By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Mountain Empire Teachers Association member Mary Weaver at Descanso Elentary School.
"Calling all second-graders," Mary Weaver calls out to her class of 20 at Descanso Elementary School. Eight students walk over to the corner table for direct instruction with Weaver in language arts.
"If I have an uncle, would you spell his wife A-U-N-T or A-N-T?" asks Weaver. When students answer correctly, she praises them for being "Super Seconds."
Meanwhile, a dozen first-graders are sitting on the floor, absorbed in writing books titled "My Bear." Nearby are stuffed bears in shoe box beds put together by Weaver, offering inspiration.
"Now it's time for my Super Seconds to go to their seats and start working in their journals," says Weaver. "Will all of my first-graders join me?"
And so it goes throughout the day, with Weaver alternating between the two grades. Some activities are shared, including a math lesson on counting and physical education, where balls bounce atop a parachute held by all the students.
This Mountain Empire Teachers Association member makes juggling look easy, even though teaching a combination classroom is anything but. Weaver — a nominee for San Diego County Teacher of the Year — has some advice for teachers given combo classes, so that they and their students can thrive.
"Constantly assess students to see where they are academically," she says. "Use multiple assessments so you can monitor their progress and so you know who you have to help. Watch them for possible learning problems, too."
She advises teachers to include both grades in activities whenever possible, but at different levels. For example, she asked both grades to write a letter to President Obama, but first-graders wrote sentences and second-graders wrote paragraphs.
She has work stations with separate curriculum for each grade to receive direct instruction, but otherwise mixes up grade levels in her seating chart. This creates a feeling among students of belonging to a class, rather than a grade. It also prevents cheating, since students sit next to others with different curriculum.
When they finish assignments, students can choose from "buckets of books" to read for pleasure, or do computer activities at their own pace. This fosters independence, a helpful characteristic for students in multigrade classes.
Teaching a combination class can be a tremendous amount of work initially, says Judy Smith, a teacher at Georgetown School, but it does get easier over time.
"Sometimes you can group by ability and not by grade level. The key is that you have to know your standards for each grade level so you can integrate them as much as possible," says Smith, a member of the Black Oak Mine Teachers Association (BOMTA) who has taught multiage classrooms for 20 years. "If you are doing a math lesson on addition, for example, look at the standards for both grade levels and put it together for a lesson in the way that you want."
"The class and individual students benefit most when the spread of abilities includes highs and lows within all the grade levels represented in the classroom," says Smith. "All students have strengths to bring to a classroom, no matter their age or academic ability, and will take on a leadership role in different ways when given the opportunity."
Combination classes can be liberating because they offer teachers creativity and variety, says George Sheridan, a teacher at Northside Elementary School in Cool and president of BOMTA. And it works best, he says, when teachers focus on meeting the needs of students rather than only thinking in terms of grade level.
"Oftentimes when I do a lesson, I am addressing standards for the first and second grade simultaneously. For instance, I might read a story from Frog and Toad Are Friends to my whole class. The second-graders could reread the story, creating a double-entry journal with passages from the book on one page and their thoughts about those quotations on the facing page. Meanwhile, the first-graders could create storyboards, retelling the story with illustrations of key scenes and single lines of text as captions. Sometimes students have the same task, but different standards for their work."
If possible, says Sheridan, share students with colleagues. "Last year, when I had a 2-3 class, I sent third-graders next door to a third-grade teacher just for math. At the same time, another teacher with a 1-2 class sent me her second-graders just for math. We didn't look at it as ‘your kids' or ‘my kids.' We were a team responsible for all the kids."
When he first was assigned to a 1-2 combination class, Sheridan thought it would be the worst year of his career. "I felt like I was always behind. After about six weeks, I realized that the problem was that I was trying to teach the entire grade 1 Houghton Mifflin language arts program and the entire grade 2 program.
"When I stopped worrying about the adopted curriculum materials, I was able to design lesson plans that worked for me and for my students. The key was designing plans that allowed me to build on what students knew and were able to do, rather than trying to shoehorn all students into one of two standard molds. It turned out to be a great year."