teaching practice for the last number of years. My understanding of curriculum, student learning, assessment, and evaluation have changed over the years. Perhaps what has deepened the most for me is my knowledge of the continuum of learning. 

This is the part that I think would be the most difficult aspect of a multiage class. Ostensibly it appears that it would not be any different in a single-aged group, but I believe that given the age gap, etc. you would need to be extremely vigilant in terms of the development of each child. With a three-year age gap and associated range in development and cognition, this may be somewhat challenging to address. The interests of a ten-year-old may differ vastly from a thirteen-year-old for example.

Supporting teachers in a multiage classroom so that they have time to plan, prepare, and assess students in a multiage classroom is pivotal. It would require a commitment not only from the teachers involved, but also from the administration and the greater community. 

This, I believe is the answer to the question, "Benefits: It Depends on Who is Asking?" If we have the support of the key players involved, then obviously a multiage classroom(s) is the most beneficial to student learning in terms of engagement, success, ownership, and pride. However, if there is a lack of understanding of what multiage learning looks like and a lack of necessary supports and training, there might be problems in the future. 

How Does Multiage Grouping Contribute to Learner-Centeredness?

Teaching a split class has helped me to clearly see the benefits of a multiage setting regarding learner-centeredness. When my students; regardless of grade level, are working on a common learning goal I find that they are more engaged and in control over their own learning. The arbitrary boundaries delineated by “grade-level” do not matter in those moments.

Working together in groups allows students to share their ideas and ask questions based on their common interests, knowledge, and areas that need support. These determinants are not based on age, but rather the students’ own personalities and development.

In my attempts to support students, I will sometimes subvert the curriculum to reflect their areas of strength and need. For example, I have a student in Grade Six who has incredible skills in non-fiction reading and writing; I call him “Captain Non-Fiction.” When we were working on a Grade Five unit in Social Studies on Ancient Egypt, one of Captain Non-Fiction’s favourite topics, I brought him in as a “resident expert.” To quell any possible questions, I decided that I would call this individual work on his part as meeting some of his Grade Six Language Arts outcomes. This act of subversion not only allowed him to pursue a familiar and interesting topic to him, but it also allowed him to dig deeper and learn more about this interesting topic.

This, I believe is one of the pivotal differences between split and multiage classes. In a multiage class there are no concerns about “subverting” the curriculum, as opposed to a split class where grade-level students are required to explore curriculum that has been prescribed to them and may not reflect their interests.

I have always maintained that bringing a class of students together first is the primary concern of a teacher and the curriculum follows behind. You cannot get students to “buy into” something that they are simply not ready for or are interested in. This is not to say that students should not be challenged or introduced to unfamiliar topics. However, if there is a lack of choice or options, students will not view themselves as an active participant in their own learning.

Returning back to my example of “Captain Non-Fiction” I have seen first-hand the power of multiage groupings. Not only did the conversation on various aspects of Ancient Egypt become much more diverse and interesting because of my “resident expert,” but the social and emotional aspects were equally impressive as well. Being able to lead others allowed this student to see the power of his own strengths and abilities, which had a direct impact on other areas of his learning. He has become much more willing to share his thoughts and take risks in subjects that he previously struggled to engage in. Seeing how he was able to help other students in Social Studies allowed him to understand that he could ask questions and seek the assistance of others when he had difficulties with concepts in mathematics.

Being able to delve into areas of strength and interests allows students to learn about their own individual strengths and weaknesses, which is an incredible benefit of a multiage classroom. Students become much more engaged when they “buy into” the curriculum that they help to create and as such, are able to become effective advocates of their own learning.

“Why Implement “Multi-Age” Education?”

***See sidebar for references.
The cheeky answer to the aforementioned question in my own mind is “that it couldn’t hurt.” The traditional system that we are currently using is so broken in my opinion, that anything else would be a welcome reprieve. As Jim Grant and Bob Johnson wrote in their article “Why Get Rid of Graded Schools? The History and the Research” that, “The graded system in which children pass or fail each year was a factory model that was accepted as appropriate in the nineteenth century.” It seems incredible to me that two centuries later we are still embracing what could be euphemistically be called as, “old technology.” Many of us would never consider using televisions, cell phones, computers, etc. that are more than ten-years-old, but we unquestioningly embrace a system that has not served our past and our current students very well.
I jokingly refer to some of my very strong students as not having to need a teacher in the room. Regardless of who is there as their teacher, these students have either the skills, aptitudes, interests in whatever subject that they are presented or they have become very adept at negotiating the public school system. However, it is the remaining students that worry me; those that struggle, are disaffected, and underserved. As Grant and Johnson state, “In looking for what frustrates our effort to educate all children, we are increasingly trying to define the problem by labeling children -"learning disabled," " children-at-risk: "attention deficit," "gifted," "minimally performing," etc.” I have a remarkable number of these students in my classroom and from my casual conversations with my colleagues, so do they.
In our efforts to better identify areas of needs and give students supports in the same we are now expected to meet with our grade-level colleagues in “professional learning communities (PLC).” While informative to our current situation, these meetings cannot address the larger systemic problems that result from our grade-level circumstances. Simply put, we are marshaling students through a curriculum that they may not be interested in or ready for as a result of their chronology. In my PLC conversations with colleagues we often speak of our frustrations in trying to reach our learners. We end up asking more questions than discovering answers. One theme that tends to be reflected on is, “What to do with those that aren’t ‘ready’ for what we are working on in class?”
In her article, “Why Does Multiage Make Sense? Compelling Arguments for Educational Change” Wendy Kasten discusses what we commonly refer to as “young” students; those that are not “ready” for school when they enter. Her thoughts on this subject resounded on a personal level for me.  I was particularly struck by her assertion that, “…even particularly bright children continue to be at the young end of the developmental continuum as they proceed through schooling. They remain less advanced, less mature, and less confident in their abilities than others in their group.” I had always felt a step behind my peer group; never quite “getting it.” I had always felt as though there was something wrong with me; that somehow I was at fault.  It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that perhaps there was more at play and that it wasn’t “my” fault that I felt adrift in school.
As she continues to write, Karsten asks, “… if this child proceeds through school always in the same relatively low position as compared to classmates, how does this affect an overall sense of self? Aspirations? Self-esteem?” As someone who always felt as though they were in a “low position” I can unequivocally state that yes, this position does affect a sense of sense, aspirations and self-esteem. This struggle did not go unnoticed as my mother watched me become withdrawn and unhappy during my Primary year. Fearing that the same would happen to my brother and sister, whose birthdays were also in the summer as my own, she decided to keep them home for one more year. She endured a lot of commentary and criticism for this bold move, but in the end it was the best decision for them as they were ready to enter school at six-years-old respectively.
It was interesting to note that in Dr. Barbara Pavan’s “Summary of Research about Benefits of Multiage” that students in multiage classrooms, “…were more likely than their peers to have positive self-concepts, high self-esteem, and good attitudes toward school.” In regards to their academic achievement it was noted that, “…58% of those students in multiage classes performed better than their peers on measures of academic achievement. 33% performed as well as their peers, and only 9% did worse than their peers.” With what we have learned from her research and that of others, I continue to wonder why we rely on the factory model of education? If the potential is there to develop a system that would not only benefit our students’ academic performances, but also their self-esteem why are we continuing to move forward with a system that simply cannot address the problems that it creates?

            Obviously the answer to this question has to be more than, “it couldn’t hurt” as I had opened with in this essay. There are many considerations to reflect upon such as placement, addressing needs, teacher support, etc. However, in my classroom I see the glimmer of what is possible as I teach a split classroom. As the literature suggests in the readings for this section my younger students enable the nurturing elements of my older students and my older students are able to refine their own thinking as they support the younger students. Often, the lines between who is younger and who is older are blurred as they support each other. These are my favourite moments in our day when we are engaged in activities as a group and regardless of age or grade-level we are working together. I find that the learning evolves more naturally and concretely as the students create it together – working on strengths that the individuals bring together.

            If one were to compare these moments in my classroom to a real-world setting you would find that it would be remarkably similar. In both settings people are brought together on a common goal based on their areas of strength, skill set, knowledge base, or interest level. Unlike my classroom however, in a work environment people are not brought together merely by chronology or years employed by a company. My “Professional Learning Community” in school is a testament to this where there is one thirty-something, a fifty-something, and me at forty-three years old. It makes sense to place us together as we have our common grades to consider rather than placing us with colleagues who are similar in age.

            Ultimately I did not have questions of the readings. I was surprised by my strong reaction to Karsten’s article in her discussion about immature students. It was as though a weight had lifted from my shoulders to finally reconsider that the fault had not been my own in feeling a step behind in school. This was good to be reminded of how my students must feel at times and to be mindful as a teacher in supporting my students; both academically and emotionally.

Reflecting on Curriculum in a Multiage Setting

***See sidebar for references.
What garnered my attention in the readings and introduction to this module was Marion's evolution regarding curriculum documents as "Starting Points." That would have been helpful to think about as I started my teaching career - as a combined teacher. (Yes, they really do save these jobs for the inexperienced and overwhelmed.)

Every year that I begin as a split teacher I divide myself in a Solomonesque approach. I'm in a frenzy of trying to give each group "their" content. As the year goes on and my energy level depletes I become increasingly subversive in my approach. Content that would normally "belong" to one grade level begin to creep into other areas (language arts is a particular favourite) as I try to "cover" all of the outcomes. The result? I feel guilty in my obvious failings and my students do not get to richly mine the depths of certain subjects.

I don't believe that the process of curriculum development for a multiage classroom would be entirely easier than that of a split teacher. However, with one focus I believe that the process would not be as problematic for both students and teachers. Perhaps the most difficult aspect is understanding developmental stages of development and supporting students as they progress.

Focusing on themes that are common between the grades and having a multi-disciplinary approach are not new concepts to split-grade teachers. However, as Dr. Greene points out, "Multiage classroom teachers become very adept at developing lessons with differentiated assignments that appeal to the various developmental levels in the class." This, I believe is what separates split and multiage classes. While I strive to provide different assignments that appeal to my students, I am still preoccupied by grade level delineations. Developmental levels do now know boundaries, but prescribed grade-level outcomes do.

In those moments of subversion, where my students choose topics of interest and they research and develop activities on the same, I often find my most struggling learners reach unplumbed new heights.

I think that many people get overwhelmed when they think of a multiage curriculum because they view it in its entirety; Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Health, Art. However, I'm buoyed by the Williston Central School model where teachers work closely together to strategically plan together and the content is shared. No one teacher is responsible for all subjects. To paraphrase one of the educators in the video from Williston Central, "We are not experts in every subject." 

Ultimately I believe this is what many of us struggle with as we make our way through this course. We either have had experience with split classes or not, but few of us, if any of us have had exposure to multiage classrooms. The mindset is markedly different. Where we think of outcomes and concepts learned, multiage educators are thinking of processes and development.

This is why I find many of the lesson plans that are available online in my district to be so stilted. Focusing on common themes between grade-levels will only get you so far. Space needs to be made and accounted for students development and interests.

I look forward to learning more on this subject.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

What Would Be Your Ideal School?

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When I heard one of the educators discuss how they were posed the question, "What would be your ideal school?" and their dreams filled the room, I had to stop the video and watch it over and over again.

This is the question that I've discussed in part with educators in jest since I've joined the ranks. However, I've posed the question to a select number of my colleagues this morning and I'm waiting for the emails to pour in.

As is stated in the video, the problem that we see is "...not with the child, but with the system." We are all trying then to bridge the gap and fix the system. The analogy that often springs to mind for me in discussions of what is wrong with the system is trying to plug a dam with your thumb. It's only going to work for so long.

The question that I would dearly love to answer then and be a part of the construction of the response is, "What would be your ideal school?" As my wish-list would be constructed unabated, I know that eventually I would have to reflect on what I would need to do to facilitate this dream.

1. Be a coach - a facilitator
2. Be a team member - think about where are we headed
3. Authentic assessment - process over content
4. Move beyond bowling alley curriculum
5. Inquiry-based learning - rather than learning about what others have already said - constructing own knowledge
6. Make a commitment to meet the needs of all learners

I was deeply impressed with how the team worked together - planning for their future, moving beyond dreams and ambitions and learned from their mistakes. Walls were moved, communication became more effective, and programming became more responsive.

If I were to take one aspect away from this video I believe it would be in regards to the curriculum. How can I take the bowling alley curriculum that does not meet the needs of learners, "Where those that will do well will do well and those that do not will fail?" How can I facilitate the learning so that the students construct their own knowledge and become more responsible and engaged in their own processes?