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Part 1: Life in a Multigrade Classroom

March 2, 2023

By: By: Kendall Hunt RPD with contributions from the editorial team

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 well does that work?

Very well, as a matter of fact. Multigrade classrooms combine students of different ages, subject areas, and abilities in one classroom that is taught by a single educator. 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 their multigrade classrooms. In this two-part blog, we’ll investigate the multigrade experience through logistics, benefits, and advice.

Let’s dive into a multigrade classroom through the eyes of Ana Luna and Renee Whiting.

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. Maintaining focus and remaining quiet during work time and transitions is a skill that multigrade students learn quickly. This helps preserve the routine of the classroom while ensuring each group gets an equal amount of time with the teacher.

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.

So, what are the benefits?

1.  Self-directed learning.

In a multigrade setting, students are required to complete independent work without constant teacher prodding, encouraging self-directed learning.

“I believe children [in a multigrade classroom] mature faster,” Luna explained. “They must focus on the task at hand independently since I am not constantly reminding them to do their work.”

This requires intentional instructor planning.

“Clear, concise, and consistent procedures are necessary in order for this type of systemic work,” Whiting explained. “The key to multigrade instruction is knowing what everyone else is doing when each specific group is working with the teacher. Those who are in rotation must have engaging, rigorous work that creates an academic hunger for learning.”

2.  Create a family.

Luna and Whiting agree that students in a multigrade classroom see each other as a family.

“The older kids are looked up to by the younger ones and the older kids must learn to be patient and tender with the younger kids,” Luna said. “Both must learn to accept each other’s levels of development”. She noted that being a family requires students to learn to agree and disagree agreeably and reflect on their behavior. This creates physical, mental, spiritual, and social support among peers.

Past students have even referred to Luna as their “teacher-mother” and Whiting stated that multigrade teachers become a surrogate parent in the growth and development of the child.

3.  Put to the test.

Speaking of academic needs, there’s good news on that front for multigrade educators as well. Students in multigrade classrooms can learn without comparing themselves to other students of their own age and can develop skills at a pace and timing that fits their own development. According to Whiting, the longer students remain in a multigrade classroom, the more they see an increase in standardized test scores.

4.  An increase in social-emotional learning.

Students in a multigrade classroom have more opportunities to learn and practice leadership in combination with other social-emotional skills.  “They experience a rite of passage that prepares them for developmental milestones,” said Whiting, molding her students into mentors and lifelong learners. Luna also noted that her students interact with and inspire each other, which boosts their social-emotional understanding.

Stay tuned for the second half of this two-part series, “Life in a Multigrade Classroom: The 4 Pieces of Advice Multigrade Teachers Need You to Remember!