Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The 3R’s, the Multi-age Classroom, Project Based Instruction, and Middle School

Rigor, relevance, and relationships are three of the latest groovy buzz words in education. While some educators see them as separate entities, I see them in a sort of intertwined, reverse sequential order. To get to rigor, the nirvana of learning where students experience daily intellectual challenges and become critical thinkers, a teacher must build relationships with students and construct lessons that students will find relevant to the world in which they live. Building that rigorous learning environment may sound like a pretty steep mountain to climb, but there is a brilliant short cut to the promised land. I believe the multi-age classroom, coupled with a strong project based instructional delivery system, is the surest way to educate our children for the demands of the 21st Century.

Why multi-age? The number one answer to that question is; It Works! I have taught middle school for more than twenty years, and the most rewarding of those years were spent working with multi-age students. Whether we combined 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students or just 7th and 8th, the formula led to success. Here are some reasons why multi-age works:

Multi-age builds lasting, positive relationships: Whether working with a sixth through eighth combination or a seven-eight grouping, teachers have time to build firm, positive relationships with students and their families. After spending the first several months of school getting to know a student, understanding what motivates their actions, and building bridges to their home, a teacher then has only four to six months to capitalize on all this good work. Then they hand off the child to a new teacher who starts the process again. Instructional time is lost while the new teacher gets a fix on what the student needs. In the multi-age classroom, the relationships developed with each student and their families will continue to deepen as the years go by. A clever middle school student cannot put anything over on an even more clever multi-age teacher. The teacher knows what was taught in the previous year, she knows the material the student mastered, what lessons were not mastered, and all the contact numbers for mom, dad, grandma, and the friendly neighbor who lives next door. In the multi-age classrooms, parents are drawn deeply into their child’s classroom. They volunteer more, are more committed to knowing what’s happening at school, and they truly appreciate the connections their child makes with the entire school environment. The continuity of the multi-age relationship is the key to building rigor into any kind of learning environment.

Multi-age allows teachers to draw clear connections between various curriculums. In a multi-age classroom, teachers can say, “remember last year when we studied . . .” Often, in straight age classrooms, the curriculum from the previous year is never mentioned, with the exception of the frustrated teacher wondering why his students weren’t taught a thing last year! Well of course last year’s teachers worked hard to fill their heads with important knowledge, but without structures in place to help students see the relevance of the old material to the new material, they simply don’t remember what they “learned” last year. In a multi-age classroom, there is a built in system which helps students connect the dots in their various curriculums.

Multi-age gives older students a clear leadership role. About mid-way through the school year, eighth grade teachers begin to complain about eighth-grade-itis. This phenomenon occurs each year as the eight grade class mentally checks out of middle school. Although high school is several months away, these big gallutes become increasingly difficult to teach. Often, their behavior gets them into a great deal of trouble and not only chews up instructional time, but forces administrators to deal with discipline issues that take away from their role of instructional leadership. In a multi-age classroom, eighth graders are given clear leadership roles. They acclimate the new students to the team's culture. They help the younger students learn complicated technology skills. Eighth grade students are asked to set a high standard of academic achievement for their younger peers. The expectation that eighth grade students will be positive leaders for their younger peers is highly motivating and keeps eighth graders working and learning to the last day of their middle school career.

Multi-age classrooms result in higher achievement for all students. Younger students in the multi-age classroom want to perform at the same level their older peers. Normally, seventh grade is a lackluster year. Not in a multi-age classroom. Because eighth graders do not approve, these younger students learn to control their immature behavior. With less focus on silliness and greater focus on being a mature learner, younger students push the eighth graders to achieve. The younger students, wanting to close the gap between them and their older peers, push even harder. The result is high achievement for every student. And because the teacher will only exit an eighth grade group, a legacy of high achievement becomes the culture of the team, handed down from grade to grade.

Multi-age classrooms provide a smooth transition from middle to high school. A good friend of mine who teaches at another middle school in this district expressed this characteristic eloquently by stating that each new school-year on a multi-age team begins with students grieving for their friends who have moved onto high school. The new crop of “upper-classmen” mopes around for several weeks, mourning their missing friends. Through email and Myspace, they keep in touch, make plans to meet at the football games or see a movie together. On straight age teams, the high school registration process intimidates many eighth graders. This does not happen on a multi-age team. When registration time roles around, the multi-age eighth graders are filled with joy at the prospect of seeing their old friends again. They know their friends are waiting for them to show them around campus, point out the best place to meet for lunch, and school them on the teachers to avoid. They are not afraid of their future; they are ready to embrace high school.

It is clear that the multi-age structure is well suited for building relationships between students and their teachers, students and their peers, teachers and the families of their students. Multi-age also makes rigor a reality by creating an environment in which students want their peers to see them at their best. But there is an instructional model that enhances this near perfect scenario, and that is project based instruction. Any classroom can follow the project based instructional model, but the in the multi-age classroom, this model becomes most powerful. Here are some reasons why:

Project based instruction fosters collaboration. In the multi-age classroom it is important to create leadership roles for the older students. Project based instruction delivers many opportunity for older students to work with younger students. This is where teachers step back and let the eighth grade boy teach his seventh grade partner how to build a web page. There are many examples of how project based instruction allows students to work together to create products that truly demonstrate learning. In the 21st Century workplace, people must know how to work with colleagues. Project based instruction gives students practice on what kind of behaviors lead to a successful partnership. This is essential knowledge that will allow our children to compete with their world-wide peers.

Project based instruction allows for maximum differentiation. In the project based instruction model teachers can carefully group students to maximize growth. Students can be matched so that various strengths and multiple intelligences will be used. Students with special learning challenges can partner with peers having similar needs so that modifications can be targeted and never ignored. Because every student finds an area of learning in which they excel, all student move forward.

Project based instruction makes learning relevant. The premise of project based instruction is that students are learning for a purpose. The process of getting to the project phase of any unit is filled with challenging learning tasks. Students are motivated to master these challenges because they know they will get to build a project that demonstrates what they’ve learned. The project phase is where they bring together all they’ve learning, sift through it looking for connections, and then create something out of this knowledge. The freedom to create is the greatest motivator I have ever witnessed. I have seen it lift even the most recalcitrant student to high levels of achievement.

What are the limitations of multi-age/project based instruction classroom? The only limitation I’ve experienced is finding teachers who will “stand and deliver” the product. Many teachers think it is too hard to teach multiple curriculum. They do not want to master two or three years of social studies, math, or science. They are comfortable with the stories in the seventh grade literature book and don’t want to move out of that comfort zone. Other teachers simple don’t see how mixing different age groups together will make it easier to teach.

I recommend that when an administrator finds teachers who are interested in this kind of teaching, they allow them time to research the concepts, visit classrooms, and talk with teachers who have successfully implemented these learning structures. Administrators need to support the learning curve for teachers willing to come out of their comfort zone. This will foster greater professional growth and help teachers experience tremendous satisfaction in their work.

I am dedicated to spending the rest of my career developing teachers who understand the combined power of multi-age grouping and project based instruction to produce well educated students in a learning environment filled with solid relationships, relevant learning experiences, and rigorous intellectual challenges.

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