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Beginning Multiage

 

PWES CHOOSES MULTIAGE

Port Williams Elementary School serves children from the village of Port Williams and surrounding area in Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. In the early 1970’s there were approximately 400 students enrolled in classes P-6, consisting of two classes each grade level. At that time, the classes were streamed - a class of high achievers and one of low achieving students at each grade level.

A group of teachers at PWES began questioning the effectiveness of their streamed classes. Margaret Hayes, who taught the more advanced grade two class and Doreen Coulstan, who taught the class of slow stream grade two felt that it would be better for their students to be in classes of mixed ability. Marion Jordan (Leier) taught the slow stream grade one class. She felt frustrated as students’ academic progress was slow, clouded by social/emotional challenges.

Looking for an alternative, Doreen and Margaret traveled to England on a 4–week professional development tour to visit the British Infant School model. Classes in these schools comprised of children ages 5, 6, & 7 year olds, not segregated by grades. The Canadian teachers were amazed with the independence and cooperative attitude of these groups of children! The classes hummed with the joy of learning. This model of schooling also impressed George Forsyth (Curriculum Supervisor with the Kings County School Board) who accompanied the tour group to England.

Returning to Port Williams, Margaret, Doreen, and Mr Forsyth were enthusiastic about setting up three classes of multiage grouping. After recruiting Marion, they made a proposal to the school principal, Doug Shand and the parent community to set up three classes of ‘vertical grouping’ (later becoming ‘multiage’). They proposed a major change – not only mixing the ability levels of the students, but also mixing the age levels (5, 6, & 7 year olds). Mr Forsyth took the lead in this public meeting, as he was more knowledgeable of the theoretical and historical background of this model of schooling. He also promised the parent community that he would provide the teachers with professional mentoring and would closely follow the development of the program in his doctoral dissertation. With parent support, the multiage program began at Port Williams Elementary in the fall of 1973.

Initially, the parents were offered a choice of placement for their entry level children – a single age grade primary or one of the three multiage classes of 5, 6, & 7 year olds. Those early years of developing a multiage program were certainly challenging. In 1978, Marion made a PD trip to England to view first-hand the family grouping classes that she heard about from Margaret, Doreen and Mr Forsyth. Seeing a working model in action, gave her a better understanding of how to manage a multiage class.

There were no multiage resources; but Margaret, Doreen and Marion gained a lot of direction from child-centered literature and collaborating with each other. George Forsyth regularly observed the classes and met with the teachers after school to reflect teaching strategies. He played a critical role in helping the teachers make a paradigm shift from a ‘graded perspective’ to one that was developmental and constructivist. Mr Forsyth pointed out that changing the “grade primary, grade one, grade two” language to “kiddles, middles, and tops” was not really moving away from a graded model.

Curriculum development was obviously the biggest challenge for the teachers. Programs being used at the time were graded, making them ineffective and cumbersome for the variety of levels in the mixed-age classes. This was an era of schooling that was prior to “whole language’, “differentiated instruction”, “brain- compatible learning”, and “project based learning”. Even though it was an enormous amount of work to figure out how to teach each curriculum area with a high degree of openness and flexibility, the teachers were buoyed from the positive atmosphere of the classes. The children were happy, enthusiastic about their learning and were willing to work cooperatively with their classmates. Parents were impressed with the multiage learning environment and popularity for entry level students in the multiage classes increased.

Through the 80’s and 90’s, research about learning provided teachers with better tools to meet student needs. Through PD sessions about whole language, brain-based learning and differentiated instruction, the research was confirming what Margaret, Doreen and Marion had initiated as multiage teachers. Due to the success of the multiage program in Port Williams Elementary School, there have been other multiage programs started at elementary schools in the Annapolis Valley and throughout the province.

 

Doreen Coulstan Guppy, Margaret Hayes,
Marion Leier

Dr George Forsyth

 

 

 
Copyright © Marion Leier