Aquinas Learning:Why Mixed-Age and Grade Classrooms?

There are many benefits to a mixed-age classroom. The idea is explored in great detail in an excellent resource article by Andrew Pudewa, “Mixed-Age Classrooms,” but read on for the reasons behind the “why” for Aquinas Learning. 

Explanation though example: Prima I (K-4th grade)* 
The Aquinas Learning (AL) Prima I level is geared toward 2nd graders. However, some Kindergarten, 1st, and 3rd graders are included in this mix-aged class for the following reasons: 
Leadership roles for older & advanced children: 
A mixed age class promotes leadership opportunities in that the 3rd graders are the “seniors” in the class and act as co-mentors and role models for younger students. The eldest students are called on to model behavior and help the younger students throughout the year. However, the mixed-age class also maintains humility because, the following year, the senior student will become a “freshman” in the next level.
Advanced learning for older children: 
At the “senior” level, advanced students are expected to rise to challenging activities or to do the assignments in a more perfect manner than their younger counterparts. Instead of “tracing” the copy work, not only should they copy and write the words down, but they can now try their hand at cursive—or work on developing a more beautiful neat cursive handwriting. Other skills can also be honed such as listening, speaking, beholding, expressing, and most importantly, acting virtuously.
A period of “learning up” for younger children: 
For 1st grade students in Prima I, it is a time for observation, mimicking, and trying things out. By the end of the year, they should have a workbook full of scribbles, drawings, and crazily spelled words. This is NOT the time to push for “mastery” by demanding they complete the workbook or demanding everything be done exactly as prescribed in the workbook. These young children are observing and soaking in information, but they’re NOT expected to DO everything (especially when it comes to the Primary Arts of Writing (PAL) program, where they are just expected to listen and behold). The most important thing a parent can do to support the AL experience for these youngsters is to bring the concepts alive through dictation, narration, writing things down for the student, reading aloud, making lap-book or crafts, taking them on field trips, watching movies related to what they’re learning, doing a project together, etc.
Room for variance in development: 
At AL, we try not to compare students because we know God “wonderfully made” each student to be a unique soul for the express purpose of becoming a saint with Him in heaven. Parents should use markers and standards of development to identify and implement interventions if necessary as long as they are aware that each student has their own unique moment to bloom in whatever skill is being assessed. If they keep this in mind, then parents can engage in comparative language. Be careful not to label students, as that label tends to stick with them even after they have bloomed. A mixed-age classroom allows students who don’t fit the perfect mold of what a “___grader” is helps to avoid premature labeling.
Andrew Pudewa says it best:
In a mixed-age grouping, however, there is no pretense of “equal rank,” and it is perfectly okay to want to be like those who are older or more mature and equally as alright to feel responsibility for those who are younger or less mature. Therefore, everyone is free to imitate up or emulate down—a healthy, nurturing social environment.
Subject mastery through repeated information and subject absorption through the cycle method: 
A child gains real mastery of a subject by studying concepts in three cycles which repeat. Therefore, 1st grade students who study Cycle 1 material this year will return to the same material in three years, learning at a much higher level of understanding, and then again in three more years. Hence, the program grows with them and helps deepen their experience of learning on many levels. You can read more about AL use of “Cycles” for mastery and integration here.
Too young/too immature?
Conversely, parents sometimes choose to keep their Kindergarten children (as old as 6 years) in Parva (4-5 year old preschool/preK) because of their maturity level and because they truly enjoyed that level. This should be a decision between the parent, director and mentor. This also applies to moving up; if the attention span and interest is there, a move may be considered (especially since “grade level” work is done at home, such as reading, math etc.).
Avoid tears: 
Sort out any questions about the above with your center director or a knowledgeable mentor before frustration occurs, and know in advance that a move to a new level will involve some growth in your student—and you!
In short, Aquinas Learning strives for mastery through applying Blessed John Henry Newman’s advice to learn a few things but to learn them well.  
*Similar concepts apply to Prima II Level and to Schola Alta I & II Levels. Please contact your director and/or mentor to discuss necessary skills to move up to the next level and what the expectations will be at each level. The biggest jump is from Prima II to Alta I (7th grade) because they go from very light or no homework (except IEW and math at home) to a full high school load of classes with homework responsibilities, deadlines, reports, etc. Of course, Alta 7-8th grade is meant to prime—not to be a primer for—the “freshman” years for the Upper School or Schola Alta experience. 

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