The Saratoga Sun -

By Mike Dunn 

Juggling grades and shaping minds


Mike Dunn

Shelly Cooper assists 2nd grader Bryley Waring with cursive as the rest of the class counts the days of the month. As a teacher in a small multi-grade class room at Medicine Bow Elementary, Cooper constantly bounces between grade levels in order to provide a good education for her students.

Some district

teachers tasked with teaching

multiple grades

By Mike Dunn

Shelly Cooper stood in front of a group of kindergartners and first graders. She quickly pointed towards a list of shapes on the poster behind her.

"Triangle," the students yelled simultaneously.

"Good. Alright, work on the days of the month," Cooper said. She then rushed towards another group of students sitting at a table working quietly behind the rest of the class.

"Now a cursive 'L' looks like this," Cooper said while instructing the second graders.

Just as the kindergartners and first graders started to get distracted, Cooper rushes back to the front of the room besides a large paper clock directing her figure towards the digits.

"Okay let's go through the clock 5 ... 10 ...15 ... "

This is a typical morning for Cooper. Back and forth; rushing from one side of the class to the other.

Twelve kids, three grades and only one teacher.

When it comes to teaching, Shelly Cooper is a juggler. As the teacher for the K-3 classroom at Medicine Bow Elementary, it is a delicate balancing act between providing education and maintaining classroom order.

"I have 12 students. That doesn't seem like a lot, but that means there are three grade levels of material that I have to know."

It's not a job that every teacher can handle. For Cooper, teaching in a multi-grade level classroom is something she's learned over several years. Starting out as a preschool teacher and a teacher's aide at Medicine Bow Elementary before taking her over her own classroom has helped her achieve success.

"I was able to learn from so many great teachers that were here," Cooper said. "So I was able to learn a lot of tricks from those people while I was an aide."

Cooper's classroom contains five kindergartners, four first-graders and three second-graders. Trying to come up with a single lesson plan for all three grades is nearly impossible. Cooper says that means she has to get creative with her lesson planning.

"When I first started teaching (in a multi-grade classroom), I was writing a column for each grade level. Well that's just crazy," Cooper said. "So as I've gone through, I have tended to now put more of a schedule together. Then I will type that schedule and then take my pencil and fill in where people are going."

After Cooper's class practiced reading time on a clock, the class divided into four groups each with several kids in each grade. Second-grader Bryley Waring held up a picture of a goose with the letter 'G' above it towards two younger students. The young boy in the group yelled out the letter.

"Good. Now I want Makayla to get the next one," Bryley said holding up the letter 'M' on a card. "Sound it out."

Bryley is what Cooper refers to as a "student teacher." In Cooper's classroom, having the older kids "teach" the younger kids benefits the classroom both socially and academically.

"In (K-3rd grade level) they all want to learn. They all want to be helpful. So I call my second graders 'student teachers' so they actually act as a student teacher," Cooper said. "What I'm doing is reenforcement stuff for the second graders. I'm not letting them teach the curriculum, they are re-enforcing skills."

It's not just the second graders who benefit from this practice. The younger students also have the fluidity to fit their strengths in the classroom.

"It is very good that they can move according to ability. I have a first grader that tends to novel read with the second graders because she can read at that level," Cooper said. "She can't do a lot of the work at the higher level or a lot of the thinking and questioning, but I might as well have her read at that level and the rest will come later."

A multi-grade level classroom can be a double-edge sword in that many of the advantages of these classrooms carry disadvantages. Cooper said that having the same teacher for three or four years can be an advantage in that it can provide good relationships between pupils and teachers and familiarity in learning for the students.

"But if their personalities don't match or their teaching and learning styles don't link, it can be a struggle for three to four years," Cooper said.

Staffing can be an issue for small multi-grade level classrooms. Many of their extra-circular teachers rotate throughout other schools in the district. Cooper said she used to have another teacher to assist her in the classroom, but due to budget cuts, she teaches all three grades by herself. This can be difficult when addressing the needs of the younger students and preparing the older grades for advancement.

"If you have even two grade levels, you can find that combination or that mesh [in learning ability]. In this class, you have one or two that mesh well because they are both fairly high achieving kids. Then you have the kindergartners that don't seem to mesh as well because you are starting at square-one and you have that year you have to fill," Cooper said.

"When you throw that third (grade) in, you now have that big diversity between a kindergartner and a second-grader. That's a lot of change", she added.

With state testing standards, preparing three grades of students for a statewide test is difficult.

"I would love to have my whole class with the same focus," Cooper said. Unfortunately, preparing three grades means that's impossible.

Mark Shipp is the principal of Hanna Elementary, Elk Mountain Elementary and Medicine Bow Elementary. Between those schools, there are five multi-grade classrooms. Shipp says that though the test numbers tend to be skewed due to low numbers within grades, he says that he sees benefits to students learning in multi-grade classrooms.

"One thing I've seen in multi-grade classrooms is that there is a lot less regression [in learning]," Shipp said. Kids come back from summer and there is less of a decline.

Shelly Cooper helps a student sound out a difficult word.

"The challenge we have as a school is to provide the same opportunities as larger schools," Shipp said. "And I hope we do that."

Teachers in small multi-grade classrooms have an extraordinary task in front of them. By juggling lack of materials, student's socialization level and learning ability, teachers like Shelley Cooper are an elite bunch. But Cooper said that the struggles that come with teaching in a multi-grade classroom is all worth it when she reflects on the bonds she has with Medicine Bow.

"Were very community oriented. I've known these kids and their parents for a really long time. You become very close to everybody," Cooper said. "That way, it can be really great because I'm vested in the community, and I care about the growth of these kids."


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