Which of these describe your classroom?
- A range of readers whose reading stages and interests span everything and anything.
- If you look at a list of independent reading levels for your class, you would see a good portion of the alphabet!
- Some of your students have expansive vocabularies, while others do not.
- Some of your kids have the habits and stamina to read and write for long stretches of time, while others have trouble keeping themselves focused for more than a few minutes.
There's a good chance that at least one of these describes your classroom, whether you teach more than one grade, or you teach a single-grade classroom. No matter the configuration, there will always be a wide range of personalities, levels of experiences, student needs, and learning styles. In a multiage or multigrade classroom, it simply becomes even more apparent.
Teachers of multiage and multigrade configurations know how to differentiate for students, regardless of the grade level to which they are assigned. They are accustomed to teaching an overall unit of study to the whole class, while conferring with with individual students and teaching small groups to tailor their instruction. That is, in essence, what teaching multiage just is, making reading and writing workshop especially well suited for a multiage or multigrade classroom.
First things first: What's the difference between multiage and multigrade?
In daily conversation the two terms are often used interchangeably. However, researchers and nerds like me tend to use the two words differently. Multiage refers to a classroom composed of children who are more than one year apart in age, who aren't necessarily designated a grade level. Instead, the teacher differentiates instruction for each student according to their developmental, social, and academic stages -- regardless of age. In the United States, toddler and preschool classrooms are often organized this way--it is less common once kids arrive in kindergarten.
Multigrade classrooms are just as the name sounds -- more than one grade level combined. Often multigrade classrooms are created not only for educational purposes, but also for practical purposes - to address low enrollment, or to immerse groups of less mature children in the positive behaviors and communication skills of the the older children (i.e. separate large groups with major behavioral issues into smaller groups). In multigrade classrooms, children within the classroom each are designated to a particular grade level, and move on to the next grade level each year. However, many of the same principles of differentiated instruction, and accommodations for developmental, social, and academic needs still apply.
Potential Benefits of Multiage and Multigrade Classrooms
- Children ideally "loop" with their teacher, meaning they stay with the same teacher (and some of their classmates) for more than one year. This consistency had numerous potential benefits -- so long as the child's relationship and experiences with the teacher and classmates are positive.
- Younger children, and children who have less experience outside of school with books, language, and literacy, are immersed in a classroom full of children who are older and potentially have more experience with books, language, and literacy. The older children (along with some younger children) model communication skills, vocabulary, and literacy skills that benefit the younger or less experienced students.
- Children develop connections with classmates across grade levels and classrooms, creating a school-wide community, a network of friendships and relationships that span across classrooms.
- Teachers in multiage and multigrade classrooms must be able to differentiate instruction for a wide range of ages, stages, and learning styles -- as all teachers must. The necessity of differentiation is just much clearer in a multiage setting.
Researchers generally agree multiage and multigrade groupings are on par with single-grade level classrooms academically, socially, and emotionally. Some researchers have found positive benefits to multiage classrooms -- however those benefits are strongly tied to teacher philosophy, training, and implementation.
Planning a Curriculum Calendar for Multigrade or Multiage Classrooms Using the Units of Study Series
The wonderful thing about the Units of Study series is that although the minilessons in every book may be geared to grade-level standards, they are actually multi-level in many ways, and are often quite transferable to more than one grade level. Even though the box may say “Grade 2” on it, in many cases it is quite easy to transfer many of the strategies up or down a level or two. If you teach multiage, you basically have the advantage of having twice as many units to pick from. Personally, I wish every teacher could have access to the grade above and the grade below sets of books, multiage or not.
Of course, all of the principles I describe below would apply to any reading and writing workshop - even if you aren't necessarily using the Units of Study. For ease and efficiancy, however, I've written this advice for teachers using the series.
The key is to make decisions based on students' actual writing and reading work, rather than their age or assigned grade level. When you put the "official" grade level aside and just see them as a group of kids with a range of needs, things come into focus.
For example, a 1/2 class will have a wide range of readers & writers --- but so does any single- grade classroom. To plan a calendar of units for your school year, gather up as many various assessments and samples of student work as you can. Look to last year's teacher for the students who are new to your classroom. This might include running records, conferring notes, sample post-its or responses to books, published and "raw" writing samples, letter-sound identification, high frequency word recognition, spelling stages... everything you can get your hands on. Some people like to use a chart to organize all that data. Click here to see a few examples.
Then use the combination of the first grade boxed set, the second grade boxed set, and the If/Then book to create a calendar that makes sense. You might refer to the link below for additional considerations for yearlong planning:
Creating A Yearlong Curticulum Calendar (Originally posted October 3, 2015)
Tips on Adapting an Existing Unit of Study
In some cases you may be able to teach a single grade unit "as is" in your mutliage/multigrade classroom. But you will want to be prepared to adapt the unit to match the instructional goals of your own students (this is true no matter what kind of classroom you teach in!). A few simple ideas for adapting a unit:
1. Consider adding or swapping out minilessons using a unit of study from one grade up or down. You might do this if you notice particular minilessons missing from the unit you've selected, but a more likely scenario is that you'll want to add to the minilessons that are already there, to give your children extra practice using other, similar minilessons from another unit.
2. Consider skipping or adding in "Bends in the Road." The Units of Study for Reading and Units of Study for Writing are all organized into 2-4 parts, called "Bends." Each bend is a string of lessons that fit well together. Organizationally speaking, they are quite easy to remove, add to, or swap. You might, for example, decide to do only the first two bends of a lower grade level unit, and then move over to the first two bends of a similar upper grade level unit. Or you might decide to do only the first three out of four bends of a more challenging unit. Or you might design your own bend to introduce a unit, before teaching the first bend as it is written.
3. You'll notice that within the Units of Study for Writing, there are always a few lessons in every unit introducing a checklist to help students set goals, self-assess, and reflect. There are similar goal-setting units in the Units of Study for Reading. With a multiage or multigrade classroom, you'll want to introduce more than one checklist so that each of your students is working from a checklist that is "just right" for them -- aim for a checklist that will allow the student to check "yes" to a number of items, but not every item - there should be some work to do on that checklist! In a 2/3rd classroom, for example, you may have a handful of students still working from the first grade checklist, groups using the 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and even a handful using the 4th grade checklist. You might decide to teach the checklists and rubric lessons via small group work instead of whole class.
But what about the start of the year in a K/1 classroom? I don't have any student work to look at for my kindergarteners yet.
You could use what you know about last year's kindergarteners to anticipate how much experience your incoming students might have had with books and being read to. You could reach out to families and preschools over the summer with a questionnaire, phone calls, or even home visits. Even a little bit of information about each child will be helpful in anticipating how best to launch your literacy year.
Many K/1 classrooms tend to teach kindergarten units first, and then switch over to first grade mid-year -- Unit 1 in first grade will dovetail with Unit 4 from kindergarten. You might decide to use the nonfiction unit from the If/Then book instead of the first grade nonfiction unit depending on the time of year.
The first two units for kindergarten are perfect for emergent readers but will not give your conventional readers the strategies they need for anything past levels A/B. The If/Then guide to instruction included in all of the Units of Study boxed sets is a great guide for your small group work. Look to If/Then Word Detectives unit if you need more print strategies for small group work early to mid-year. You could teach the minilessons that seem to apply to the biggest number of students in your whole classroom, but then get busy pulling small groups aside to differentiate. It'll be more important than ever to keep your minilessons "mini" so that you don't use up all your conferring and small group work time.
Here are a few links to resources keeping your minilessons brief, engaging, and succinct.
Should I always teach the same unit to my whole class?
In general, research suggests that ability grouping doesn't pay off. The social aspects of learning together simply outweigh any potential reasons to split kids up - not to mention the precious minutes spent traveling from one room to another. Kids thrive on consistency and relationships -- with the teacher and the other students. So, sending one group out of the room (or to a certain part of the same room) to do something else while the rest of the class carries on is obviously not a great instructional model.
However, I'm reminded of a challenge that we ran into this year with a 2/3/4 multiage classroom I work in. (Yes - that's three grade levels combined!) During persuasive/argument writing the team (two teachers) did decide to break into two groups - one group to write reviews & letters, and the other to study literary essay - the split was mostly 2/3 & 3/4 but there was a 4th grader or two that they kept with the reviews/letters group. In this situation, the decision to split was not necessarily along grade level groupings, and felt different from traditional ability grouping. Though they preferred to keep the class together, they decided to give it a try and seemed to be successful.
What does a multiage or multigrade curriculum calendar look like?
Take a look at the following examples from different first/second multigrade teams I work with.
1. In the both examples, the teams were new to reading workshop, and decided to launch with the first grade unit to support routines, volume, stamina, and to foster great book selection habits.
2. We also aimed to alternate between fiction/nonfiction reading, and we made sure to touch on narrative, informational, and opinion types of writing.
3. In the first example, the team knew that the first graders coming in, as well as the second graders, would benefit from some foundational skills teaching at the start of the year, so they selected 2nd Grade, Book 1, as their second unit of study, knowing that in this unit, they will be able to differentiate the type of word-solving and other foundational skills all of their students might need. They also liked that both of their first two units allow students to shop from the entire classroom library, which seemed like a great way to get started as teachers who are new to reading workshop, and have limited supplies of books.
4. In the second example, the team knew that their readers would need lots of practice thinking deeply about books: making inferences about characters, comparing and contrasting books, and elaborating on their ideas, especially. So they created a calendar that would allow them to emphasize the units where comprehension is made big. (Tip: In general, the reading units are more specific to particular stages than the writing units. When you're designing your yearlong curriculum map, it might be helpful to consider the needs of your students as readers first, and then align the writing units accordingly.)
Last, But Not Least: Examples
I often receive requests for example of various grade level configurations. Here are a few others that might serve as inspiration for you work with your colleagues: Disclaimer: None of these are meant as recommendations--only examples of how other schools have done this work. You absolutely must consider the needs of your students first, as well as your own familiarity with each unit. For example, some of these plans include test prep, which is not something that I necessarily endorse or recommend, but is a requirement for some schools.