In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by principal Todd Sumner, and teachers, Maria Cuna & Matt Smith & from the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School to discuss working with students in multi-age learning environments.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For the last 35 years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. In each of the coming episodes, I’ll explore my thoughts and my learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:49 Multi-age learning environments. Having started my career working with students in multi-age groups, I’ve always been a proponent. I’ve done quite a bit of work with elementary schools and K-8’s who have had some really positive results with multi-age groupings and in using a family approach that, in some cases, had kids K-8 working together. I was interested when I found an article about multi-age environments and the article introduced me to the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devons, Massachusetts. It’s a public charter with grade 7-12, and it talked about their work there with students in multi-age groups. So I was lucky enough to reach out, and today we have Todd Sumner, the principal of the school and two teachers, Matt Smith and Maria Cuna, joining us. So, welcome and thanks for hopping on the podcast with me.
Todd: 02:02 Thanks for inviting us to join you, Steve.
Steve: 02:04 Todd, would you take a quick moment and introduce yourself and Matt and Maria to the group?
Todd: 02:17 My name’s Todd Sumner, I’m the principal at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, also known as Parker. As you said Steve, we are a 400 student charter public school. We’re located about 30 miles west of Boston. We are among the oldest of the 74 charter public schools in Massachusetts. We opened in 1995 and have always been an essential school and dedicated to the common principles of essential schools. Matt and Maria, my colleagues are here with me, can now introduce themselves.
Matt: 02:56 So I’m Matt Smith and I teach what we call Arts and Humanities, so an integrated curriculum of your English Language Arts and Social Studies and fine and performing arts. And I’m a founding faculty member here at the Parker school and have spent most of my years teaching what we call division one, which is mainly seventh and eighth graders, so also some ninth graders, and then I’ve also taught division three, which is primarily the juniors and seniors, though also some sophomores as well.
Maria: 03:31 And I’m Maria Cuna and I teach math and science and technology, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a mixture of mathematic science and different uses of technology. We also focus a lot on technical communication and I also teach division one, so I’m working with our seventh and eighth grade students. And I’ve been with Parker for – this is my fifth year here and before that I’ve been working with middle schoolers in a lot of different settings.
Steve: 04:17 So when the school was founded, what was the thinking that led to students being multi-age grouped?
Todd: 04:19 Yeah, well part of it was just a logistical – so when we started the school we were seventh and eighth grade. And then as the older kids got older, we kept bringing in a new seventh grade. So we started, expanding the school. So, part of it was just – that’s how we founded the school. But early on, part of the vision was, the idea that there is heterogeneous mixtures of kids, which is going to happen regardless of whether you’re doing multi-years or not I imagine. But that was always part of the division of the school. And I think the idea that you – the different ages learn from each other, right? The ideas of collaboration, the idea is that students bringing different skills, backgrounds, interests to create a school community or to create a classroom community was always a really important part of Parker from the very beginning. So I would say that was one of the original drivers of having the mixed-age groups.
Steve: 05:49 So, I pulled a line from the article that I read and it stated all classes are multi-age, mixed readiness, non-tracked and include a wide spectrum of kids in every classroom. Can you describe for us what that looks like from the teacher’s perspective and in planning for learning?
Maria: 06:19 Sure, I can talk a little bit about that one. So, once again, I teach in a math and science classroom and what that looks like on a day-to-day basis is that we aim to have lessons that are – I call it like a low floor/high ceiling kind of lesson. And so, what that means is that every student is able to access the material, but they may all be accessing it at a different place. And there’s a few things that are true about that. The first thing that’s true is that even when you have a classroom that has – all the students are at the same grade and age, they still need to have lessons that are low floor/high ceiling because students are always accessing information from different places. When you have a multi-age and a multi-grade classroom, it’s a little bit more apparent. And so students are working – they do a mixture of work. Sometimes they’re working individually and when they’re working individually, the work that they’re doing might be differentiated so that to support them where they are.
Maria: 07:24 And it creates a classroom where students know that every student is in a different place and that everyone is on their own learning journey, which creates a lot more respect among the students. And so sometimes they’re doing individual work, sometimes they’re working in partners and sometimes they’re working collaboratively. And so depending on the kind of work they’re doing that day, they might be working with someone who that, a similar lesson to them, a similar level to them and maybe they’re going above and beyond what someone next to them is doing. And everyone is always kind of at a different place, but they’re also learning from each other and as well as from the teacher. But I would say we put a lot of emphasis on learning from each other and that everyone is in their own place along the journey.
Steve: 08:42 That’s interesting because I’ve described from my past that if you can’t give me a group of kids who are all at the same spot, then the wider the difference, probably the better. And since there’s not much of a chance you can give me a group that’s all at the same spot – that’s kind of why the multi-age made so much sense to me.
Matt: 08:50 Yeah, so that idea of collaboration I think underlies our planning all of the time. So that when we’re thinking about a concept or content that we’re going to be dealing with, we know that we have some students that have more experience or facility with it and others who are going to need our support and one way to differentiate is to you know, have one group of kids working on one aspect of the skill and another group working on the other. Another way to do it, is to bring those kids together and have the students who understand that concept or know how to do that mathematical process, you know, how to integrate the quotations and they’re actually working as a group. And so it’s a little bit through observation and a little bit through osmosis and a little bit through direct instruction that the other kids are sort of like, oh, okay. So that’s how I do it. And then I can go off, right, and try to apply that in my own work.
Steve: 09:59 I used to use the example that if I was teaching a second language, if you gave me a class with first second and third year students in it, you know, I’m now in a good spot where I can be doing direct instruction with one group kids while my advanced students are doing some tutoring with my first year students. My first year students actually have a chance to hear the language being used. Which, when they’re the only ones in the room with the teacher, there’s not much language that could be used. So that was one of the spots where I saw it a little clearer for teachers to get that understanding of looking at the difference.
Maria: 10:42 Sure that’s a great example and that also – I wanted to highlight that we have a team teaching model, and so, in our division one and two classrooms, so that’s our like seventh, eighth and ninth graders, is division one – mostly seventh and eighth and some ninth graders and division two is ninth and 10th graders with some 11th graders, we’re pretty fluid. But in those settings, we have team teaching. And so in each math, science and technology classroom, there is two teachers. And same thing with arts and humanities. There’s two teachers. And that allows for even further meeting the needs of all of our students.
Steve: 11:40 Todd, I’m wondering the degree of professional development you have to build in for your staff and I guess I’m also wondering what it looks like in your hiring practice.
Todd: 11:45 Yeah, that’s a great question and you folks should chime in too. So, and Matt can – I can see him, so he can nod if I’m on the right track here. But I think even back at the very first, earliest days of the school and the intentional design of how teachers would work together is reflected in the schedule. Right? So all of, I mean – and you know, Parker makes this commitment year over year – that if we want students to collaborate and have the kinds of classroom experiences that we hope for them, then we’re going to need to give teachers time to work together to do that planning. So we have a three long block, three two hour blocks a day, and what’s true for Matt and Maria and their colleagues is that they typically teach two of those blocks every day and have common planning time with the other members of their math, science, technology or arts and humanities colleagues for that other block.
Todd : 12:55 So a lot of the professional development that we do is self facilitated by planning teams and in the domains. And you know, I think that time is the most precious resource for teachers to do this work and to support each other in learning how to support kids and the program. So it’s easy for us to talk about, like when people are considering joining the team at Parker, it’s like, hey, these are the things we value, these are the kinds of conversations, you’re committing to have your practice be public among other things, right? So as you know, Maria and Matt were just saying, you know, I’ve got a co-teacher in my room, you know, I’ve got four other colleagues that are part of the same planning team with me. We’re all, you know, looking at student work together. We’re sort of all in this together. So to the extent that – I think that classroom teaching is about closing the door and doing as you wish, that’s not how we roll at Parker. And that’s easy enough for people to understand on the front side and they can see, you know. Typically when they’re here to investigate and explore the opportunity we might have like, oh, this would be really different or this is the thing I’ve – this is the way of collaborating or working together that I’ve been wishing for or hoping as to experience.
Steve: 14:40 I’m hearing, across all the conversation so far, that it seems the multi-age assists in creating the learning environment that you want and the teaming of the teachers and the way you’ve arranged your schedule, assists you in creating the teaching environment you want. And there’s an interconnectedness between the two belief systems that you have about teaching and learning.
Matt: 15:02 Yeah, I think unfortunately a model or analogy with a lot of schools is that silos are created, right? Where you, either between departments, there is no conversation or between grade levels, there is no conversation. And that is true institutionally. And it’s true with the adults and it’s true with the students. And so you develop an identity of, right, we are the freshman class or wer’e on the such and such team and I think here at Parker, we’re really intentionally – that we are a community. We are all members of the Parker community. And that happens in many different ways. The multi-age classrooms and the advisories, which is something else we could talk about too, being multi-age is one example. But the collaboration that the adults are doing is another example. We have a lot of different ways that the older kids are interacting with the younger kids so that we have peer mentor groups, we have what are called teaching assistants who are helping out in the classroom – older students working with the younger students. We do a lot of community conversations where we’re pairing up different age groups and talking about either issues or issues the world is facing. So yeah, I think the whole design and ethos of the school is about community and the multi-age classroom is just one aspect of them.
Maria: 16:42 And one of – one important way that that plays out is because it’s not – so not only are our classrooms multi-age, but there’s a lot of moments in the day where – so not only our seventh, eighth and ninth graders in a classroom, but there could be, as Matt was saying, there could be, like, an 11th, 12th grader who’s a T.A., so older students are – have a lot of opportunity to practice leadership and so academically, there’s a lot of reasons that we have a multi-age classroom. But also for students developing who they are in the world and getting to try on different roles, there’s constantly opportunities for that practice and being a leader and being a follower in a lot of different settings. Academically, in advisory socially, students are constantly interacting with different age groups.
Steve: 17:49 Would you talk a little a bit about your advisory, because that’s another issue that I spend a lot of time pushing schools that I consult with toward.
Matt: 17:58 Yeah, so, our advisory grouping – it’s usually about 12 students and one one adult. We do have a fair number of advisories that have co-advisors and those are also mixed age groups, so I have seventh and eighth graders. We start every day with that group for 15 minutes, and part of that is the logistics of a typical home room, attendance taking, announcements, but the core of that time is something that we call connections, which is basically just an open forum for students and advisors just to kinda check in and to share kind of where they’re at that that morning or maybe a funny anecdote or even just what they ate for dinner last night. But that’s a core aspect that if you walk into any advisory room, probably in the entire school, they’re doing some sort of connecting on a personal level. We end every day with advisory checkout, which is a chance to sort of check in with kids, maybe help some of the kids who need a reminder about what are you doing for homework this afternoon or are you – make sure your carpool is picking you up when you think it is.
Matt: 19:12 And doing some reflections on the day or the week. And then every Wednesday we have a 45 minute period which is a longer chunk of time where we do different intentional activities either around group bonding, academic advising, conversations. Every advisory has a community service project that they do and also just recreation, fun time as well. So, you know, – most students if you ask them like what is advisory? And they will say, well it’s sort of like it’s your home base, sort of like your family at Parker. And I know thinking about the multiple ages, is that the eighth graders, yeah, I talked to them on that first sort of pre-registration day and had conversations about, so now you, that you’re the big kids and advisory and you know how things go, you know, what do you want to do during these first couple of days to help the seventh graders who are coming to this new place? We draw from 40 plus different communities so kids may not know anyone else in the building, and the eighth graders of returning students are wonderful in terms of orienting and touring students around. And so we, you know, there’s a lot of intentional group creation and community creation and the advisory is really the home base for that.
Steve: 20:47 A big word for me is knowing – so I’m hearing that knowing as a way of extending your community.
Maria: 21:02 Yeah and Parker is really built on this idea of knowing our students well and advisory is one of the biggest places that that happens.
Maria: 21:09 Each advisee knows that they have one adult that is really looking out for them. And so in my math and science class, I’m looking out for all of my students, but it’s like I have an extra eye out for the kids who I advise because I’m not just looking at how they’re doing in math and science. I’m looking at how they’re doing in all of their classes, but I’m looking at how they’re doing socially. I’m looking at how they’re doing emotionally and they know that they have someone that they can go to and talk to and who is really like always advocating for them even when they’re having a really hard time. So advisory is – it’s like a mini model of what we want to be true in our greater community.
Steve: 22:00 So I’m also – as a teacher, I know that there is an advisor to support me. So if I’m struggling with a student, I know there’s one person on the staff who’s really focused on knowing that student and that’s a person I can connect with.
Maria: 22:13 Exactly. Matt and I talk about students all the time that we share.
Steve: 22:24 Tell me a little bit about your use of portfolio and exhibition. I read on your website, it says no class rank, no letter grades, no honors, no prizes. So that led me to think portfolio and exhibition that you talk about is pretty important.
Todd & Matt: 22:50 You’re asking on a great week actually, because before the call started, we were comparing notes. Students have an opportunity twice a year, January – and to make all their portfolios together and make their public exhibitions of mastery. And so later this week, that 60 odd kids – students, will be doing that gateway presentation. So it’s funny that you’re asking that question this particular week. It’s one of two weeks where it’s very much on our, on our mind. It’s not that, not that it’s not an a mind at other times, but it’s very much in the spotlight. And I’ve just, I’ve been sitting down – I have four students who are preparing for presentations and they’ve been pulling their portfolios together and doing a lot of reflection. Every student writes a cover letter where they are describing their time, their journey in that division, in that domain, in this case, arts and humanities. And then they write their cover letter, and then I’ve been sitting down and talking with them one on one about, what do they want to do in their presentation.
Todd: 23:55 They have a 55 minute period and they’re told they have about 15 to 20 minutes to do a presentation in front of family and friends and their teacher and their advisor. And in division one, that gateway presentation is very reflective. They’re already going to be moving on to division two. They can’t fail their presentation and yet it’s probably the most nervous they’re going to feel during their time in division one. But it is the one-on-one conversations I’ve been having with these students – is really wonderful because they are talking about things like, well, I’ve really improved with my writing and here’s how I’ve improved. And they pull out the personal narrative that they wrote as seventh graders and we read a paragraph or a bit of dialogue together and they kind of, you know, laugh and are a little nostalgic but a little like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe that that’s when my writing was like, because then they pull out the personal narratives that they wrote two months ago and they compare it and they are able to – they’re, they’re able to articulate the differences that they see in their own work.
Todd: 25:12 And I think that metacognition and reflection that the portfolios help foster really comes out as they’re moving from one division to the other and they do look back at the work that they did a year and a half, even two years ago and they – I think they feel really proud and really empowered about like, wow, yeah – I knew I was getting better, but now I really can see it tangibly in front of me.
Steve: 25:42 That’s great. I have one last question here. I read in the article that I first came across your school – the statement it says: “At Parker, leaders play strong emphasis on helping parents understand the reasons for and benefits of multi-age learning. Kids will figure it out but as with most things in school reform, it’s usually the adults who need most of the help.” I love that and I wondered if you’d give me a little response to it.
Todd: 26:19 Yea I think that what’s true and Matt reference this earlier – we’re not like a like a neighborhood school. So, folks are traveling often some distance in order to enroll their students at Parker and we’re actually holding an information session tonight for the next – another group of prospective students and their families. There’s a lot to sort of get one’s head around. We do do school differently. We are a mission driven school and pretty consistent and our pursuit of that mission. And we assume that it’s going to take parents, not only like you said, or quoted from the article. It’s like the students – because they’re here all day –
Steve: 27:09 Yeah, they get it.
Todd: 27:11 They’re going to get it more quickly because they have more surface area with it. They have the tutelage and support of their advisory mates, classmates and all the adults in the building. For parents though, who probably – like it’s a rare parent that went to a progessive school like Parker, like some of them did, right? And sort it translates maps onto their experiences of adolescence. But that’s not typically the case. Much more common that folks went to, you know, graded GPA driven, comprehensive public high schools. That’s most of our parents. And so there’s a lot of learning that we help them do. Like, I’m going to tell them tonight when I host this information session – like we’re not trying to teach you everything you need to know about Parker tonight. We’re trying to give you enough information so that you know whether or not you want to put your student’s name in the lottery.
Todd: 28:05 And if your student enrolls, there’ll be multiple opportunities next spring and fall for you to come together with other parents that are new to the school and we’ll walk you through it but, as is true with new faculty, like, we don’t try to teach them everything or orient them to everything all at once. It’s like there’s going to be a just in time quality to this. Your first personal learning plan conference with your students -we’re going to coach you up about that. But yeah, sure. I mean, and you know, the students about to enter seventh grade, let’s say, I’ll get five questions tonight about the transition to college, right? Their worries and concerns and the questions that are on their mind – you have, you have to take the questions as they come and then just try to provide them with reassurance. Yep, you’re not going to understand all of this tonight but two semesters in you’ll understand it a lot better. You do everything in the school year once, you’ll know what we’re talking about.
Steve: 29:17 Well, I have to say, I was very excited when I got the first e-mail back from you that you’d be willing to join me because I knew from the little that I had read and then after visiting your website, that I was going to enjoy this conversation and I was not at all disappointed. So, thanks a lot. Have a great evening.
Todd: 29:38 Take good care.
Maria: 29:39 Thank you.
Steve: 29:40 Bye-bye.
Matt: 29:40 Bye.
Steve [Outro]: 29:42 Thanks for listening folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.
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