I was asked about this topic by a journalist. I haven't reflected on it for a few years. I wrote an article, Split Grade Classes (Jilks, 2000), when teaching a delightful gr. 4/5 class, and it was published in The Ontario Action Researcher. Action Research is a process whereby a teacher looks at issues in her classroom, identifies barriers, does research, creates some solutions, and tests the results, then repeats the process in an upward spiral of improved curriculum delivery. Here are some of my current thoughts...
What does the research say about the impact of split grades on students?
-there is little, as I said in the article, previously posted in this blog, since there is no value for anyone to pay for such.
If you look for the reasons split grades are created: number of teachers divided by number of students, mandated smaller classes in primary levels, you realize we have no choice. For something with little choice, you make the best of it. That said, I had the best time with a gr. 4/5 split the year I wrote the article. I also did a gr. ½, and 5/6. It is no problem!
Based on your experience, what are some of the benefits -- and what are some of the drawbacks of combined grades?
• If the teacher, students, parents all go in with the attitude, “Yes, we can!” then you will.
• All stakeholders must be supportive: especially the principal, to allow the teacher to take risks, and try new things
• Colleagues can be creative in supporting the delivery of specific curriculum, i.e., group all gr. 4’s, while another teacher works with gr. 5’s.
• Principals can incorporate a rotational curriculum: gr. 4/5 do gr. 4 science curriculum one year, rotating the next. It truly does not matter what curriculum one follows, it is the learning process that is important. What do you remember about your gr. 4 science class?
• This is a huge myth, perpetuated by text book publishers and principals, more is gained by vertical knowledge in a topic, rather than touching simple basics when the teacher divides her time between grades.
With a good teacher there is no problem. It *is* stressful for the teacher. For the students, it depends upon them and their needs. I had some dynamic students do some wonderful things. We did Reading Buddy work with the kindergartens, which gave me time to work with half of the class. Getting in a student teacher helps, too.
It benefits the students, if they have the right attitude. You can appoint team leaders, create small groups, and encourage them to work together more closely.
The younger ones benefit socially by observing the older ones. The older ones have more respect, which the teacher models, for those less socially, emotionally, or intellectually able.
How important is age (i.e .a child born in January vs. December)?
You want a mix of kids in a class: social, emotional, independent, and I haven’t seen any research on this topic but form my own perceptions the less mature children, who come from families with no siblings, have a hard time learning to receive less attention from one teacher. This, of course, is a good lesson. Maturity is much less chronological age than emotional age.
What emotional and social factors have to be considered?
Considered by whom? Usually it is the teachers who put together class lists in June for September. They look for more mature students in the higher grade, and try to create a split with mature, independent, more able kids for that. They often will create classes, due to numbers, that have 3:1 ratio of younger to older kids. There are limits on class size by school, district, provincial, and this is part of the process.
The parents always think their kids are the smartest, most independent, bright learners, but also deserve NOT to be in a split grade class. You can’t have both.
What models work best for split grades?
Adopting some of the Ministry split grade curriculum, in which similar topics are grouped, is ideal. Using more of a multi-grade model, in which learning doesn’t focus on just one strand per grade, with flexibility and independent projects works with kids.
There are groupings of topics.- the ministry OCUP curriculum has a ton of info on them.
Having adequate materials texts, hands-on materials help a great deal. Parents can fund raise for this.
Mostly, the teacher can adapt in all areas. When you are doing regrouping in math, gr. 4 does one digit, gr. 5 does two. You are building layers of curriculum on top of one another. To reinforce it does not hurt as Gr. 5 attend to a review lesson that teaches a concept fresh to gr. 4.
There are no models, only teaching strategies – skills the teachers must adopt and master:
• Integrated Pedagogies
• Instructional Concepts, Skills, Tactics, Strategies and Organizers that assist them in creating curriculum.
They must be good teachers, willing to aim for great.
Parents worry needlessly. This is a way of life in Ontario schools. They must be as supportive as they can be: volunteering, offering assistance and understanding. It can be so much fun in such a class. You have one grade doing an experiment, the other (theoretically) doing reading, or research, while they all watch the exciting experiments. The kids can’t wait until next year when they can do them, too.
I had a great phone interview with the journalist, it helped me reflect on my views from the perspective of parents. Many worry needlessly, since their child was chosen for a split grade class, it reflects the abilities of the child as being strengths that lead teachers to believe that s/he is the best candidate for such a placement. Parents must go in with the attitude that each teacher has strengths that a child can benefit from, rather than being negative towards such a classroom. A straight grade class often has a number of special needs students, which further complicates and/or benefits a classroom community. Each class is a complicated mix of curriculum, environment, student attitude and teacher behaviour.
The article is to come out in the September edition of Today's Parent magazine.
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