ETnet: Multigrade and Looping Clssrooms
Multigrade and Looping Classrooms
By Tanya Johnson
“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12 ESV).
In America, multigrade classrooms tend to be viewed as part of the progressive movement or student-centered movement in public education, yet many Lutheran schools have—and have always had—multigrade classrooms.“Everything old is new again,” was my mother’s reaction when I told her that I would be teaching a multigrade classroom with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders all in one classroom. She grew up going to a one-room country school in the 1950s in rural Minnesota. I grew up going to a large suburban school in the 1980s and was in a multigrade classroom twice because of higher enrollment numbers.
Multiage, multigrade, looping classrooms—oh my! What is the difference? Multiage and multigrade are mostly interchangeable. It refers to more than one grade level or age group in a classroom together. Years ago people used the term combined classrooms, but it means the same thing. A looping classroom typically refers to a teacher who stays with the same group of students, usually in a single-grade classroom, and teaches them for more than one year. While teaching a group of first graders one year and then teaching that same group for second grade is still not the norm today, more schools are introducing this option because it offers many of the same benefits as a multiage or multigrade classrooms: better student relationships, better student-teacher-family relationships, better use of classroom time with fewer classroom management issues.
Classrooms with more than one grade are nothing new. Linley Cornish notes that multigrade classrooms were most common until the mid-1800s. One teacher taught in one classroom and taught every subject for every grade level. While single-grade classrooms eventually replaced most of the one-room schools, the multigrade classrooms never fully disappeared. Today, multigrade classrooms are growing in popularity for several reasons. According to Mortazavizadeh et al., multigrade classrooms are increasingly found all around the world because of the remote locations, teacher shortages, enrollment numbers, increasing adult literacy needs, a desire to teach life skills, and the ability to provide more educational opportunities for females and minorities. In America, multigrade classrooms tend to be viewed as part of the progressive movement or student-centered movement in public education, yet many Lutheran schools have—and have always had—multigrade classrooms.
The most important task for a multigrade teacher is to establish a solid routine. What does it feel like to teach in a multigrade classroom? Chaos coordinator? Honestly, yes and no. The most important task for a multigrade teacher is to establish a solid routine. Teachers have no “downtime” to help students individually during most of the day because as soon as we finish teaching math to the lower grade, we send them off to do their work and immediately start teaching math to the upper grade. Repeat again and again with spelling, phonics, grammar, and reading.
The schedule changes when it comes to religion, science, and social studies because those are usually taught as one group, with the curriculum changing on alternate years. That means that some years the first graders will be challenged with second-grade materials while the second graders may enjoy a slightly “easier” version of first-grade materials. Teaching, of course, is not dependent on the books or the science kits or even the curriculum guides. Teaching is what the teachers make of it. Every teacher has to gauge his or her class’s aptitudes and customize the lessons accordingly. At the beginning of each school year, I’m so appreciative of my multigrade classroom because we start the next year with minimal time getting into a routine. The brand new sixth graders have to adjust to a full day in my classroom, but they already know my teaching style and expectations. Seventh and eighth graders fall right into the routine, and we get going on content right away. The seventh and eighth graders work to mentor the sixth graders into life in the classroom, and even the sixth graders help the fifth graders transition to science and social studies away from their third–fifth grade classroom.
Students are able to explain what they learned the previous year to the younger grade. Built-in review for the older students and built-in preview for the younger students? Yes! One of our school’s goals has always been to equip our students to be leaders in their words and actions. God has definitely equipped us with many opportunities to grow in leadership. The beauty of the multigrade classroom is knowing exactly what the older grade learned last year and building upon that. Those students are able to explain what they learned the previous year to the younger grade. Built-in review for the older students and built-in preview for the younger students? Yes! Instead of only Think-Pair-Share, we have Review-Preview in our classes.
Admittedly, after 20 years of teaching in multigrade classrooms, I may tend to forget that my current seventh graders went on the St. Louis field trip but not the Minneapolis field trip, so when I reference something from Minneapolis, they stare at me blankly. “Oh, sorry, I forgot that only the eighth graders were on that trip.” The eighth graders then fill them in on what we did on the field trip, and suddenly everyone is reviewing and previewing!
- Which grouping—combined classroom or looping—would work best for you?
- Which grouping would be more difficult for you if you had to change?
- What public relations challenges would you need to handle if you made a change?
Looping without going loopy? In the past, I’ve taught in a departmentalized system instead of teaching every subject for an entire group. For many years, I was a homeroom teacher for fourth and fifth grade so I taught religion to that group. I taught all the social studies and ELA/Literature for fourth through eighth graders while the sixth–eighth grade homeroom teacher taught all the math and science for fourth through eighth graders. I had a love-hate relationship with that system. I loved focusing on just a couple of subjects and having the continuity of topics and skills across five years with the same group of students. I hated having frustrated students, parents, or myself if there were certain students that just didn’t “click” with me. Eighth graders were ready to move on to high school, and the teachers were ready for them to move along to high school too!
If you are beginning a multigrade classroom, trust in the Lord and His plans. Students grow in leadership, confidence, time management, and curiosity, and feel in control of their learning in unique ways. It can prepare them to confidently ask questions in high school and college so they can quickly return to their work. It can make them comfortable working with people of all ages and enjoy both a mentee and a mentor relationship with various people for the rest of their lives.
Tanya Johnson has been a missionary, children’s ministry director, principal, and teacher for people of all ages in churches and schools. She has been teaching in multigrade classrooms since 2005. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin with her husband Todd, a videographer, and their daughters Katie and Lizzie, both of whom have been in multigrade classrooms most of their lives. She enjoys reading, music, riding her bike, and spending time at Lutheran camps.
Photos © iStock/StockPlanet, DGLimages, AsISeeIt.
Mortazavizadeh, Seyyed Heshmatollah, et al. “Teachers’ Lived Experiences About Teaching-Learning Process in Multi-Grade Classes.” Journal of Education and Learning, vol. 6, no. 4, Canadian Center of Science and Education, Sept. 2017, p. 354. https://doi.org/10.5539/jel.v6n4p354.
Cornish, L. (2021). “History, Context and Future Directions of Multigrade Education” in Cornish, L., Taole, M.J. (eds), Perspectives on Multigrade Teaching. Springer, Cham, Switzerland. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-84803-3_2