80. Combined Classes

In most classes in the Wellesley Public Schools, children are all about the same age. But sometimes, there are too many children in one grade to have two classes, and not enough to have three classes. That’s usually when people are suddenly reminded that it isn’t so important to make sure all the children in a class are precise contemporaries. “Combined classes,” also called “multi-age classes,” are created.
There’s usually some to-do about it. Because the situation is different from what people are used to, it conjures up images of all the experiments people remember – integrated day, open classroom, individually prescribed instruction. If the memories are pleasant, the “combined ” or “multi-aged” classroom seems like a blessing. If not, it is avoided. I’ve seen both kinds of reactions in parents and teachers.
I used to volunteer to teach these classes whenever there was an opportunity. I liked to transcend some of the arbitrary boundaries we set up in schools, and age was one of the boundaries. I enjoy working with diversity, and expanding the age range adds a little diversity. I have many fond memories of my years as a teacher, and many of them are memories of times spent with combined classes.
I was able to produce Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” with a class of third and fourth graders. I did a unit on the natural environment of Cape Cod with second and third graders. With first and second graders, I created a unit about the night sky. It was exciting. It was not an experiment, in my view; if anything, putting twenty children together because they all happened to be about the same age was the experiment, and it was not a very scientific one. But it was what people were used to.
Sometimes I dreamed of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, with children of all ages. It would feel more like a family. I couldn’t do a large-group lesson on fractions, but I don’t think a large-group lesson is the best way to teach fractions. It assumes a common denominator that usually isn’t there.
Think about the people in your life from whom you have learned the most. How many of them were born the same year you were? When was the last time you met with twenty people who were all your age? Probably at a class reunion. We all went on to a multi-age world. Maybe that’s as it should be all along.

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