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Life in a Multigrade Classroom: A Three-Part Series (Part 1: What Does It Look Like?)

October 7, 2019

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern

For those of us who spent our formative years in traditional, single-grade K–12 classrooms, the idea of a multigrade classroom may seem like a foreign concept.

Multiple grades? In the same room? How could that work?

Very well, as a matter of fact. Although they’re uncommon in U.S. school districts, multigrade classrooms have many academic, social, and spiritual benefits for students.

Two Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) multigrade educators, Ana Luna and Renee Whiting, offered their insights and experiences from the multigrade classroom. In this three-part series, “Life in a Multigrade Classroom,” we’ll investigate the multigrade experience, in terms of logistics, benefits, and advice. We’ll start with the basics: How exactly does a multigrade classroom work?

Part 1: What Does It Look Like?

Ana Luna runs a multigrade classroom of ten students. “The logistics of running a multigrade classroom was something I learned through trial and error,” she said. “Nothing—and I repeat nothing—could have prepared me for the challenges one faces in a multigrade setting. I am the teacher, nurse, lunch manager, PE coach, music teacher, Spanish teacher, principal, school board, secretary … and on top of all that, I organize church visits, graduations, yearbooks, etc.”

Renee Whiting’s multigrade system is enrollment based, meaning that the number of students drives the grade configuration. She’s experienced a 1st–4th/ 5th–8th setup, where students stay with the same teacher for four years; a K–2nd/3rd–5th/6th–8th three-year rotation; and even a 1st–8th combination, with one teacher for all grades.

Both Luna and Whiting, along with many multigrade educators, use a system of blocks and rotations, where small groups of students rotate between peer work, individual work, and group conferences with the teacher. Luna keeps the class on schedule by programming the block times into her phone alarm, which sounds to indicate the end of each block and mark a transition to the next.

Those transitions are important—on Whiting’s master schedule, they’re marked down to the minute. To ensure that each group gets an equal amount of time with the teacher, and to preserve the routine nature of the schedule and the order of the classroom, maintaining focus and remaining quiet during both work time and transitions is a skill that multigrade students learn quickly.

Luna reinforces this with the caveat that students may participate in end-of-day recess time only if their work from that day is completed. “Very quickly,” she said, “the children tend to choose to stay focused during their blocks to make sure the work is completed correctly so that they do not need to stay in for study hall time and can go out to recess instead.”

Not all lessons are taught in grade-individualized rotations; some, such as physical education, are taught cooperatively with multiple grades at a time. In Whiting’s class, social studies and science are whole-group lessons, with all grades learning the same concept with differentiated instruction at each grade level.

The most important aspect of multigrade logistics, however, is that none of it remains the same for long. Luna and Whiting both emphasized that no two multigrade classrooms are alike, and even the same classroom changes from year to year as the students grow and develop. Both shared copies of their current schedules but emphasized that these were only “snapshots” and that they always change each year to meet the special challenges that arise. In the end, flexibility is the multigrade educator’s best friend.

Now that you have an idea of what life in a multigrade classroom looks like, stay tuned for the next blog in our three-part series, where we’ll discuss the benefits of multigrade education!