Ageless Grade Levels?

grade levels

This month’s post could easily have been titled “Education’s Long, Divisive Debate of Teaching to a Child’s Developmental Age versus Chronological Age” — but I thought that might be too long 🙂

No matter what you title this debate the question remains the same: Why do we continue to divide up students by how old they are versus how many skills the know?

My Classroom this Year

In Special Education, we have a variation of the same problem. Many of our self-contained classes are mixed grade/age/ability/learning difference levels.  For example, I currently teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in our Autism-Core Class. I am teaching state required common core standards that must be scaffolded according to my students’ needs as well as integrating their IEP Goals as the overarching compass of our units. My students range from ages 10-14, with ELD (English Language Development) Levels of 1-5 and a few EO’s (English Only) learners sprinkled in. When assessed, my students are reading anywhere from a 3rd-7th grade level. Math is a little higher, probably because it’s universal in any language and more concrete in content.

Now, some educators would balk at the learning makeup of my classroom and advocate for grade-level specific classes. But I say, this is how it should be.

We Started Off with 1 Teacher for All Grades

If you’re a “Heartie” or a fan of shows like “Little House on the Prairie”  or “Anne of Green Gables” (I love her!) or even just remember a little of your Frontier History, you’ll note that there was one teacher for all of the kids in the town. That teacher was responsible for instructing whole group lessons in all core content areas and differentiating was required across K-12 subject-matters.

Really it was an administrative decision based on funding and student enrollment. There was one teacher that needed to teach to everyone.

Age Division is Partly Based on Administrative Necessity

It’s just plain easier to put all of the 9 and 10 year-olds together and call it Fourth Grade. The reality is that when working to place so many students, particularly within the public school setting, it is more convenient to group by ages and then, if the school and district chooses, to branch out from there. Some schools have various differences within the age level programming, such as Gifted and Talented, but few public schools structure their groupings with a focus on mixed-age levels determined by skill mastery.

Yet there are more supporters of this type of class groupings within the last 10 years than was previously thought (a few snippets of the conversation below):

What’s really frustrating, though, is that it seems like everything from text-books to games to a student and parent’s mindset is categorized by ages and grade levels in place of skill mastery. Due to the limited to no-retention policies, a fifth student who has not yet mastered their multiplication tables will go on to sixth and seventh and eighth grade and possibly be more behind in that skill area as the years go by.

Here’s What I Want 

What I would like to see in the span of my teaching career is a move away from grouping students by chronological age and grouping students more by what they know. If a 3rd grader is ready to go on to 5th grade reading but needs more time in 2nd grade math, then let that be our guide in how to structure classes and provide the right support, intervention, instruction and content for that student.

With technology, our society is becoming more and more individualized. My hope is that education jumps on board and begins to guide a student throughout their academic career by what they know instead of how old they are.


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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com

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Middle School Kerfuffles

middle schoolAs school winds down (3.5 days and counting!), I’m thinking about my first year of teaching. Not only was it my “signature” year but I received my induction into the world of middle school. Yikes! It was a year of firsts… and lasts. I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do when teaching middle schoolers.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my 6-8 graders was that conflict, especially at this delicate “tween” age, is a part of their everyday lives.

Every look, every whisper, every walk down the hallway can potentially be a game changer for better or worse. Peer influence is at an all time high. It is the MOST important aspect of their day.

I guess I had forgotten that or maybe blocked out my own “tween” trauma of junior high.

As their teacher, however, my goals are in direct conflict with their line of thinking. I am MOST concerned about closing those skill gaps through content while attempting to find fun ways (ie: projects they like to do but will rarely grace me with their true opinion — that Ms. Terry does actually design cool things for us to do) to solidify those missing pieces of the learning puzzle.

Day in and day out, my hormone-laden teens and tweens, walked through my classroom door filled with internal and external conflicts.

Restorative Justice, differentiated instruction, rotations, unit plans, project-based learning, soliciting the help of administrators, colleagues, and counselors — I feel like I’ve run the gamut trying to implement best practice when the reality was that — as is true in middle school life – my day will never be without conflict.

And that, in itself, is the conflict.

So do I love it or leave it?

I love seeing a student begin to internalize the perseverance needed to be successful. I love building upon that newfound growth and challenging them to move forward in school and in life. I will, however, be leaving behind some of my first year learning curves (ie: novice mistakes) and replacing those with more consistent classroom management, more detailed unit plans, a more neutral tone, more relationship-building, more active listening and less reactive thinking, and more self-care.

I am looking forward to these precious 64 days of summer to rejuvenate and revive myself before returning for Round 2 of The Middle School Years.

God speed to all you Middle School Teachers. Now, I get it.


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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com

GenX Teacher Mixes Tech & Teaching

When I was a kid in the 80’s, our school’s technology consisted of Schoolhouse Rock, Mrs. Frizzle, Reading Rainbow and, of course, the classic — Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Oh and let’s not forget the typing test on our version of 1:1 Tech (ie: a couple of Macintosh PC’s in the actual computer lab) where they put a makeshift cardboard cutout over the keys so you couldn’t cheat your way to 40 wpm.

Image result for old macintosh PC

It wasn’t until college that I had an email address and not until after graduation did I get my very first cell phone.

There’s no question that the advancement of technology has changed the face of education in and out of the classroom. As a GenX Teacher, I’m inclined to use a complementary mix of tech and teaching. In fact, I’m pretty pumped that I can pre-teach explanatory writing on Quizizz, assign an informative article on Achieve 3000, re-teach paragraph format on Kahoot, assess on Accelerated Reader, and require homework submission via Schoology.

It’s definitely a different world.

That’s not to say I don’t see the value in teaching without tech. In fact, just today my students were struggling to grasp the concept of Cause and Effect. We had done the videos and assigned the online tutorials, but there’s nothing can replace engaging classroom discussion and good, old-fashioned teaching.

Teaching is truly an art.

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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com

Conformity and the Common Core

standing in lineWe demand that our students raise their hands to ask a question, yet we require that they produce a self-identity reflection project. We insist that students stand in line before entering the classroom, yet we request that they think outside the box when answering that math reasoning question.

Conformity and the Common Core appear to be mutually exclusive. How are we supposed to teach students to think for themselves if we’re overly concerned with adherence to classroom management rules?

Put your backpacks away. Get out your pencil. Sit down. Wait for instructions. Raise a silent hand.

No, this isn’t the 50’s these are some of my classroom norms.

I’m not proud that I’ve had to conform to traditional behavior management systems in order to keep sanity in the classroom. That’s not what I thought I’d be spending 50% of my time on when I decided to become a teacher. In fact, I’m pretty frustrated that, after trying the new ways of running a classroom, still, at the end of the day it feels like I’ve made little difference when it comes to behavior.

On one hand, common core is about being creative, letting your students guide projects and lead learning. On the other hand, if the behavioral needs are too great the creativity gets tossed aside.

Now, I’m not a militant. I’m not perfect; my students are perfect; the system isn’t perfect — and I don’t expect perfection. But I was hoping that when I entered this profession, I’d get to be more creative and not just be a “stickler for the rules”.

The reality is that behavior outweighs creativity. If the classroom is not running smoothly, we cannot do fun things. Some would say the opposite. I was one of those, before I became a teacher. Conformity, fortunately or unfortunately, is required to move forward.

Hurry up and get with the game, cause I’d sure like to do some fun things. C’mon, kids 🙂


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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com

Get Out of Your Seat and Up On Your Feet

5wsYou know that one class– the class you can just have the most fun with because the behaviors are under control and the kids get along, not only with each other but also with you?!  Well, I’ve been lucky enough to experience that class my first year teaching, and we got to start off the semester with the all important 5W’s and 1H Questions.

Now, if you’re as excited as I am about teaching this series then you are either (a) a teacher yourself, (b) a person who loves lesson planning, (c) a journalist, or (d) a person whose thirst for knowledge cannot be quenched by a mere textbook but whose desire for project-based learning keeps them up at night writing rhyming clues for the detective scavenger hunt. If you are any of the above, read on —

We have a five-week grading period and so I often plan long project-based lessons to adhere to this timeline. This is helpful for grading, progress monitoring and reporting, and general structure to the framework of the year. We began this five week grading cycle with none other than Good Charlotte:

Great for middle school, by the way!

Next, we delved into Clue and a new game, Suspicion. both of which are who-done-it games that bring the who, what, where, when, why, and how questions to life.

Then, we added some graphic organizers to solidify our understanding along with a reinforcement assignment on MobyMax.com, my favorite skill-building online program.

Finally, we’re headed out to complete a detective scavenger hunt, courtesy of Good Sensory Learning.

This is one of my favorite unit plans I’ve done. It’s been a blast to see the students really enjoy learning through play. Thought I would pass it along for all those who love to get “out of your seat and up on your feet” with project-based learning!


Keep up with the latest and greatest blogs, thoughts and resources. Follow us on Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube

Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com