When I was still teaching in elementary, June and September always held a lot of stress for me. How many students are registered? How many will register over the summer? Do we have enough for straight grade classes? Is the universe on my side, or does it feel like throwing a stressful wrench into my dreams of a straightforward year of planning and prepping?
No one likes teaching a split grade class. That’s a theorem, not yet a law, but let’s just say I haven’t ever witnessed it be disproved.
After teaching split grades myself, and now working in a role where I support teachers with planning and prepping, I’ve found there are some strategies and tools you can implement to make your year much more seamless.
Here are some of my top tips.
Physically split the class
I’ve heard a few people really try to promote mixing kids together, regardless of grade, in a split grade class. Their argument is that the older kids can help the younger ones.
Okay, I hear that. But, with all due respect, it’s wrong. Just a terrible idea. I hate it.
Not that I have a strong opinion about this. I kid, I kid.
But seriously, there are quite a few times during the day when kids will be working on similar or the same work, but just as often, kiddos will be working on different things. And during these times, you’ll often be leading and teaching one group while another works.
It’s already difficult enough for the independent workers to concentrate while the teacher is speaking, but even more difficult if the teacher is addressing the entire room, instead of just one half of it.
Splitting the class helps to clarify different areas of the room and really supports students when they’re working on different things. Our students who are easily distracted are less likely to lose focus when the kids around them are all working on the same thing, rather than becoming interested in the other work a student the grade above or below them is working on fright beside them.
Also useful is having separate areas on the white board for agenda notes, upcoming dates, and so on. This way, the kids can easily see what’s coming up for their grade and not become confused with what’s happening in the other grade.
Teachers often stop using centres after about grade three. However, they’re extremely useful for differentiation and you can easily make them more mature for older students.
The best part about using centres is that you can engage the whole class, even if they’re at different levels. For language arts centres, some can be writing, others can be reading, some may be playing a game, some may be doing vocabulary, and so on.
All of these activities are general, but can be easily differentiated to a student’s instructional level. Using the same picture prompt, some students will draw a picture and attempt to write a sentence, while others will write a paragraph. Kids can easily grab a book at their level, and so on.
Once your centres are set and kids know the routines around them, it’s an easy way to hit literacy or math content every single day.
You can even set up centres for subjects like social studies and science. Have your students work on building general skills such as reading current events, hypothesizing, source analysis, and so on. These are general academic skills required across grade levels, so you don’t need to worry about specific grade curriculum.
Take advantage of any and all support
Any time you have a parent offer to help in the class, or extra educational assistant support, or whatever, take it! Seriously. Just take it.
Use this support even to have someone monitor one grade while they work so you can go over content with another group.
This time is valuable and it can be really hard to find in a split grade room, so eat it all up!
During extra preps you can work with groups of kids, get testing done, plan for a specific grade, and so on.
If you get support from someone like me, who helps teachers plan for diverse learners, ask me to help you plan a unit or two; that’s literally my favourite thing to do!
Bottom line: don’t try to do everything yourself. Teaching is hard enough and throwing a split grade class into the mix just makes everything that much more difficult. If you don’t accept support where and when you can, you’re going to burn out and start disliking your job. We need good teachers like you! Teachers who spend their time scrolling the internet and reading blog posts about how to improve their teaching practice!
Technology is a life saver because kids can plug headphones in and the classroom will remain relatively quiet.
This is excellent if one group needs to focus, but another needs to be learning, reading, or so on.
The group that needs quiet (maybe they’re writing a test) will have a quiet room, while the others can be watching a video and answering questions, listening to an audiobook, or so on.
There are also a lot of online programs where you can assign kids work they can do at their own pace. So you can assign the whole class Mathletics, Raz-Kids, Science A-Z, or so on, and they’ll all be working on different things at their own pace.
Of course, you can also be assigning various tasks on platforms such as Google Classroom, which makes things really easy, especially when kids learn routines and know exactly what to do.
Technology is definitely a lifesaver, as long as we’re not having our students spend too much time on it, it’s an excellent addition to the class.
Have strong routines
Ensuring that you have strong routines is a must for any classroom, but it’s especially helpful in split grade classes, where there’s naturally a lot going on.
When students know what to expect each day, in each subject, during transitions, and so on, it makes everyone’s life much easier. Taking the time at the ebginning of the year, even if it seems like it’s a bit slow, is well worth your time.
When you’re not directly speaking to, teaching, or working with one grade, the other should know exactly what they should be doing. And you shouldn’t have to explain this every single time.
Having a visual schedule – one for each grade if necessary – along with times is a must. This way, students know exactly what’s come, and if they miss you letting the class know what to transiton to, they can just look at the schedule to see what they should be doing.
Having set plans for major transitions is also really helpful. For example, reading every day right after lunch, cleaning desks then waiting to be released at the end of the day, morning work first thing in the morning, and so on.
Whatever routines you decide to incorporate them, remember to stick to them and don’t quit at the start of the year when it starts seeming too tough.
Teach both curriculums at once (sometimes)
When you can, and it makes sense, save your time by teaching both grades at once.
For example, if you’re teaching subtraction in math, start your lesson with the lower curriculum, let’s say double digit no borrowing, then move up the the higher work, let’s say double or triple digit with borrowing.
The kids who are ahead can follow along the whole time, the younger curriculum will be like review. Remind the class that you’re going up to a higher curriculum, so it’s okay if they ahve trouble following along, they won’t need to know it until the following year.
Then, after your whole class lesson is done, you can give all the kids their independent work. Of course, this will be different depending on the students’ levels.
This is so much more time efficient than teaching two very related and “stacked” curriculums separately. Plus, students are able to either review or get a glimpse at ore challenging work.
Teach one GRADE at a time (sometimes)
Now, for the exact opposite tactic as above.
This is the reason I’m so hell bent on physically splitting up the grades you’re teaching. When you do have two very different curriculums, like two random Science or Social Studies units, you often can’t escape having to teach separately.
This is when I like to alternate teaching versus working days.
For example, on Monday during Science, I may teach my grade four students about a new concept while my grade five students work on reading a textbook chapter and answering questions. Then, on Tuesday in Science, my grade four students are now working on a project independently while my grade fives complete an experiment with me.
As your students get used to their independent versus teacher-led time, they become more self sufficient and do a great job of starting and completing work on their own.
Have general work for early finishers
When kids finish their work early, you may be busy teaching the other grade. You don’t want to be interrupted, and students don’t want to interrupt you, in the middle of a lesson. Therefore, making sure kids know what to do is vital.
I personally am a bit fan of choice boards for this. I mean, I’m a fan of choice boards for basically everything, but it’s great for offering a variety of interesting and educational options for students.
If you just tell them to “read” or “help someone else”, half of your students aren’t going to like that option and will end up distracting others. Plus, it gets boring for those kids who always seem to be ahead.
Also, please don’t offer “busy books” full of crap like mazes and colouring unless you teach kindergarten or grade one and kids literally need to learn fine motor skills.
That kind of stuff is good for the really littles or during indoor recess, but it’s just a waste of time for older kids. Think about your kids who are always finishing early; they want to be challenged and learn new things.
Offering your kids options like working on vocabulary, completing a mad lib, working on a math worksheet, making a comic, writing a thank you letter, and so on are so much more worthwhile. Plus, you can offer kids extra grades for this kind of work if you feel they deserve it.
Let students support one another
Obviously, you’re not going to be able to help everyone all the time when you have a split class. I mean, we can barely do that in a straight grade class!
Students need to know where else to search for help when you’re unavailable. Of course, educational assistant or parent volunteer time is always useful for this, but it’s definitely not always readily available.
Instead, let kids know that they can rely on one another. In fact, if you have some students who are very strong at certain things, you can even assign them as “pros”. If I do this, I select a couple of “rpos” for each area and ensure every student has at least one thing they’re a “pro” at.
For example, have a computer problem? Ask Johnny or Sarah or Zion. Need help with spelling? Tammy and Rohan and Jack are pros. Long division? You get the idea.
Make your classroom student friendly
Finally, my last tip is to ensure kids know how to navigate the classroom and have it work for them.
Students should know where to find scissors, pencil crayons, blank paper, and so on. And that place should never be your desk.
Have things clearly labelled and easy to access. Make sure you teach kids how to take care of these things and put them away properly so that they respect the classroom you all share.
Tying back into my point about choice boards, I have a small bulletin board on one side of my room that has our finished early choice board up along with folders attached to the board with any worksheets or paper kids may need for those activities. That way, they can look at the board, decide they want to create their own word search, and grad a blank template right there.
No searching, no interrupting you, and no distracting other kiddos who are still working.
What do you think about these suggestions? Have you already incorporated any of them in your own class? Which ones work best, in your opinion?
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