Multi-age Classrooms Invite Synergy

Amy Mevorach
Issue Date: 
March, 2019
Article Body: 

For the past 20 years, Beth Altchek and Kristin McEnaney have been teaching a combined first and second grade at Lilja Elementary. In adjacent classrooms separated by a door that is often open, each teacher leads a group of ten first graders and ten second graders. Math classes split along grade lines, gathering first graders with one teacher and second graders with another, but otherwise, they study and play together as one community in which students connect by interest, not by age. “There are different progressions as they move through interests, subjects and social development,” said McEnaney.
Schools have different reasons for combining grade levels, said Altchek. Teachers may teach two separate curricula in a split-grade classroom if a district’s population is dwindling. “It’s double the work,” said McEnaney. Having trained in teaching multi-age classrooms during their graduate study at Tufts University, the two teachers created the integrated classrooms that are known at Lilja as “the 1-2’s.” One year they all follow the first grade curriculum for science and social studies, and the next year follow the second grade curriculum. “There’s a lot of synergy in a multi,” said Altchek. “There’s a little bit of magic involved.”
Magic is pervasive in the Studies, which are investigations of a topic utilizing many avenues of learning. They last about six weeks and culminate with a Showcase. This year began with Dragon Study, where students compared Eastern dragons with Western dragons, the study of which led into art, mythology, dance, music, storytelling, reading, writing, and more. Next year, the students will begin with a Harry Potter study.
The combined classroom offers opportunities for students to learn in different modalities, such as art, dance, poetry recitation and acting, so that someone who does not have an innate academic ability can find a way to shine. “The kids are more accepting of differences because they live differences,” Altchek said. “They see them.”
Three or four years ago they added the outdoor component of the class. Lilja is located within walking distance of the Hunnewell Town Forest, allowing for regular explorations of the woods over the three seasons of school.
The 3-4 classrooms at Lilja, taught by Heather Starkel and Sarah Quimby, care for an outdoor garden near the Lilja playground and use a similar model for successful integrative learning that allows for different styles and ways of investigating.
The multi-age classrooms are initiated by the teachers. Each teacher must know the Common Core for both grades across all subjects. Altchek said, “The demands are mighty. We make a thousand decisions a day. But it’s a lot of fun.”
While popular in the 1990’s, multi-age classrooms have diminished in number. “We are lucky we have been given support,” said Altchek. All five principals have backed the endeavor. “Natick has honored us in that.”
The students of the multi-age classrooms are placed into the 1-2’s by kindergarten teachers and by second grade teachers into the 3-4’s. Choices are made to build a balanced classroom, with some leaders, solid academics, some who are struggling, designing a heterogeneous group. Parents may choose to opt out of the program, which does happen, said Altchek, but there is more interest than there is space in the classes.
The relationships between teachers and students is strong in the multi-age classes, as they remain in the program for two years. “They come back in the fall and pick up where we left off,” McEnaney said. “They know the teacher and half the kids, so there is less anxiety.”
Family members of students visit occasionally to share a skill or interest with the classes or to chaperone a forest walk. The family connection is strengthened by the two-year program.
Students who have moved on to third and fourth grade from the 1-2’s stop by in the mornings to greet Mrs. M. and Mrs. A. Other alums of the 1-2’s return from high school to tell the teachers where they are going to college, and every year someone includes their 1-2 teacher in an essay about a teacher who had a particular impact on them. “They do stay connected,” said Mrs. A.