How to Teach Kids at Multiple Grade Levels Together

How to Teach Kids at Multiple Grade Levels Together

How do I teach kids at various levels together?

If you’ve got kids of multiple ages at home right now, this question just got very real. For most people, school closures mean that there are kids of multiple ages needing help for multiple subjects and parents everywhere are struggling.

Your questions might sound something like this: 

  • How can I be everything to everyone? 
  • How can I teach letter sounds and square roots at the same time? 
  • How do I manage all of the lesson plans for several children and minimize the prep time required? 
  • I’m spending hours preparing eight to ten sets of lessons per child, depending on what the schools have sent home, for two or three or four children… how do I keep all of the balls in the air?
  • WHAT do I do with the pre-schooler in the meantime?

As with most questions related to education, there are multiple answers, the one presented here has grown out of a careful study of educational history, our family’s multi-generational legacy and a good dose of common sense.

This is what I recommend for people who are intentionally homeschooling for the long haul, but it’s just as applicable to parents trying to cover all of the bases with kids home during the school closures.

First: A bit of educational history

Although much can be said of the origins of our current educational system and its roots, traced through Germany and influenced by the Hindu approach to mass schooling to support the caste system, I will, for the sake of space and sanity, discuss only the American system of mass schooling, which began to fall into place in the latter half of the 1800’s. 

Up until the advent of institutional schooling in America, “education” took on one of three forms: 

  • Homeschooling 
  • Private tutoring
  • A one room community school

Often, in the course of a childhood, more than one method would be employed in the schooling of a young person. It was out of this system (or non-system) of education that such great minds as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were born.  

My grandmother, and her mother before her, taught in several one room schools. I have seen the pictures.  She taught clear through the depression, without pay part of the time. Some of her students lived in abandoned box cars and came to school hungry, so she set up a local food program to feed as well as educate the kids when they got to school. 

Her schools lacked funding, books and basic necessities…and yet the children learned. She had more than fifty students at Starkey School in Michigan, between the ages of five and eighteen, all by herself, when she was only a year or two older than the oldest pupil. And yet, the children learned. 

My grandmother did not have eight sets of eight lesson plans per day, one for each grade level. She did not work eight times harder than a teacher today who teaches only one, or at most two grades at a time. So, how did she do it? How can you do it, with your two or six instead of fifty?

My grandmother had an advantage that we do not have today:

She wasn’t steeped in the public school mentality.  She herself had attended one room schools, it did not seem odd to her to have twelve year olds sitting beside five year olds and sixteen year olds helping eight year olds. 

One of the biggest obstacles to home education today can be our preconceived notions of what “school” should look like. 

I know, as a trained teacher, it was for me. I had to consciously let go of all I had “learned” about education and ask anew, “What does it mean to be educated?”

If I intended to teach my own children because I didn’t want a public school education for them, then why would I seek to replicate that which I was trying to avoid in my living room? 

I had to set aside John Dewey’s ideas about age-segregated classrooms, which find their roots in misapplied evolutionary theory, and begin to think of education in the same light as any other sort of growth: not segmented into little boxes, artificial levels, or grades, but rather as a fluid, ever changing organism in continual motion, along with the development of the child. 

While the schools are closed and your kids are all home together, it is a great time to experiment with other ideas of what education can look like, especially if those other ideas also lighten your load as parent and teacher!

Who decides what people should learn?

Before we consider the practical aspects of teaching several children at different levels all together, let me ask you this: 

  • Who says five year olds should be learning letter sounds, digraphs and one syllable words? 
  • Who says nine year olds should be learning about the middle ages but that government should be saved for ten year olds? 
  • Who says that times tables need to be mastered at age eight, and not before, or after? 
  • Who says physics and chemistry are to be saved for high school students and then taught in isolation? 

The answer: Public school curriculum developers.

These folks try to set national standards which are adhered to by all districts, and most private schools as well. This herd mentality to education guarantees a somewhat homogenous outcome and the ability for a student to finish fourth grade in California and begin fifth grade in Delaware with a minimum of disruption or overlap in curriculum.

That’s a good thing if you’re trying to create one particular type of consistent educational outcome.

The real question is this:  If you are not in the public, or private, system right now, why should you care? 

You shouldn’t. If your seven year old loves rocks, teach geology. If your four year old can read the basics, buy him real books and get out of his way. If your nine year old is just barely “getting” his times tables, then meet him where he is and provide arenas for him to experience success, rather than feeling left behind.  Step outside the box you were raised and educated in.

So, you have two kids, or six. The school has sent home a curriculum packet or online learning that is stressing you out every single day trying to do it “their way.” Your kids are gritting their teeth and muttering at the screen. Your heart knows there has to be a better way, but you can’t for the life of you see what it is. 

Here’s the answer: A return to the one room schoolhouse mentality. Even if only for the short term while schools are closed.

Teaching One Room School Style

The building blocks of education can be divided into two groups:  the three Rs… Reading, Writing & ‘Rithmatic… and everything else

The three Rs are skill-based and progressive. You have to learn your letter sounds before you can read  little words; you have to have a grasp of many little words before you can read a novel. You must make straight and curvy lines with a pencil before you can make letters. You must make letters before you can write words. You must be able to add before you can understand multiplication and subtract before you can understand how to divide. These subjects require a person to begin at the very beginning, and build skill one step at a time.

The “everything else” includes, history, geography, literature, science, art, music, physical education, memorization, life skills, and… well, everything else. 

There is no need to compartmentalize these subjects into specific grade levels, or to fragment what you are teaching within a given subject to three different children. For example, there is no need to be teaching “neighborhoods” to your five year old, “states and capitals” to your ten year old, “land forms” to your eleven year old, and “Africa” to your fourteen year old. Pick one geography unit for all of the children to study at once and then teach each child what he is ready to learn within that unit. 

Example: From a family unit study on “North America”:  

Hannah, 13, is making a North America Notebook. 
She writes a one page summary of facts about each of the United States and Canadian provinces. She colors a map of that place, and sometimes a picture of the bird and flower that represent it. She includes summaries of the lives of important people from that state and what they’ve contributed to American culture. 

Gabriel is 11, he too keeps a notebook and is reading books about characters from the various regions. He’s making lists of places he’d like to see in person: Yellowstone National Park is at the top of his list. He is writing short summaries of books we’ve read about various individuals from particular states and their histories.

Elisha, 9, keeps a notebook too. His project, since he was very small, as been to collect postcards from the places we visit. Of all the kids, he’s most excited about the Friday night “state meal” we’ve been fixing based on the traditional foods from one of the places we’re studying. He’s long been our “map boy” and is always happy to point out where we are, where we’ve been, or where we’re going. He loves to colour maps and he’s always excited about getting the Jr. Ranger badge at every state park we visit. Because he’s interested in landforms, we’ve been talking about those and checking out books from the library that talk about geology and landform geography in North America.

Ezra is 7.  Last time we studied North America he was 1 and his big project was learning to ride in the car with a happy heart and see the world from the backpack, high atop Daddy’s shoulders. Now he’s big enough to give narrations about the stories we read, and has kept journals on our travels. He is learning where Grandma and Grandpa and other important friends and family live. He likes to look at the maps and ask Hannah where the things he points out are. He is learning that some states are warm, and some are colder. He has wondered aloud why there are no lines on the ground between states when there are lines on a map, so we’ve been talking about arbitrary political divisions and how they influence the culture, history, and politics of a place.

In a one room school model:

Each child will have their own phonics or grammar program and progress at their own rate. Each child will have their own math program and work along at their own level. Each child will practice reading every day, receiving encouragement from the other children on different levels than he is. Science, Geography, History, Art, Music, and almost anything else you want to teach can be done as a group. 

The principal is simple:  Teach to the oldest and let the learning trickle down (a different take on Regan’s economic policy!).

  • Read books aloud that are geared to your oldest and supplement with books for the younger children. 
  • Do projects that can be adapted to include the smallest baby and the most gung-ho teen.
  • Encourage older children to learn by teaching. 

You know well how much YOU learn by preparing lessons for your children, pass on that gift to your older children by allowing them to design activities and lessons for younger siblings. Watch documentaries and online materials together and encourage discussion where everyone, regardless of age or experience, participates and shares what they are interested in and learning around the topic.

Take a survey of the minds beneath your roof and develop studies based on the interests you uncover.  Do your best to “live” the subject matter… eat the foods, build the artefacts, read first hand accounts, watch the documentaries, narrate (tell the stories of what you are learning) together. 

How to Make Multi-Level Teaching Work

This part is easier than it seems. If your kids are working through a schedule for the day, set aside some blocks of time for working together, and some blocks of time for independent work.

If I had a third grader, a fifth grader, and a pre-schooler here’s how I would work it out:

Schedule independent seat work for each school aged kid for an hour when the preschooler is most cheerful during the day (mornings?) or is napping (afternoons?).

Get both kids at the table with their assigned math and language work and be available to tutor them during that time. If your preschooler is awake, set them up with some crayons and paper so they can “do school work” too, or maybe some playdoh or duplo, or something that will hold their attention for 10 minutes at a time, have several of these activities in the wings to trade out a new one when the first one starts to wear off.

Do any read alouds during meal times. While they are having lunch is a great time to read a chapter of a book aloud to everyone.

Watch any documentaries, YouTube videos, or other content related information together and discuss it out loud.

During the block of time when your preschooler is most needy, make sure that the older kids are set up with some aspect of the project that they can work on independently. Maybe this is a project they have chosen, additional reading or watching, or some creative application that doesn’t require your input. CHALLENGE THEM to come up with their own ideas for what they would like to work on within the larger theme.

Try This: Look at your home the way my grandmother looked at her one room school. 

Look at education as just an extension of the other growth your children are experiencing and nurture it in much the same way. What you will quickly find if you let go of age segregated learning in favor of this more homogenous, natural style of teaching and learning is that your children will rise to the occasion. 

They will love learning together, and teaching one another. The young ones will stretch to show that they can “keep up” with older siblings, who will be trying to learn even more and loving their position of teacher and encourager. 

The kids will take ownership of their educations, and frequently teach YOU a thing or two about the subject at hand. Instead of some students being higher, or lower, or ahead, or behind, or smarter, or average, all are learning together and growing together.  

Quietly, beneath the subject matter, the mess of projects, the joy of story hour, the questions asked and answers searched out together, another type of learning is occurring. Children in a learning environment with people of various ages are learning something else that other children are often missing out on. They are learning to relate socially in a real world setting. Children in one room schools, or similar environments, learn to interact with the old and the young. They learn to hold their own intellectually with people of all ages and abilities and they learn to see themselves as parts of a world larger than their own experience.  

If this concept is new to you, start simply, with just one subject.

Maybe it’s history, or geography. Maybe it’s Science, or Art.

  • Gather materials around the same topic that will appeal to each of your kids at the stage they are at not.
  • Gather a few more that will stretch them.
  • Brainstorm an action plan for real world learning that orbits your topic, this could be travel (for later, when restrictions are lifted), museums (many of them have collections or tours online during the school closures), documentaries, YouTube videos, books, people you know with experience, classes, festivals, or anything else.
  • Involve your kids in the idea generation and the planning, to build excitement.

Then, make an action plan together for the learning… or download ours!