A Multiage Challenge
After returning from a week long vacation, I am back at Camp El Valor for the second four-week session and I must admit, I am very excited! We have the same curriculum, but new faces and new challenges. The first difference I've noticed is the wider range of ages. Last session saw mostly fifth and sixth graders. This session has quite a different split: several incoming fourth graders, as well as several incoming freshman with a strong showing of all ages in between.
I find teaching in multiage classrooms incredibly exciting and rewarding. My first job teaching was in a Montessori classroom of 12-14-year-olds. I then moved into a 9-12-year-old classroom. Montessori splits by age, not grade, and I find this creates a motivating, dynamic environment.
At camp, days 1 and 2 always include several introductory activities. While many children are learning keyboarding posture and technique, more advanced typists are transcribing hand-written journals about their science experiences into Microsoft Word documents. While some work on creating interviews in a question and answer style, others work on turning their questions and answers into paragraphs about the person they interviewed.
Already I've seen the younger children observing the older children, witnessing the "next level" as the older students discuss their work. Some of the nine and ten year-olds asked if they could write in paragraphs, too. "Of course!" I answered, excited to see their desire for a challenge. And the older children seem more ready to set a positive example. Students learn better when they have peer role models they can rely on for help, and when they practice their skills by teaching others.
The typical expectation of a single-grade classroom, that children possess similar knowledge and skills, creates pressure on both children and the teachers. There is a tendency in a homogeneous age group to judge the children who fail to meet benchmarks as "below average." Yet there is no evidence that supports the idea that groups of children who are all the same age learn the same things in the same way at the same time.
Conversely, in a multiage classroom, the difference in ages begets different sets of behavior and performance expectations. In this environment, the teacher more readily addresses differences because differences are more obvious. It is also easier for a child to address his or her strengths and weaknesses without feeling judged by his or her peers. Students can progress along a continuum of simple to more complex skills at their own pace.
Dr. Maria Montessori developed educational methods based on her belief that children learn best by doing, not by being acquiescent vessels to be filled with pre-existing knowledge. Montessori believed learning should occur in multiage classrooms where children at various stages of development learn with and from one another. Though it's been several years since I've been in a Montessori classroom, I see her idea of multiage learning once again as fresh and innovative, offering possible solutions to many of the problems that plague public school teachers. I'm finding my multiage experience to be reinvigorating both for me, and for the children in this camp.