(Reprinted from Reconstructing Jewish Education: A Process Guide edited by Dr. Jeffrey Schein in 1989.)
Many Reconstructionist religious schools are small in size, as a result of both circumstances and ideology. This means that many of our classes include a small number of children but cover a large age span. Teachers with limited resources are frequently asked to teach mixed-age classes. In a sense, we are re-inventing the one room schoolhouse. Unlike our nineteenth century predecessors, however, we have a legacy of child development and progressive education information to help us in our task. The necessity of mixed-age grouping can be an opportunity when approached with sensitivity to developmental issues, group dynamics, and appropriate teaching techniques.
Some potential virtues of mixed-age grouping include:
- Greater flexibility in ability-grouping children, e.g. a younger, advanced child can work more easily with older children; an older child with less background can work with children at the same academic level without being “demoted.”
- Exposure to thinking at various different stages: Children at higher developmental levels get to see where they have been while children at less advanced stages are exposed to the next level. Methods of reasoning different from one’s own (both moral and intellectual) stimulate consolidation and advancement.
- Opportunity to use older students as aides. Assistant teachers help younger students and are also motivated to master the material themselves in order to help teach.
- An environment that is closer to full Jewish “community” than isolated age groups.
Thought should be given to which age groups are most likely to work well together. It generally makes sense to group children by developmental readiness: a group of children who are not yet fluent in reading English (3-6 year olds), young readers (8 and 9 year olds), older elementary schoolers (10 and 11 year olds), junior high students (12 -14) and high school students.
If the age spread has to be even greater than that reflected in this breakdown, it may be more effective to match a much younger group with a much older group than to put 7-12 year olds together. With a large consecutive span older students often feel insulted while the younger ones feel overwhelmed. By leaving a gap between the ages, different expectations are created.
Dynamics in a class with a wide age spread can be complicated. I worked with one group ranging in age from 7 – 11 in which tensions ran high and were never successfully resolved. The older students picked on the younger ones. Both groups felt that everything was unfair; the little ones felt persecuted and the big ones felt annoyed. It was impossible to play games because the students wouldn’t participate on mixed-age teams and pitting the smaller ones against the all – powerful older contingent would have been unfair. I tried having community meetings, talking about ageism (prejudice against people because of their age), asking the class to problem solve. Nothing worked. I ended the year feeling frustrated and disappointed. The lesson for me was that personalities and group dynamics beyond the control of a teacher have to be acknowledged. Sometimes teaching isn’t easy! The less we force teachers into rigidly defined slots focused on one age and one text book, the more creative and resourceful we have to be.
There are success stories. At our model Reconstructionist school at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (R2C2), master teacher Ilene Farber teaches a class of 21 students in the primary grades. One day I observed her introducing the story of Noah. “Oh,” groaned an older student, “That’s boring, we already did that.” Without looking at that student, Ilene asked the class, “Can anyone tell me the names of Noah’s children?” Of course not. By asking a question that she knew was too hard she established herself as someone who has something to teach.
Usually I don’t ask factual questions unless I’m pretty sure at least one student knows the answer. There’s usually no point in making kids feel stupid. But in a situation like the one Ilene faced, it pays to think of a challenging factual question that will engage attention and establish credibility.
Questions that are open ended can be answered by different students at different levels. Paula Pavel, who supervises new teachers in the Philadelphia school system, did a teacher training workshop for our Reconstructionist staff. She began by dumping a box of little styrofoam squiggles on the table. “At the end of this class,” she said, “I want each of you to tell me how these squiggles are like the 613 mitzvot.” There was no right answer but every teacher had a different idea. “We don’t know exactly how many there are.” “We were commanded to think about it.” “Everybody looks at it differently.” The teacher of a mixed age class can use such questions as a unifier: “What do Einstein and Freud have in common?” Answers can range from “they both have E’s in their name” to “they both were famous men” to “they both were Jewish.”
The mixed-age classroom may require more than the normal amount of ruach (communal spirit) the building, since it lacks a standard identifying feature Children usually identify with an age group or grade, feeling some solidarity with those who are perceived as their “own kind.” The teacher of a mixed-age class has to help the students find other standards of identification. If your school includes more than one class, it helps to give the classes names to rally around. If all the children in the school study together, using the school’s name could work. Projects such as making banners with class names and assigning privileges using the class names help build unity. At R2C2 the groups are labeled Gan, Cochavim (Stars), Chalutzim (Pioneers), Toshavim (Settlers), Tzadikim (Righteous Ones), Maskilim (Learned Ones) and Jewish Studies Cycle. We call children to collect their snacks by class order, we dismiss them from assemblies using class names, we do tzedakah projects by class. We even give special privileges to different classes, e.g. the Maskilim are allowed to sit in chairs at assemblies while younger students take places on the floor; starting with the Tzadikim, students earn a fifteen-minute Hafsakah (recess) on Sundays. We frequently make statements such as the following with pride, “At R2C2, we do it such and such a way.” The point is to build an identification and spirit of unity.
Good ideas for group building are found in the New Games books. These are collections of games that require cooperation rather than competition. Everyone wins and in fact it is only possible to “win” by working together. Many of the games can be adapted for Jewish content.
Once you have the attention of your students, organization is the key to a successful mixed-age classroom. Many of the techniques offered here are also useful to the teacher who faces a large range of ability in a class with only one age level.
The “reading group” that many of us grew up with is a good way to ensure some teacher attention for all children. No more than three groups should be formed. While one group meets with the teacher for Hebrew lesson the other two work on assignments. One assignment might be an independent work sheet or programmed reader and the other might be a learning center or creative project. Each group rotates through all three activities. The teacher should be aware of which students need the most teacher attention to work well and should assign them to the middle reading group. In this way they can work independently for a while, have their work checked by the teacher during small group time, and then work independently again.
Programmed readers can be a godsend in mixed-age classroom. Since students are provided with the answers, they become much less dependent on a teacher. The best strategy is to use a programmed book accompanied by a workbook that does not provide the answers. This allows the teacher to check that students are really learning rather than just copying the answers. An excellent programmed sequence is Behrman House’s phonics book and workbook called Reading Hebrew.
Along with some programmed textbooks, a good teacher can offer her own programmed creations: learning centers, games, tape-recorder activities, flashcards, etc. Such activities encourage children to be self-sufficient. Directions, answers, and a method for problem solving should always be included. For instance, “if you get stuck, skip that problem,” or “if you get stuck ask someone who has done this before.” It is very distracting to be besieged by children asking how to do assignments while trying to work with a small group. When that happens it means that the teacher has not structured the activity well.
One good way to organize the curriculum is to have an on-going social studies project such as building a kibbutz or writing a class Torah. This allows children who are not meeting with the teacher in their reading group to have something to work on. One semester my students were involved in an on-going project in which they created games about the holidays. I gave them basic information that had to be incorporated into the game and they worked on large poster boards inventing educational materials. Then they all played each other’s educational games. If you have a good filing system you can save worksheets and other materials from year to year so that less teacher time has to be spent on preparation.
Children are able to work more independently on social studies projects than on Hebrew learning because the material is less foreign. When they do need to work independently on Hebrew I sometimes pair them in “chevruta” or partnerships (the traditional yeshiva mode of study) so that they can support each other. There are a number of techniques that can motivate students to work efficiently. Sometimes I tell the partners to read into a tape-recorder which I spot check later; sometimes I time their reading at the beginning of practice and then again at the end (if they are working on speed); and sometimes I allow them to perform and earn a star when they have mastered the material. Every student has a personal chart that gets filled in for each of the prayers we teach at each of four different levels: Reading, Chanting, Key Vocabulary & Global Meaning.
When teaching the whole class, the teacher of a mixed-age group has to think in terms of multiple levels of ability. One year for practical reasons we decided to combine the nursery school kindergarten and even a few first graders into one class. Parents of the older children were very concerned that the activities would be babyish and the year would be wasted for their children. I assured them that I would discuss their concern with Ricci Apfellbaum, the classroom teacher and monitor the curriculum carefully. On the first day of class I walked in and saw Ricci handing out materials for a Rosh Hashanah collage She was giving pre-cut holiday symbols made out of cardboard to the younger students and stencils of the same holiday symbols to the older students. The older students had to trace the stencil and cut out the shape before pasting while the younger ones simply concentrated on pasting. I could see that Ricci understood how to teach at many levels simultaneously.
The teacher of the mixed-age or mixed-ability classroom must set up each activity so that it addresses a range of ability. This might mean providing written directions to readers and verbal directions to pre-readers; a choice of writing a story or dictating a story; a lesson that involves learning something and then teaching it (e.g. the four questions); “extra credit” vocabulary words for kids who finish first….
Remember to use every resource available rather than get stuck in an isolated, overwhelming situation when engaging in this challenging work. Older teenagers in the congregation might be eager to volunteer; parents or grandparents might be thrilled to help on a regular basis or you could assign a rotating co-op position. Inviting guest speakers provides additional attention. Experiences that may seem routine are often exciting to children: someone in the congregation may have just visited Israel or someone may be willing to talk about what it was like to be an American during the Holocaust. If you’re lucky you may find guests who can talk about fighting in the Six Day War, running a mission to Soviet Jews, surviving the Holocaust, living in Israel, working with the Youth Group in the civil rights movement and more.
Volunteers do not need to be experts in the content of your curriculum. They can read stories, supervise assignments, show audio-visual material and lead discussions, and give one to one attention to children doing projects. Helpers can help maintain order in the classroom by protecting the teacher from many potential distractions and freeing him to teach.
R2C2 started five years ago with a total of four students. We ran a mixed-age classroom out of necessity. Today we have close to 100 students and organize mixed-age classrooms because of their value. What originally appeared as necessity now seems to be one more option for teaching living Judaism.