In Praise of Split Classes

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  • A split class is a class created with students from two different age groups.
  • Split classes allow you to form deeper relationships with students.
  • Students are seen as individual learners in a split classroom.
  • A split classroom allows students the opportunity to lead younger students.

split class: a class grouping that includes students at two adjacent grade levels (for example, a Grade 5 and 6 class). Also known as a combined or multi-level class. 

I spent several years at the beginning of my career working in a tiny northern town.  Almost every class I taught had two grade levels. We were a tiny school and planned according to the students we had.  I quickly forgot there was a different way to organize students.  As one of the least experienced teachers on staff, I watched my more senior colleagues deftly navigate the range of ages and strengths in their classes. Their approaches were both expert and matter-of-fact.  I observed, learned, and copied, as we educators do.  To me, teaching combined classes was an everyday part of life as an educator.

Quite often, students in my combined classes form friendships outside of their grade level, which last for years afterward. Click To Tweet

Split Classes: My Experience

When my family and I moved to the suburbs of a larger city, my first contract was as a Grade 5/6 teacher, replacing a much-loved educator mid-year.  My first warning about the “split class stigma” came from a kind and friendly colleague. She offered a listening ear anytime as I learned my job in a new province.  “It’s tough enough replacing Mr. J.,” she said. “But being the split teacher on top of that…You know how people feel about splits.”  At the time, I actually didn’t.

Fast forward 20 years. I have just completed a year as our school’s 5/6 teacher, and I am about to embark on another one.  In my 30 years as an educator, I have taught combined classes half of that time, and I now know how many people feel about “splits.”  The biggest challenge in teaching a combined class is, hands-down, the perceptions of some parents, teachers, and sadly, students.  In my opinion, combined classes offer many advantages, which I am more than happy to share here. 

Meeting Them Where They Are

My school colleagues who teach one grade level at a time are true professionals. They see students as individual learners, not consumers of the curriculum.  Unfortunately, this is not the case in every setting.  In any classroom in 2022, students’ strengths and challenges, both academic and social, are on a continuum.  Meeting our students where they are and affecting a year or more of progress from that point can be challenging. Still, it is both a good pedagogical practice and a human approach.  A combined class teacher has no choice but to do this, given the naturally wide range of skills and readiness present in a combined classroom. 

Split Classes Offer Easier Transitions 

My school has a bilingual program, which means most students have two teachers, one English and one French. In our combined class setting, my students are assigned to one teacher.  I definitely notice a difference, when I teach a combined group, in the shortened time it takes to get to know my students.  My students have reported this works the other way, too…they get to know what is expected of them, the layout of the classroom, and other important details, in short order.  As a combined class teacher of littles, I found my Grade Two students were wonderful models to their Grade One peers in how to “do school” in their very first Junior wing class, naturally leading them along, without taking away from their own experience. This had the added benefit of helping the older students in the class to gain confidence in an authentic environment.

 Valuable Tools for Educators

One of my very favourite tools for teaching Math is the Grid Method.  Last year, under the guidance of Chad Ostrowski, I was able to create math grids, which could be used by my students from both grade levels. This eliminated the need for the traditional “teach one grade while the other works” situation, which strikes terror in the hearts of teachers who have never been at the helm of a combined class.  I was also able to take the skills I learned through my work with Chad and translate the self-paced mindset to other subject areas.  This meant students who needed help with Grade Three or Four concepts could receive it, and students who were ready to dip their toes in the waters of Grade Seven material could do so, too. 

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Split Class Student Relationships

Parents are often concerned about having their child in a classroom with children who could potentially be almost two years younger, or older, than themselves.  Yet, many kids have an age difference from their siblings of roughly this amount, often by parental choice.  Teachers and parents also worry about kids being away from their friends when placed in a combined class.  In fact, students are placed in my combined classroom in friend groups, making for a positive dynamic from the very start.  We are very intentional about this as a staff at my school, but my experience has taught me to insist upon it if this weren’t the case.  Quite often, students in my combined classes form friendships outside of their grade level, which last for years afterward.  This is especially true of my older Grade Five students and their Grade Six classmates who are on the younger side.

The Best of Both Worlds

In 2021, class bubbles were still being respected, so my colleague’s Grade 5/6 students took part in our socially distanced outdoor grad activities. Without their Grade Five peers, my colleague’s Grade Six students would have been in the activity rotation as a group of eight, while other students participated as a full class. 

My Grade Six students were able to be part of a Grade Five field trip this year. When their Grade Six peers graduated from elementary school, my Grade Five students helped with setup, acted as greeters, and attended the ceremony and lunch, as is our school’s tradition.  I find my Grade Six students often remain positive and engaged longer when they are in a class with Grade Five students. Otherwise, as graduation approaches, some of our Grade Six students can lose patience with elementary school and use undesirable behaviour to express this.

Seeing Split Classes in a New Light

Unfortunately, even some educational professionals subscribe to the stigma around combined classes.  This is especially true of teachers and administrators with little or no experience with their own split class groups.   One of my teacher friends at another school recently sat in on a student placement meeting.  She told me what the bright and caring professionals around her had to say about placing students in the newly formed combined classroom, fully believing they were acting in the kids’ best interest.

“He’s way too smart for the split.” 

“Being in the split will hurt her self-esteem.”

 “I’m sure their mom will cry when we tell her.” 

“That student has been so excited about going to Grade Six…who’s going to tell her she won’t be in a regular Grade Six class?” 

If these are the opinions of high-quality educational professionals, we still have work to do.

I have taught combined classes at a number of schools, at every level from 1/2 to 5/6 .  I love these types of groupings, and I will continue to work to remove the stigma around them. It is especially important that we, as educators, see the benefits of combined classes, both for our own growth and that of our communities.  

About Sandra Weir

Sandra Weir lives in Québec, Canada. She taught every grade from Junior Kindergarten to Grade Eight. Sandra is currently a Grade Six English and Math teacher. She is a wife, mom to three wonderful adults, and a definite dog person.