Can anyone give me advice on teaching in an alternative school with a multi-age classroom?

Question:I have accepted a position teaching students from 4th to 9th grade, all subjects. I do not have any plan time during the day, and the students are grouped according to their ability to function. I have the higher level group - about 10 kids, but am not sure how I will manage all the subjects with such varied grade levels in one room! Any advice is welcomed...

Hi, as a homeschool mom of three I am used to teaching a multi-age classroom so I have some advice.

Unit Studies!

A homeschool mother teaching three children seven different subjects has to plan, prepare and teach a whopping 21 subjects! Unit studies are perfect for multilevel teaching. History, science, life skills, and the arts can be taught to several grade levels saving Mom over fifty percent of her planning and teaching time.

Research Shows Multilevel Teaching is Superior
Research shows that there are many benefits to having students learn in groups with older and younger peers. Major reviews of this research into multi-age learning show several consistent trends. In reviewing 57 Canadian and American studies, B. N. Pavan found that in ninety-one percent of the studies, students in multigrade classrooms performed as well as or better than students in single-grade classrooms academically (22–25). Their greatest gains tended to be in language and reading.
E. M. Lolli attributes this higher literacy achievement to the integration of curricula and the construction of meaning where language skills and strategies are tools used to learn content. The benefits of an integrated approach to learning are also well supported by brain-based research and Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences model (Politano and Paquin; Lazear; Jensen, Teaching; Gardner).

In affective and social indicators, students in multiage classrooms strongly outperformed students in single-grade classrooms (Miller, “Multiage Grouping”; Pratt; Connell). They scored higher in study habits, social interaction, self-motivation, cooperation, and attitudes to school (M. Gayfer).

The benefits of having older students offer assistance to younger students are supported by research. Studies show that both the student being tutored and the student doing the tutoring improve academically (R. H. Anderson and Pavan). W. C. Kasten emphasizes that “the act of translating one’s understanding into language is intellectually demanding;” this is certainly the role of the tutor. L. Vygotsky’s theory of language also purports that the construction of meaning
takes place within the social context of the learner and that interaction with supportive, competent language users is integral to developing language skills. Older students likewise develop their capabilities as they assume leadership roles and articulate their understanding as they share their learning with younger students.

How to Homeschool Multiage Learning Levels

We are often asked how we manage homeschooling multiple learning levels and I find it difficult to explain. It's like preparing a seven course dinner—how do you tell someone exactly how to prepare everything in such a way that it's all ready at the proper time and stays the proper temperature? I suppose you could lead them step-by-step through all the directions and it would be easier, but still experience is the best teacher. And there is no way we could have a "normal" homeschooling day if I had to take the time to write down each and every thing that was said and done. Besides, each family is unique. No one else would have the exact same combination of personalities, learning styles, number of children, curriculum and other circumstances that we have.

If you have one older children with a particular Unit Study
and you adapt the unit studies for your younger students, you will save time and money: you won’t have to buy, assign, teach, and check separate workbooks and text materials for each child. This means you can actually work through the lessons teaching your fourth grader, seventh grader and eleventh grader at the same time. They will each be learning and absorbing at their own level. Each lesson in homeschool unit studies includes a list of resources for different levels and suggestions to read aloud as a family. Lessons include activities easy enough for elementary students and challenging enough for high school students.

You can design your program so that older children work independently in the morning while you work individually with younger children, and then while younger children take breaks in the afternoon, you can have one-on-one time with older students. Math and reading should be taught sequentially on each child's level.

Sample Scheduling: Using Heart of Wisdom Unit Studies
Ancient History: Adam to Messiah
To complete the seven units in Ancient History: Adam to Messiah in one year we suggest the schedule below. A typical school year is 180 days or 36 weeks. Using this schedule students should complete five to seven lessons a week. Remember,this is only a suggested schedule.

Unit Study # of Lessons to complete this book in one year to complete this book in 27 weeks
Adam to Abraham 16 3 weeks 2 weeks
Mesopotamia 24 4 Weeks 3 weeks
Ancient Egypt 40 6 Weeks 5 weeks
Ancient Israel 42 7 Weeks 5 weeks
Ancient Greece 33 5 Weeks 4 weeks
Ancient Rome 42 6 Weeks 5 weeks
The Messiah 31 4 Weeks 3 weeks

To use this book over a two-year period simply double the number of weeks spent in a unit. Adjust this schedule to fit the needs of your students.

High School Credits
If you’re using this book with a high school student, upon completion of this book your high school student will have earned one history credit, one Bible credit, one English credit, one-quarter science credit and one-quarter art history credit.

Middle and Elementary Students
If you’re using this book with younger students you may want to repeat the it again in a few years. The schools repeat the same subjects at different levels in different years. Middle school is just watered-down high school, and elementary is watered-down middle school. In elementary school you study weather, in high school you study weather in more detail and call it meteorology.

You did not mention wether this was a private or public school but Unti Studies can be found that are religious based and secular.

Good luck!
Congrats! And best wishes for taking on such a challenge. First, let me qualify my response by saying that I have not taught in such an environment, but these are the questions I would ask my supervising administrator if I was in your shoes:

1. You state that these students are grouped according to their ability and that they range from 4th to 9th grade. I am presuming that they range in age from 9 to 14 (the traditional ages for 4th - 9th grade), but all of them are at the 4th grade level for the subjects you are teaching. However, presumptions can get you in trouble. I suggest that you get clarification as to the grade level curriculum you are to be teaching these students (and hopefully it isn't 6 different grade levels for 10 students!)
2. Whatever your situation, be sure to get the standards required by your state's Dept. of Education (for example, if you are expected to be teaching 4th grade math, get the 4th grade standards; if you're teaching 4th, 5th, 6th . . . math, get the standards for each grade level) read thoroughly and stick with the standards. If your county has additional curriculum requirements, read and understand them thoroughly and teach them. Obviously, it would be easiest if you are teaching the same grade level curriculum . . .
3. I strongly suggest that you assess your students' abilities before you begin teaching, so you truly know where to start them. Often I am told that a student reads at a 7th grade level, but when I have a reading teacher check the student's reading ability, the student is reading at a 3rd grade level! The same is true with math. It is difficult to teach 9th grade math concepts to a student who hasn't mastered fractions -- you need to go back and teach them those concepts which may be part of the 3rd/4th grade curriculum before teaching algebra. You may have a student decoding and comprehending at a 9th grade level, but with 5th grade math skills.
4. Sounds horrid, but if I were in your situation, I would really work on reading and math (as those are the test scores that must meet adequate yearly progress for No Child Left Behind). This is not to say Science and Social Studies are not important (I have taught both these subjects). Please teach the standards for these subjects, too. Perhaps incorporate non-fiction reading standards within these 2 subjects. Also, if you are teaching differing curriculum levels, it's been my experience that the material is introduced at a lower grade level, then a couple years later, taught in greater depth (ex. I teach the 3 branches of govt. to my 8th graders, but as 6th graders were introduced to the concept). Perhaps you could use the older students as tutors to work with the younger students.
4. I hope you get an aide.
5. I hope that the school day at your alternative school is shorter than in the traditional schools in your district.
6. In the district in which I teach, the scores of the state assessments are reported with the student's base school and not on the records of the alternative schools. Maybe your district is set up that way, too. (My district does it that way because we've been told that the alternative schools would never meet AYP because of the smaller numbers, thus "hidden" in the base school's cumulative scores. As a teacher in a school which has not met AYP for past 2 years, this really hurts us, especially as we do not have access to those students. Quite interesting that the scores of the students who go to the GT centers don't go to the base schools!)
7. Forgot to mention -- you usually can find the standards on your state's Dept. of Ed. website; any other standards specifically required by your county/district should be found on that website. If you cannot find them, check with your supervising administrator or experienced teacher.

Sorry so long. Hope you find this helpful. Please excuse me if any of this sounded patronizing, I just couldn't tell how much teaching experience you've had, and I know that many school districts put the least experienced teachers in the most difficult teaching positions. I reread this post for typos/grammar/spelling, tried to run through spell check (way too long!) and I hope I caught everything. Posts from teachers with errors really lose crediability.
In most states it says that you cannot have more than a three year span in grades in a special ed. classroom -- meaning you could have the following: (4, 5, 6); (5, 6, 7) ; (6, 7, 8); ( 7, 8, 9.)

I used to teach a 3, 4, 5 classroom of BD kids. I averaged between 9-15 students.

Anyway you need to know where the kids are first --- so spend a week in individually assessing skills in math and reading. Once you have this information you can teach any topic by differentiating your instruction. Level the activities -- one child reads information, another may need books on tape, another may need to watch a movie. In performance items -- let one give an oral report, another may do a diarama or poster, another may simply write a report, and another may want to take a test.
In teaching math skills use manipulatives. Have the older kids that can do something teach it to the younger kids - either as a group or individually. Get ahold of some books on differentiating instruction and center work -- by having a science center you can easily teach the same topic but give the students different ways of showing their access to that learning - have three different worksheets , same questions -- one is fill in the blank, the second is answer using the book, the third has a word bank.

I could go on and on as I basically wrote seven parallel curriculums in my class for each topic depending on student levels. It's a lot of work outside of school yet it can be done and gets easier as you know your students better.

Good Luck - Emily - special ed teacher for 10 years.
First you Will not cover every GRADE level but you will cover every subject. Only reading and math need be taught near grade level. If you have 2 4th graders and 3 5th graders that need help with regrouping in subtraction teach them all together. Do not use grade level in your classroom use group names. In reading try reading chapter books then the students from more than one level can read the same book. You can use different discussion question for each grade level. Also incorporate writing with the reading but vary the assignments. One group may be writing a 3 paragraph summary and the other a 5 paragraph summary. Sometimes students may be in a group that is above them , sometimes below them. use a lot of peer and pair teams. Students can teach each other. In Social studies every one needs map skills. Look at the books and see how many topics are similar to all grades. Hang in there. You will be fine. Good luck !!

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