Pittsfield Elementary School adopts competency-based, multi-age classroom program

  • Bernadette Rowley’s class talk about listening skills. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Radu Dragoiescu (left) and Jackson Marston raise their hands during open discussion in the combined fourth- and fifth-grade class.

  • Emma Baker and Ethan Bedell work with teacher Sarah Jean-Gilles at Pittsfield Elementary School. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Elise Berry, 9, uses a laptop with other students in Sarah Jean-Gilles’s class at Pittsfield Elementary School. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Students in Sarah Jean-Gilles’ fourth and fifth grade class work alone and in groups at Pittsfiled elementary school this week. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Signs made by students line the hallways of Pittsfield elementary. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/25/2016 12:14:26 AM

Sarah Jean-Gilles, a 14-year veteran of the teaching profession, has always lived in “a world of desks and tables.”

No longer.

In her combined fourth- and fifth-grade classroom at Pittsfield Elementary School, the 19 students scatter around the room – some sitting at desks, others on the ground, standing up or leaning against a wall.

In the middle, 9-year-old Elise Berry alternately leafed through The Fledgling, a novel, and the laptop she had open in front of her on the ground. She likes her new class.

“You can set your plan for your day and you can do it on your own – and I like being in a small group,” she said.

Fifteen minutes later, the students gathered together in groups of five or so, stood up and talked about the chapters in whatever novel they had been reading.

“That’s been a big change – to go from, ‘Does it look like you’re working?’ to, ‘Are you actually working?’ ” Jean-Gilles said after class.

Her class is part of a project combining multi-age classroom settings with competency-based instruction. Other schools participating in the grant-funded pilot include Ashland Elementary in Ashland, Parker Varney in Manchester, the Daniel J. Bakie School in Kingston and Memorial Elementary in Newton.

A reform that aims to more authentically track student learning, competency-based education’s hallmark is the jettisoning of traditional grading systems. Instead of receiving As and Bs, students are told, specifically, whether they are achieving competency – or, as some call it, “proficiency” – in individual skills, whether it be long multiplication or identifying a theme in a work of fiction. Students are expected to work at their own pace, moving on to the next topic only when they’ve actually demonstrated they understand the material.

While multi-age classrooms are themselves nothing new – they are often used in New Hampshire when enrollment in certain grades gets low – their use in a competency-based setting doesn’t appear to have been studied much at all.

Multi-age classrooms generally haven’t been a central strategy for educators implementing competency-based instruction, said Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks.org. But because both are built on the assumption that all students shouldn’t just be listening to the same lecture, she said, they’re certainly compatible, at least in theory.

“Multi-age grouping does create the expectations that you personalize the education for kids,” Sturgis wrote in an email. “In a multi-age classroom you can’t just deliver one grade level curriculum. Teachers will have to organize the classroom around personalizing instruction to ensure that students are getting instruction and building . . . skills based on their personal educational trajectories.”

Competency-based education can take a lot of instructional resources – often, more than one teacher will float between students working in groups or individually, checking in on progress and intervening when students struggle (or dawdle).

In a state with several small schools, concentrating so many resources in one place can be difficult.

“Efficiency-wise, we find that it’s more difficult to put that together at a single grade,” said Paul Leather, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Education, which is administering the grant.

The hope is that multi-age groupings will allow schools to concentrate instructional resources on larger classes, where kids can work flexibly or alone or in groups.

Jean-Gilles and another teacher at Pittsfield Elementary, Bernadette Rowley, who is experimenting with a multi-age first- and second-grade classroom, both said the same thing: The range of ability in their classes before they consolidated looked a lot like what it does now. A second-grader could just as likely be reading at a second-grade level as he or she could at a kindergarten or third-grade level.

But going to a multi-age setting with a competency-based curriculum has meant changing expectations about where kids should be in their learning.

“That’s the most exciting part about my multi-age classroom – I feel like I can give them what they need,” Rowley said. “If you give a second-grader second-grade work, but they’re on a kindergarten level, you’re setting them up to fail.”

What research does exist about multi-age groupings doesn’t suggest they’re better or worse than traditional classrooms in terms of academic outcomes, but some research indicates improvements in social-emotional learning and class bonding.

At Pittsfield Elementary, administrators will ultimately write a report reflecting on whether the multi-age experiment led to better outcomes. They’re collecting data on student achievement, behavior and attendance.

Jean-Gilles said she had noticed some changes, even just within a month of trying out her new class structure.

“I think there’s a really strong sense of community, and I think the students feel like they’re being valued and supported,” she said.

Her instructional aide, Christine Darling, joked that students were still telling her they loved coming to class – a sentiment that usually doesn’t last past the first week of school.

Jean-Gilles also said that children who had often been isolated – either because they were too far ahead or falling behind – seemed better socially integrated this year.

There are, of course, some challenges. Most notably, essentially designing a lesson for every child.

“The prep,” Jean-Gilles said. “Trying to find materials and activities across such a range of learning can be really challenging.”




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