Three years ago, three experienced primary teachers created Project Friends, a unit of three K-2 classrooms within a traditional elementary school. They prepared for several years before implementing this multi-age design which gives each classroom 8 kindergarteners plus 16 returning first and second graders. The start of the school year in their multi-age classrooms revealed surprising differences compared to the single-grade classes they taught previously.
Researchers at the University of Florida/Gainsville observed the first week of school – five consecutive days-and describe the efficiency and sense of community in these classes. Students in all three classrooms needed little direct instruction from the teacher for most class routines. Instead,the kindergarteners learned informally by watching the returning students.
They got little unsolicited help from either the teacher or the older students. They were simply given time to examine the classroom, talk with other students, and observe how class activities worked. They quickly became comfortable asking questions. The older children were sensitive to the needs of the new kindergarteners but mostly were focused on renewing friendships with their classmates from previous years and taking up the familiar classroom routines.
A sense of community
The sense of community that had been built up in the previous year among the older students was evident to observers. Students had close relationships with one other and with their teacher. Each teacher also has strong relationships with her student’s parents, whom she came to know well during the three years their child was in her class. This relationship is nurtured through home visits, newsletters, parents’ nights every six weeks and lots of volunteer work for parents. Children are empowered by being given a chance to teach others and to take responsibility for their own learning.
These teachers who founded Project Friends report on the ease of starting the school year when two-thirds of the class is intimately familiar with them,
their classmates and the class routine. Teachers and observers agreed that it is far easier for kindergarteners to start school in these classrooms. When kindergarteners saw the older students happily engaged, they became more comfortable. The friendly, relaxed atmosphere and the choice of reading and writing activities reduced their anxiety. They were rarely told what they could or could not do, but naturally took their cue from older students and received acknowledgement from other students and their teacher for what they accomplished. From the very first day of their school lives, they read, wrote, sang songs,
learned math, science and social studies, and made friends with their older, more accomplished classmates.
By the second day, these kindergarteners were raising their hands to respond to questions, and on the third day they were actively engaged in all the class
activities. They learned rules without effort by watching others. In such an environment students need little direct instruction from the teacher for most of the
routines in their classrooms. They learn informally by watching classmates and receiving guidance as needed.These observers expressed surprise at how efficient the process of learning about school was in these multi-age classes. By the end of the first week,
an observer could not tell who the new students were.
“A Comfortable Start for Everyone: The First Week of School in Three Multi-Age (K-2) Classrooms” Early Childhood Education Journal Volume 27, Number 2, Winter 1999-2000 pp. 73-80.
Published in ERN May/June 2000 Volume 13 Number 5.