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Multiage Learning: Our Journey to Date

October 5, 2015


This year, it has been my honor and privilege to help start a new learning experience in Albemarle County.  Agnor Hurt Elementary added a new addition to their school.  The new multiage learning space has over 115 students.  The students range from kindergarten to fifth grade.  There are no walls in the space and the students are free to move as they learn.  In fact, they are encouraged to do so.  Even though they undoubtedly know their grade-level, it is not emphasized in the space.  We emphasize learning regardless of age.  We emphasize progress regardless of level, and we push our learners to become independent thinkers and makers in the classroom.  Please follow along with us as we continue this amazing journey.  You can follow me at @Mthornton78 and my teaching comrade, Drew, at @MrCraftMultiAge.  You can also view our class work via the Twitter hashtag #MultiageAHES.

How do we do this?

@MrCraftMultiAge and I work primarily with third through fifth graders.  Everyday is a little different.  We do not have a set schedule.  We don’t go from math to reading to science to social studies. We created an interdisciplinary learning environment that fosters creativity and critical thinking without regulating our daily schedule.  Students work independently and collaboratively.  There are times for direct instruction, individual instruction and small group instruction.  For Drew and I, we rarely have a break because the learning is always happening.  Often, we decompress at the end of the day and marvel at how much was accomplished in one school day.  The lack of a set schedule allows us to get more done and allows the students to work without the headache of time.  In addition, when students have more say in their learning day, I believe more can and will be accomplished.

Over the last month we have had a lot of visitors come and talk with us about the space.  These discussions have helped us broaden our view and understanding of the space.  There has also been plenty of media coverage from the local news stationnewspaper, and even the Governor of Virginia.

Regardless of who has stopped by, there have been similar questions asked.  The question asked the most is…

How do you assess learning?” We are assessing learning the same way we have always assessed learning.  We informally and formally assess students on a daily basis.  We are utilizing online tools to help students learn independently as we monitor their progress.  One such site is Khan Academy.  They are given daily assignments and missions via Khan that enable them to learn on an individual level regardless of their age.  Drew and I can monitor their success as they progress and help them on an individual or small group level when needed.  There are also times when we pull big groups for direct instruction.  These groupings happen based on academic level not grade level.  This means students are soaring ahead of their “grade” while others are floating where they need to be but can also get help with some skills that should be reviewed.  Along the same lines, we are utilizing Raz-Kids to help with literacy.  This site allows us to individually monitor student progress which again allows us to pull kids on an individual level for direct instruction.  We are also doing novel studies, biography reviews, and working on grammar and writing everyday.  The students typically blog everyday using KidBlog.

Learning is organic.  If it is forced, students are more likely to remove themselves from the activity.  In the picture below, these students started to work on place value on their own.  They went from the trillions all the way to the millionths.  They were engaged, proud and happy.

Photo Aug 20, 11 18 57 AM


As we should, we value creativity.  It is really the foundation of the space.  It comes in many ways, and sadly I believe is often overlooked.  We really try to emphasize original thought and praise students when they are creative.  For example, the picture below is of a Golden Ticket.  We were all reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and we asked the students to create a Golden Ticket and write about where they would go with it.  This student’s ticket is simple but really creative.  In 2015, the ticket would most likely have a bar code.  To me, that is creativity and it should be praised.

Photo Aug 28, 10 52 25 AM  Photo Aug 28, 10 52 22 AM

The amazing thing about student creativity is that it goes beyond what we thought would happen.  I love those moments.  For example, this student believes donuts could be used to help stop bullying.

Photo Sep 30, 9 50 35 AM

Collaboration and Project Based Learning

The students are always collaborating.  They want to work together.  Drew and I create projects for them to work on but they take them and make them their own.  There are projects happening all the time.  They just completed a project making 3D geographical maps of Virginia (example below).

Photo Sep 29, 2 00 28 PM

They also created cycle infomercials for each other.  After learning about cycles in nature, they wrote scripts and created infomercials.  Lastly, they developed quizzes for the class to complete on their cycle.  The students are making all the time but we specifically have a #make project on Fridays.  This last Friday, the students worked on making cars from cardboard, rubber bands, tape, and CDs.

They are also working on collaborative, interdisciplinary task sheets each week.  They can complete these independently or collaboratively.  Most choose to work together.  Here is an example. The students also collaborate on morning work each morning.  In fact, they are creating the work for each other.  Two students created this for the entire learning pod.

The Space

Having an open learning environment is fun, exciting and ever-changing.  The students are consistently rearranging the furniture to allow them to learn in different ways.  Below are some of the pics I have taken of the space and the students using the space. Follow along with us on Twitter to see more as they happen.

Photo Aug 19, 11 14 15 AMPhoto Aug 19, 8 47 37 AMPhoto Aug 20, 9 19 31 AMPhoto Aug 19, 12 08 16 PMPhoto Aug 26, 8 14 24 AMPhoto Aug 20, 11 29 10 AMPhoto Aug 31, 12 35 05 PM

Photo Sep 08, 7 47 56 AMPhoto Sep 16, 9 53 16 AMPhoto Sep 29, 2 15 57 PMimage


Day 1

August 19, 2015

Today was the beginning of a journey that has been over a year in the making.  I work at a school, Agnor Hurt Elementary, in a district, Albemarle County Public School, that values building and developing student-centered learning spaces.  Agnor Hurt opened a new addition to the school this year.  The new learning “classroom” is a multiage space that has over 115 kindergarten to fifth grade students.  I am working directly with @MrCraftMultiAge, @CWoodKids9 and 3 other outstanding educators.  Thanks @MicheleCastner1 for your leadership!

These are a few of the pictures from day 1.


Collaborating with Audacity using a @Lenovo multi-touch 27 inch tablet.


It is a beautiful, open space that allows students to learn in a variety of places and in a variety of ways.


Comfort while exploring new furniture and Windows 8


Who doesn’t like a good cave? These students found this within minutes.


Fifth graders working with kindergarten students


#BYOD: Sometimes one device is not enough.


Learning how to blog with @MrCraftMultiAge


Choice and comfort


Comfort leads to collaboration


Students moved freely and found their learning “spots” throughout the day.


There was a lot of teaching today.


Beginning to write blog posts


No caption needed!


One rule in the space: Respect


Using chair in an inventive way to use laptop. #Awesome


#BYOD: We have 1:1 in the space but learners know what they need and will bring it when they can.

Final Message to my Grade 5 Students

June 7, 2015

I sent the following message as an email to my class this morning.  Since I created it as a Google Doc, it will remain in their “Shared with Me” folder so I hope it is viewed again in the future.  Here is the message I sent.

Dear 5th Grade Graduates,

It has been a pleasure working with you this year.  I have learned a lot from each of you.  Your unique personalities and abundant gifts enabled me to step back and let learning happen organically in the classroom.  There were a few last words I wanted to share with you as you move on to the next chapter in your life.

Never Stop Learning

  • Remember that learning is not a school thing it is a life thing.  Never cease to learn.  Learn from your mistakes and learn from your successes.  Learn from each other and learn from yourself.  

Be Passionate!  

  • Find passions in life and use those as an avenue for new adventures.  

Stay motivated!

  • Life can be hard.  There are many hoops to jump through.  Don’t let those hoops hinder your ability to learn and move forward.  You must find your motivation to success.  

Define Success!

  • In life, people will try to label success.  Sometimes they might be accurate and sometimes they might not be.  Don’t lose hope and be ready to define SUCCESS for yourself.

Make Change!

  • Don’t always settle for what is.  Be prepared and willing to ask questions so that you can help bring change when needed.  Seek answers and work hard to be the future that society needs you to be.  

Have Fun!

  • Lastly, have fun.  Learning is fun.  It truly is.  Read books, write, create, build, PLAY, invent, challenge, solve….and so on.

It was my honor working with you this year.  I will miss each and every one of you.  Your enthusiasm and energy will never be forgotten.  Thank you for making my first year at Agnor-Hurt fun, exciting, and a great learning experience.  Happy Summer.  

Much Love,

Mr. T

Lesson planning

May 1, 2015

I have long been against traditional lesson planning. I do plan.  In fact, I plan quite a bit. But, I don’t fall victim to developing an over-planned lesson nor do I feel the need to follow some lesson plan template.  I am sure there are plenty of nice lesson templates that serve a purpose and help many educators feel confident and in-control.  For me, I measure control and confidence in my students more than myself.  Meaning, I know a lesson has gone well when my students are engaged in the activity.  My confidence is raised when student engagement leads to more questions and independent exploration.  Lastly, my confidence continues to grow when I know an objective as been met.

On Wednesday, as my students were completing another #20SheetPaperChallenge with @Stumpteacher’s class in Chicago, I was asked by an educator, how are you going to end this lesson?  What is your wrap up plan?  Truthfully, as we planned the collaboration, we did not specifically detail how we would end the Google Hangout.  Now, I am fully aware that traditional lessons have a set conclusion. The idea being to help bring the lesson to a close and make sure the students have met the objective.  I remember in graduate school, I would have to submit every lesson the exact same way using the exact same template.  It did not take long for me to see that lesson plan templates are not my thing.  This does not mean I don’t know how I want a lesson to end.  I have ideas and I move toward those ideas but I don’t force it.  I maneuver around my initial thoughts and direction to work with the directions my students take the lesson.

This week I tweeted out this thought.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 9.00.45 AM

It seemed to spark some interest.  For me, if the end of a lesson is thoroughly developed then there are a lot of assumptions being made by the educator.  There are too many variables during a learning period.  Students are creative.  Their creativity will lead lessons in multiple directions.  I like to move in those directions with my learners.  It helps me grow as an educator.  I would love to hear how you typically end your lessons.

Moments of Understanding

February 14, 2015

Recently, I experienced two “moments of understanding” that will affect my approach to the classroom.  They both happened over the last three weeks.  I understand, as many do, that a student’s background will affect their connection to the curriculum.  That is nothing new.  But, sometimes, as is the case with my recent experiences, the extent of that disconnect is hard to see.

Example 1: Over the last few weeks, we have been discussing the American Revolution and the formation of the United States.  George Washington, for obvious reasons, was a big part of our conversation.  In my mind, I felt the students should easily understand the concept that George Washington is the “Father of our Country”.  He was a strong leader, the first President and a principal character in the founding of our nation.  Given his moniker, I compared George Washington to fathers and their traditional household role.  I did this countless times until one student awoke me from my ignorance.  This student politely said to me, “George Washington is like my mother.”  I sat back and internally asked myself, “how can I be that disconnected from my students?” I needed that “moment of understanding”.

Example 2: I was putting my middle child, 5, down for bed a few nights ago, and she made a statement that has stuck with me.  That night, she wanted me to come in and tuck her back in bed before I went to sleep.  She asked, “when are you going to bed?”  I told her I would be in bed by midnight.  Then the “moment” happened.  She said, “when your phone strikes midnight, come and tuck me in”.  Wow.  To her, my phone is my watch.  I wear a watch a few days a week but I almost always check my phone for the time.  Even though this is true for many of us, analogue clocks are still a part of the math curriculum.  Regardless of your feelings about the necessity of learning how to tell time on a traditional clock, it is undoubtedly true that her generation will be disconnected from the standard.

I enjoy these types of moments.  They help me in the classroom and at home.  Do you have any similar stories?  If so, I would love to hear them.

Teacher Resolutions

January 2, 2015

As 2015 begins, I want to reflect on some necessary changes that need to happen within my teaching and learning.  I welcome feedback.  In fact, I yearn for it.  If you feel inclined or moved, please respond with a comment.  A complete list of resolutions would be much longer than four but these are the four that I will strive towards the most.  #lifelonglearner

1.  Getting to know my students better

Obviously getting to know my students learning styles and needs is imperative but I am talking about getting to know my kids on a more personal level.  I mean really understanding them and understanding their life.  Relationship building is paramount.  I try hard to always build positive relationships with my students.  I talk with them and joke with them.  But I can and need to do more.  To me, it is absolutely necessary.  I want to stop and talk to them.  The shuffle of the day can make that challenging.   My fifth graders move from one block to the next.  It is a busy schedule.  I see all 79 fifth graders everyday.  That is a privilege.  I need to slow down and talk more with the kids.  Understanding them better will create a space of trust which will lead to more learning.

2.  I must continue to learn

I need to challenge myself.  It is too easy to just get comfortable and relaxed by relying on things I have done in the past.  It’s not good enough.  I need to push myself to be better.  I am lucky to have fellow teachers, an administration, and a central office staff that will help me do this.  Even so, I must lead the charge for myself.  I want to utilize more resources.  I must read more and continue to grow as a lifelong learner.

3. It is not solely MY space or THEIR space…it is a LEARNING space for all

To be truthful, I know this, and I have worked with this philosophy for quite a few years now.  You could check out my previous posts to see examples.  Nonetheless, I still find myself limiting what happens in the classroom.  It is tough.  School schedules and state tests make this challenging.  In a perfect world, students would learn on their own with guidance from teachers and peers.  This, to me, is what school should be.  But alas, it is not.  Schools must have schedules and often they forfeit a lot to standardized testing.  In our learning space, we challenge this.  We will continue to do so but I can and should do more.  It is not my space or their space, it is a learning space for all.

4.  New techniques and strategies

Every year brings new and exciting resources and opportunities.  How many of those do we use in the classroom?  I think I let too much slip by without trying it out.  I am going to try new techniques and strategies this year to help myself become a better educator and learner.  What can I do better to help that ESOL student who quietly sits and compliantly works hard?  How can I improve my approach to helping students struggling with learning disabilities?  What can I do differently to help all of my students understand themselves better so that they can make improved learning decisions?

Again, this is a short list but filled with challenges.  Do you have classroom or teaching resolutions?


Training Wheels

September 27, 2014

My six-year-old son and I took off the training wheels to his bike in August.  Once we did, he enthusiastically wanted to go out and try to ride right away.  It was challenging.  I didn’t help because I was completely directing his every decision.  School started and I struggled to find time to get out there with him.  We went out last weekend and his frustration level was high.  He only lasted about 15 minutes before he was ready to stop for the day.

This last week I did some research on different ways to help kids learn to ride a bike.  I changed my approach from teaching him to ride a bike to helping him learn how to ride a bike.  Yesterday, we went out again and I started to try some of the techniques I had learned via the web.  He latched on to one in particular.  He tried and tried using the new technique.  He was improving!  After about 20 minutes, he told me he wanted to keep trying but that he was going to adjust the technique.  Within 5 minutes he was riding!  As a father, it was one of those very special moments.  I was ecstatic, and his younger siblings were amazed  He was proud.

The Classroom

Far too often, we have a set blueprint of what we want to do in the classroom.  In fact, we are usually commended on our ability to plan effective lessons.  There is no doubt that planning is important.  I will not argue that.  I would argue though that we, as educators, over plan.  We devise, schedule, and execute lessons that might be hitting on all the necessary standards and objectives but are denying the authentic learning that should be happening in the classroom.

My experience with my son this weekend is the perfect example.  I planned to go out on Friday to work with him.  Before then, I researched and prepared for my time with him.  During the “lesson”, I introduced him to multiple ways to complete the objective.  Sounds good, right?  Here is where we all have to improve.  My son took my help and changed it to fit his needs.  He listened, learned, made a choice, and completed the objective.

I have taken this opportunity away from my students too often.  I try to have an open learning space that allows my students to make real decisions.  Even though that is my intent, I fail.  I don’t mind admitting it because I understand that my failures are just steps along a bigger path.  Not every failure leads to success but every failure does help me grow as an educator.

I learned a few years back that I needed to take my own training wheels off in the classroom.  I needed to let my students learn without their every move being controlled. If they need space, give it to them.  If they know a better way to solve a problem, get out of their way.  Let them make decisions.  Let them fail.   Help them and guide them but let them have their own wheels.




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