I love teaching a split grade class. I know this may not be a popular opinion in teaching but there it is. Reality is many of us teach split grade classrooms and although it has it’s challenges it also has some amazing benefits. A Colleague from my school board wrote this last year about lovin the split. In it she lists these as the amazing benefits of split grade teaching
Built-in differentiated instruction.
A continuum of learning.
Lots of small group instruction.
Two times the teaching team!
Addressing standardized testing even earlier.
These are amazing benefits but how can it be done? How do I teach a split? is a question I often read on Facebook forums.
My Philosophy for Split Grade Teaching:
Teacher as a Guide
I think it is important to understand as a teacher how you will teach. The old lecture style of teaching where the teacher is the giver of information is not the most effective way to teach today’s students. Perhaps it was before the internet but not today. Students have access to more information at their fingertips than ever before and that information is instant. However the information is not always correct or there is so much how does one person really sift though it to find the answer that they are looking for. As a teacher there are times for direct instruction and there are times for student inquiry.
Continuum of Learning
This is the reason a split works so well. No one is ever doing the same thing. In any classroom today it is very rare that you have all students working on the same criteria. However in a straight grade this is expected. The ideas that “I sit in a grade 5 classroom so I do grade 5 things” is not true. In reality it is rare that every student is in the same place at the same time.
Understanding that the curriculum expectations are the stopping point but that the starting point is unknown is paramount to split grade teaching. In math for example I teach place value at the beginning of the year to my 4/5 split class. However I also have students on individual education plans at a grade 3 level. So that is where I start, grade 3, learning. I introduce the ones column and the tens column have them do activities with these small numbers. Students proficient with this build confidence and students at this level continue to build knowledge.
As the unit progresses I increase the skill level and expectations of students. Think of it as a train everyone can get on at the beginning and you drop students off at their proficiency stops along the way. I don’t expect everyone to make the whole journey they can get off the train when they need too.
If you look at my long range plans you will notice that I combine the majority of subjects. Additionally although I do not combine the topics of science and social studies I often find common lessons where the lesson is the same but the work is different for the students. This frees up time and resources.
Accommodate for Everyone
This practice comes from my years as an ELL teacher. Everyone needs accommodations because the one size fits all learners does not work. Teachers can accommodate the process, product, content, and environment. If every student is working at their own pace then the grade they sit in does not matter. Now this does not mean that I make 29 different activities. I just make activities that can be accessed by the widest variety of students and I have different expectations for different students. While I may expect one group of students to add specific details to an organizer another group of students may be expected to add some basic details. The organizer is the same but the process and content are different. Along the same lines I also ask some students to join me to get assistance in a guided group while I also ask for anyone who needs help to come and get it. Because I have a classroom where students are not stigmatized for needing or asking for help I often get the kids who don’t need it but want it coming to join us. This serves two purposes. One these students help the struggling students, and they also confuse the students as to the criteria under which I group them. The easiest way to start this is to get the ‘coolest kid’ in the classroom and offer to help him first. Students are social creatures and understanding the social dynamic is important to set the culture of accommodations and assistance being okay.
Train for Independence
Ideally you have a situation where you can build your class at the end of the year to ensure that the students that are placed in the split grade class are independent workers. That there is a reduction of students on IEPs, and other factors that respect the fact that you are covering two grades while your colleagues are covering one. I do not have this luxury. I teach in a dual track English/French Immersion school where the population in the English stream is low. Therefore the only class that student have for a junior class is mine. This means that there is no class building and most of my students enter into my room as a junior student unable to work independently. Therefore I spend a great deal of time practicing. I read in the literature that accompanies the Whole Brain Teaching Strategies that if students are not doing what you expect then chances are it is because they do not know what you really expect. They need practice. So we practice. They do it properly or they practice. This is true for lining up, walking around the room, working at their desks, participating in a group discussion, and most importantly transitioning. We don’t just practice in September but we practice all year long. We review the expectations orally, we demonstrate how to do it and how not to do it, and we rehearse it repetitively until we really understand it.
The Confusion of Choice
Kids can be mean and they can also be sensitive. I try to avoid the ‘stupid kid worksheet’ as much as possible. (I hate typing it like that but in reality that is how it feels to a student who is centered out to be different with different work). If everyone is doing something different then no one really notices that Jamie has a different test than everyone else. This is so much easier in a split. My students sit in mixed grades and abilities groups from day one. For every test I generally have about three to four different versions based on ability. They all look the same but the questions are different. I have yet to have someone notice. Additionally using reader’s workshop, and writer’s workshop and daily 5 as a core to my language program has aided in the confusion of choice. Every student is working on their own task on their own schedule. They rarely notice that during a conference with a student I set different expectations for different students. With each student working on their individual Stars Goal groups are constantly changing and everyone is at a different point in the continuum of learning.
Spread it Out
Ok so not everything can be taught together. So I spread out the lesson. I start every science/social Studies period with a reflection. Tell me something that you know for sure, know a little, wonder about. (it is helpful at this point to also use strategies such as ask three before me, or student helpers to answer quick questions) At the end of this quick period I share the learning goal of today’s lessons and give students a purpose for learning. I send one group back to work and then keep one group with me. Then half way through the period I switch. Since the focus on these topics of study is inquiry students may be engaged in a variety of self directed tasks this makes this time easier. Additionally something I am very curious in trying is flipping the classroom for these subjects and having students work through and listen to videos about these mini lessons and then all of the learning in class can be student focused and less teacher focused. I will let you know how that goes.
Do you have tips to add that may help someone to teach a split? Please leave a comment and share your ideas.