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 ūüôā

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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Defining Self & Success

SuccessAs it stands today, education is geared towards teaching our young students the importance of achieving success. How we define success can make or break our students self-worth. All too often, success is defined according to our culture and in today’s society, success means having money and power¬†so that you can be in control of your own¬†happiness.

My New Definition of Success

As a well-educated and self-proclaimed “definer” of my own¬†success,¬† I too adhered to society’s definition.¬†The typical Type A¬†student, I found myself always trying to live up to and then exceed my own expectations, attempting to outdo my last triumph and climb the ladder towards the next goal that would reinvigorate my self-worth and value to others.¬†But it seemed the ladder never ended and that if I chose to, I could climb forever.¬† Only recently, did I¬†begin to question¬†the¬†definition of success I adopted as a child.¬†Through age, experience, and honestly the fact that I was¬†just so tired of my never-ending climb, I¬† began to realize that my definition of success hinged on control.

And then I realized that control was an illusion.

The fact is I have no control over anyone or anything, except my own behavior, choices and actions. That’s it.¬†After the initial shock wore off,¬†it was¬†oddly reassuring to know that the weight of worrying about having enough money and power so that I could be happy one day had lifted. A new chapter had begun.

I no longer have to wait till I have enough to be happy, I can just be.

Collectively Learning Success Through Praise

Children learn to define success through praise. We were praised for taking our first step, eating our first¬†solid food, and using the potty for the first time. Our basic definition of success revolved around our basic needs.¬†As children grow, the adults in their lives praise them for different things, harder things like getting an A on a test.¬†If you’re praised for getting an A, then achieving an A becomes part of your definition of success. And we, as a culture, unquestionably accept this definition.

But what if we began defining success less collectively and more individually?

At the core of education is understanding how we each learn differently. We’re all good at different things and we all struggle with different challenges. Yet, we are taught to define success in the same way.

The system of education is beginning to catch up with the notion of individualized¬†learning, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences,¬†and even brain-mapping. Most educators acknowledge the research but many cannot fathom how to teach 32 students in 32 different ways. Classroom practices will have to be redefined to accommodate this new definition of learning too.

Embrace Individualized Education Now

I’m afraid we cannot wait for the system to catch up with the student. It’ll be too late and another generation lost to the definition that an A means you’re worthy. The work of change must be done now.

It’s important that parents and teachers collaborate, looking at the whole child and honoring their strengths while redefining their challenges. How do we do this?¬† At home, you can begin to praise your child for achieving a B or even a C¬†in that really hard subject. So your child’s strength is with words and not formulas. That’s okay. She will still be successful in her own right. At school, you can begin to praise your shy student for his thoughtful paper on the subject, even though he chose not to raise his hand¬†to participate in the class discussion.

Redefine Your Expectations

I want to be clear: I am not saying to lower your expectations, but, rather, redefine them in accordance with your child’s individual strengths and challenges. Children want to please¬†you; they¬†will rise to the challenges you set for them. It’s our job, as parents and teachers, to make sure those challenges build upon each other in¬†an attainable way.

Do we define a baby’s¬†first fall¬†as failure?¬†No,¬†we define it as learning.¬†Expectation and failure go hand in hand. Some parents and educators shy away from exposing their students to failure at a young age for fear their child will think of themselves as a¬†failure. Did the baby think of herself as a failure when she fell for the first time? Probably not because her parents reassured her that it would be okay. Then her parents helped their child up and she attempted to learn to walk again.

That’s exactly what we as parents and teachers should be doing with our students: redefining success and failure as, simply, learning.

The challenge is really within ourselves because until we can redefine our own successes and failures as learning, we cannot extend the same kindness towards our children. How we treat others is a reflection of how we see ourselves. That’s one lesson I continue to learn over and over again. Thankfully, that’s a lesson I’m ready to learn.

Christine Terry, J.D., is the Founder & Executive Director of Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services.

She created the One Wraparound Service for The Struggling Student, which includes Academic, Behavior, Special Education Advocacy, and School Placement services. Christine truly loves helping struggling students realize their inner potential and the possibilities that await them in and out of the classroom.