How do we create a classroom community where all students feel they are equal and belong? It turns out we’ve had more combined grade classes that straight grade classes since we began teaching, so we can’t imagine teaching any other way. First of all, we call it a combined class rather than a split class. It’s the first thing we do with parents because our combined classes are not like the old ‘split’ classes.
When students come into our classroom on the first day of school they immediately collect into two different groups-the lower grade and the upper grade. They don’t know each other well and like to sit with their friends. We don’t give students a seating plan right away (or sometimes at all) so we can see which relationships form or are already in place, but then we slowly start changing their mindset about the combined class.
So, what are our secrets?
We learn about each other.
We do all kinds of back to school activities that encourage us to work together as partners or groups and we mix these groups up throughout the day and even in the middle of some of the activities. We have several products in our store if you’re looking for inspiration.
We create common traditions and classroom identifiers.
Our class chooses a theme song and motto. Collect inside jokes, a crest, a mascot or a special name. We decide on classroom agreements (rules). We allow the students to own the classroom and how it will run. When we hand over the ownership, students feel empowered as a community. We have these activities in our Back to School bundle.
We do something fun together early in the year.
Within the first week of school we do something special as a class. We’ve gone on picnics, or eaten lunch together outside. We’ve gone to the local park to do our silent reading or we’ve learned a new game together. Consider planning a field trip or a special dress up day just for your class. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but when you create common memories together, you create bonds. Ninja Note: One year we had crazy hair day all by ourselves. Turns out we read the school calendar wrong and had our class do crazy hair day a month early, but it was a great memory.
We align our curriculum outcomes on paper.
Print out your grade level outcomes side by side so you can teach the common concepts to both grades. Adjust for concepts or for your learner levels. (Gee, this sound just like differentiation in a straight grade classroom-oh yeah, that’s what it is!) If both grades need to learn about multiplication teach the process (which your upper grade is reviewing and your lower grade is being introduced to) then have the lower grade practice while you teach the next steps to your upper grade. Having a specific list of the outcomes will help clarify your planning, assessments and teaching time.
We use project based learning.
Teach the skill (like how to do research) and then do the project based on the grade level content. For example in Alberta grade four students learn about the geography of Alberta and grade five students learn about the geography of Canada. The whole class learns about land forms, mapping and basic geography. Grade fours do a project based on Alberta and grade fives do a project based on Canada. When you give projects that are vigorous, engaging and open ended, the work shifts to students-freeing you up to teach specific students or content to smaller groups.
The key to success in a combine grade classroom is COMBINATION. All ‘straight’ grade classrooms already have multiple levels and abilities. Your parents are in the grade level mindset. Educate them and your students and you’ll have a great year together.
What are your experiences with combined classrooms? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.