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The Value of Creating Multi-Grade Learning Opportunities

May 6, 2014

With the arrival of our 3D printer last Monday, students have been very excited about it. From putting it together to printing the stock models pre-loaded, students were able to quickly see the machine in action. It didn’t take long, though, for students to want to learn how create their own objects. You know, really use it.

With so much raw energy and desire to make it happen, the only piece we were missing was knowledge of FabLab. As a class, we watched some great intro videos to FabLab and played around with it as watched, but it wasn’t enough for students to truly make what they wanted. They worked together and were able to answer some of each other’s questions, but it was also clear that we could use some help.

Enter Chris Shedd, an amazing 6th grade social studies teacher at Burley, whose students have been creating and printing some amazing pieces for the last few months. Not only has he been a great sounding board for me, but his students have been great resources for my seventh and eighth graders. When we talked about how to help my students, he had an amazing infantry of sixth graders at my door ready to help during our structured study hall period. He also had his trademark enthusiasm for continuing this on a regular basis, which is awesome. It’s rare to find teachers that can keep students not only engaged but also excited about what they learn, as well as finding ways to help them learn not only their course content but a variety of other skills that will serve them well in whatever they do in life, and Burley is lucky to have a teacher of Chris’s abilities.

At first, my students, who are a year older, which is really five or six years in middle school years, were somewhat hesitant to ask questions and learn from younger students. I don’t think this is specific to my students in the least. I think if you took any older students at the school and paired them with younger students, they would be hesitant to work with them, as they’re too young or little to help them with anything. I’m sure this is a problem that would be prevalent at other schools across the country as well.

The question is why? Why do some students get embarrassed when working with younger students? Why do older students hesitate to ask younger students questions?  What would it take to get students of all ages to work together. Like Aaliyah said, age ain’t nothin’ but a number.

I’ve heard some great stories of multi-age classes in Ireland and how well students can work together. These stories are inspiring and show us that we have more work to do here to create multi-age scenarios here where all learners feel comfortable working together.

When I think of why there’s some hesitancy and unwillingness for students in different grades to work together, I can think of a few obvious reasons that prevent this from ever being fully realized at school. Students are often segregated by grade, as a student in sixth grade spends the majority of his day completely separated from a student in eighth grade. Different grade-level standards can also be a barrier, as students in different grades are at different places, but that doesn’t mean that some common ground can not be found if teachers truly wanted to make it happen. Scheduling also prevents this, as different grades have different lunches and exploratory rotations, which could make scheduling time for students to work together a real challenge. Older students, generally, are told to see themselves as leaders and role models for younger students. While this is an important role our eighth graders play at Burley, we also can’t forget the second piece of that advice, and that’s to help older students realize that they can learn from younger students, and that there’s nothing wrong with a sixth grader knowing something an eighth grader doesn’t know.

On a larger scale, there’s much work to be done. However, watching the sixth graders work with the seventh and eighth graders, once everyone grew comfortable with each other, I think it was beneficial for all students. Not only were my students able to ask questions they hadn’t answered themselves, but they were able to learn and become more comfortable with FabLab. And for the sixth graders, I’m not sure how many other opportunities they’ve had to work with older students since arriving at Burley, and I hope they’re getting as much out of this setup as my students are.

And this is just the beginning. As we keep exploring the many intricacies and possibilities of 3D printing, we’ll have more questions, and as more classes grow interested in exploring 3D printing, Chris Shedd and I will have a huge all-star team of student teachers ready to help anyone interested.

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