Teaching the Child: What I Learned as a Multiage Teacher

Teaching the Child: What I Learned as a Multiage Teacher
Ellen A. Thompson, Ed.D

It is true. I was a multiage teacher. More importantly, I was a multiage teacher by choice. I taught two grades at once andthen graduated to a three grade span classroom. I learned so much from these experiences. I still use it today. And I loved it.

As a young teacher, I was asked to take on a split grade classroom of grades 2 and 3. Being young, and lower on the seniority list, I knew my answer before even thinking about what it might present to me later. I said, yes. The only thing that I knew for sure was that I would not model my classroom after the one I spent in grade 3 in Norwood, Massachusetts. That was a split of grades 3 and 4. And split it was. There was a strip of masking tape running through the middle of the room. We were not allowed to cross it without permission. My teacher taught on one side of the tape, then on the other side of the tape. Two grades, two lessons for every subject. I hated that year in school. I was not going to split my class in half, I would teach it as the multiage class that it was.

So I began. As a multiage teacher, I realized right away that each grade group was diverse and that the whole group was not more diverse than any other class that I had ever taught previously. The fun part was that my learners and I relaxed a bit when we realized we were all different and that our learning paths were different, too. We also realized we had time, more time together, more time to learn and grow. In a multiage classroom, the second year with returning learners opens like a family reunion. We laugh together and tell stories to the new learners about our classroom, what makes it special for us all. We share the routines and the traditions of our learning together. We get started up in record time.

As a multiage teacher, I got rid of that “right or wrong” thinking. I opened up my questions so that all children could be included in the conversation. There is little need to round them up into different groups by ability when the learning is accessible to all, no matter the level.  This is Universal Design for Learning, at its best. Each child will bring what they know and are learning to the discussion. Binary thinking leads to right and wrong answers. We begin thinking about high or low kids. We need a third way to think (or more!). So, we teach our children how to respond with their own claim, to support that claim with evidence and to show their reasoning as to why their response should stay in the learning.  Their ideas matter in a classroom that is fueled by flexible thinking. It is the stuff that multiage classrooms are made of! No need to level kids by grade – each age level can work with an open ended challenge that pushes them to explore deeply. Such fun to experience their growth in understanding across the time and place of their learning.

I taught the child, not the content. I found that sweet spot in the content where we could all begin together, then I crafted lessons, small group work, independent choices, and 1-1 conferring to move each child to their next legitimate step in their learning.  It was a dance for sure, but made ever-so-easy when I remembered to listen to my learners rather than the adults around me! My learners showed me their growth – the adults wanted me to prove it!  So we did. Over and over again, through our service to our community, our projects, and our grasp of the grade level content. My kids proved to be super heroes! 

I taught families. I had multiple siblings in the room when I crossed over to a 3 year span. I knew the little ones and the older ones, the grandparents and the parents, uncles and aunts, and even the family dogs! We created a collective memory about the classroom. Everyone just thought they were a member, they forgot which year they belonged to Room 6. They just knew they were part of it. We were all a part of the learning.

It is this deep understanding for the power of teaching to the child that I carried away from Union Memorial School so many years ago. I knew that by staying child-centered in my multiage teaching we could move faster and learn more as a unique group of individuals. We all learn at different rates and through differing experiences, so stay true to your learners. Listen to their stories. Embrace their experiences. Course correct when needed. Step aside when needed.  And get out of the way!  Such a gift of knowledge for me. It has served me well in my literacy work with teachers across the nation and within the state of Vermont.


Ellen A. Thompson, Ed.D., Literacy Consultant

Ellen A. Thompson, Ed.D.

Ellen Thompson has been an educator for over 43 years.  She taught as a classroom teacher in Vermont for over twenty years with many of those years in a multiage setting teaching children aged 6-9 years of age. Ellen was named the Vermont State Teacher of the Year in 1993 and she achieved her National Board Certification as an Early Childhood Generalist in 1999. Ellen began consulting nationally in 1993 and has continued this work throughout her years as an educator.  Upon leaving the classroom, Ellen joined the Elementary Education literacy faculty at the University of Vermont in 2000.  At the University, she taught undergraduate literacy courses, supervised student teachers and also worked as a literacy consultant in two large scale literacy research projects which spanned the grades K-6. For twelve years Ellen worked with the Essex Town School District as the Director of Instruction and Information Services.  During this time, Ellen completed her doctoral studies in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Vermont in the fall of 2007.  After the merging of the Essex Town School District and the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union, Ellen continued working with educators in the newly created Essex Westford School District as the Director of Learning Design.  Ellen is currently a literacy consultant for Partnerships in Literacy and Learning.