Breaking Up: Strategies for Teaching Split Classes
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, July/August 2016 Issue
By Meagan Gillmore
The 2016-2017 school year could get off to a rocky start in Newfoundland and Labrador, before it even begins. In April, the government announced split-grade classes would be introduced in some schools for the first time. This is new for parents—many were never in a split-grade class as students, and their children have never been in them either. They’re concerned their children will suffer academically and socially.
“It’s those kids that are kind of left in the middle that might be struggling, but it might be a silent struggle (that we’re worried about),” says Krista Trask, a member of the school council at Beachy Cove Elementary in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, NL, one of the schools scheduled to introduce split-grade classes. “We’re just hoping as parents that teachers will still have the time and still have the focus to make sure that those kids don’t get lost in the cracks.”
They’re also concerned about social and emotional needs. “To us, it’s more about having healthy children,” says Trask, noting anxiety is increasing among students. Some students are worried about not being with their friends, or being teased for being in a split-grade class. Students won’t know which children in the affected grades will be in a split-grade class until school starts. Children have questions, but parents don’t have answers.
Split-grade classes, where students in one or more consecutive grades are taught in the same classroom by the same teacher, are common in most provinces and territories in Canada. In several jurisdictions, they’re actually increasing. But they’re new for these Newfoundland and Labrador schools. In a province where school enrolment is projected to decline, Beachy Cove is bursting. With just under 800 students, there’s little space in the K-6 school. In recent years, closets have become classrooms. (There are plans to build a school for Grades 5-9.) According to James Dinn, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association, the government decided to introduce split-grade classes without consulting with teachers. As of the beginning of June, teachers had received barely more than a day of training about how to teach in these classes.
Teachers may have little control over whether or not they are assigned to teach a split-grade. The classes are often created to maintain class sizes, or for budgetary reasons. Teachers can’t control that, and they can’t predict how parents will respond. Many experienced split-grade teachers say parents’ worries subside once they see their children bringing home quality work or if they volunteer in the class and see it’s well-managed. Still, meeting multiple curriculum expectations and responding to increased student needs—often with limited resources—is a challenge. But teachers, and students, can thrive in these classes.
Beginning with a positive outlook helps. “If (administration) give(s) you a split grade, they certainly know you can handle the extra workload,” says Melanie Brown-Robson, who has spent most of her more than 30 years in Ontario’s District School Board of Niagara teaching split-grade classes. She describes the assignments as an “honour” that force her to be more creative—but also as a lot of work.
Teachers need to cover two sets of curriculum expectations, but they don’t always need to teach two completely different sets of lessons. Lessons can be planned around common themes that will fulfill both curriculum expectations. Brown-Robson cuts out the expectations from curriculum documents and groups common ones together. This can take a while, especially when teaching grades for the first time.
Sometimes, teachers can deliver one lesson to everyone, but assess each grade differently. Curriculum expectations are often similar for subjects like languages (English and French) and Math, with students in the higher grade learning more advanced concepts. A teacher may teach the same poem to all students. But students may be required to focus on different literacy devices depending on their grade level. These subjects also lend themselves to teaching in smaller groups based on students’ abilities, not on their grade levels.
Not all subjects can be taught this way. Sciences and social studies, may cover completely different topics. In some situations, teachers may teach the same split-grade combination for more than one year in a row. If that’s the case, they can teach the sciences and social studies curriculum for one grade one year, and then the curriculum for the other grade the next. This gives 20 months to cover everything, not 10. This requires careful planning to avoid needless duplication. Classrooms where students are in different grade divisions, like having a junior-level grade in the same class as an intermediate one, present even more challenges because it can be harder to find curriculum connections across the grades.
Parents may be concerned their child could be behind if they move from a split-grade to a straight-grade classroom, or vise-versa. But children aren’t just learning subject material; there are research and thinking skills that transfer across grades and subjects.
Classroom management can be more demanding in a split-grade. “You’re constantly going back-and-forth,” says Brown-Robson. “There’s no downtime in a split class.”
Sometimes, teachers can only teach one grade at a time. But there’s ways to encourage students to work independently. Josh Tellier, a teacher at Holy Family Catholic French Immersion School in Woodstock, ON, uses virtual reality when teaching social studies to his Grade 6/7 class. He teaches a lesson to one grade, while the students in the other learn with virtual reality. He then switches it so all students experience the virtual reality. Jennifer McMillan, an elementary school teacher in Halifax, uses different learning centres or stations in her classroom. One grade will complete various activities, like reading in groups or independently, while she instructs the other grade.
The key to making split-grade classes work, says McMillan, is viewing the class as one unit, not separate grades. “If you’re thinking of the class as a whole family unit and you are engaging all of the students based on their learning styles, then it shouldn’t be as big a problem,” McMillan, who previously taught in adult education, explains. Her students participate in community-building activities, like throwing a ball of yarn to each other in a circle as they share something about themselves. The act of sharing helps build community; the web of yarn shows how everyone’s connected.
Every classroom—even those with students who are all in the same grade—will have students working at various levels. Some students perform above curriculum expectations in some subjects; others struggle. Building a sense of community can help lessen these struggles.
It helps that the older students may have already covered the material the younger students are learning. This gives them the opportunity to become teachers. This year, Tellier had his Grade 7 students help the Grade 6 students prepare for provincial testing. He wants to continue this in future years, he says.
Kristin Voss, who teaches at Beausejour Early Years in Beausejour, MB, uses a rookie-veteran model in her classes. Most classes at that school are combined, a decision that the administration made deliberately. She has a list in her classroom of what all students are good at; these students become the “experts.” When students have questions, they need to ask three of their classmates before they ask Voss. This builds the confidence of the students.
“Everyone has gifts and everyone has something to give,” Voss explains. “You can benefit from other people’s gifts, but you also have something to bring to the table.”
There are limits, though. Voss’ students can’t repeatedly ask the same students for help. If students help others all the time, they can neglect their own work. Parents are often concerned that students who need specialized instruction because of learning disabilities or other needs, may not receive the support they need in a split-grade class. But creating a community that spans age and developmental stages can make inclusion easier in some cases.
Sometimes, teachers in split-grade classes have some students for more than one year in a row. This helps build rapport between teachers and students.
“Because of the fact that you have them for two years, you can really develop that relationship where you feel that they’re able to take risks and make mistakes and that’s not a bad thing,” explains Natalie Hlady, also a teacher at Beausejour Early Years. (Hlady’s also taught in split-grade classes in schools where those classes are created for budgetary or numerical reasons.)
Shy students have more time to become comfortable with teachers. Teachers can better observe how students learn best. They don’t have to spend as much time assessing students in the fall because they know what they learned the previous year. Older students already know classroom routines, and they can teach those to the younger class.
This increases students’ confidence. This “gives students that maybe aren’t an older brother or sister (a chance to) become like an older brother or sister,” Hlady says, explaining how older students can help model appropriate behaviour. “All students are good at something, and maybe it’s not academics, but maybe they might be the most caring and friendly and supportive person and maybe they’re a leader like that in the classroom.”
Granted, family dynamics work both ways—siblings annoy each other. Teachers need to pay attention to different emotional and social maturity levels in the classroom, especially when one group of students enters puberty. Teachers may also have a challenging student in their class for two consecutive years. Teachers need to “re-set their expectations,” says Tellier. Students often mature during the summer.
It’s unclear whether concerns in Newfoundland and Labrador will subside over the summer. Parents are still planning on voicing their concerns to the government. This has a benefit for teachers: it can help identify potential classroom helpers.
Charlene Richmond’s son is entering Grade 6 at Beachy Cove next year, one of the grades slated for a split-grade class. While she doesn’t know if he’ll be in the split-grade class, she’s determined to stay positive about the situation—and assist the teachers, if needed. “I’ll be there to support them any way I can,” she says.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer and editor in Toronto who attended both straight and split classes as a student.