Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Clearly As It Should Be

Our school is divided into four classes, based on age. There is a 2's, 3's, and 4's class, as well as a kindergarten. There is a lot of data, both empirical and anecdotal about the benefits of mixed age classrooms, but Woodland Park has been doing it this way for a long time, since 1977 to be as precise as we can be, and it can be hard to break with tradition. Last year, as a cooperative community we spent several months discussing the pros and cons of switching to a mixed age format, both in terms of pedagogy as well as logistically, financially, legally, and practically. One of our biggest challenges was that by the time we got around to taking a vote, we had already begun enrolling families for the coming school year, so we felt that a significant "last minute" change of this sort should require the vote of a supermajority, a threshold we missed by a couple percentage points. As a community we tend to value democracy above everything else and so as disappointing as the results were for me, they also affirmed who we are.

That said, I hope we'll re-approach the idea again in the fall, but for the time being, we're still largely divided by age most of the time. This isn't to say that the ages don't sometimes mix on the playground or that both younger and older siblings never attend one another's classes or that elementary-aged siblings don't regularly hang out with us, say when their schools are otherwise occupied with standardized testing or in-service days, but it isn't a formal part of our program. We do have a multi-aged adult community, spanning many decades, and while that also has its benefits, it's not the same thing.

We extended our school year by a few days last week to make up for the unusually large number of days we missed during the winter due to snow. Since many families had already made plans, however, attendance was sparse so we decided to fill up the classroom by making it a sibling day. So we wound up with about twenty or so kids, ranging in age from around 18 months to 10 years. It was, in the words of more than one of the parent-teachers helping out that day, "magical."

One of the concerns voiced by families as we considered a multi-age model last year was how will we accommodate all those ages in a single space. Won't the older kids need more stimulating experiences? Won't the younger kids feel left out? As we saw last week, there are no age limitations on things like easel painting or playing with play dough. Of course, the children used the materials in different ways. A fourth grader, for instance, used Legos to create an elaborate superhero hideout (in cooperation with a preschooler) while a two-year-old transported fists full of Legos from one table to another, then back again. Running, swinging, climbing, pretending, collecting, and bickering are likewise adaptable to all ages.

Older children fell to their knees to help the younger ones. Younger children stepped up their game, stretching themselves to join the play of the older kids. Our summer program is a multi-aged endeavor, with children ranging from 2-6 playing together, so it's not like our community has no experience with the phenomenon, but it was indeed magical to see them learning from one another. This is clearly as it should be.

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