Teaching a two-three split grade can be manageable and even exciting with some careful planning!

The first year I taught a grade two-three split grade, I had already been teaching a ½ split for awhile. That meant I wasn’t completely new to the idea. It also meant I was beginning to wonder if I had “I love split grades!” stamped on my forehead or something. Again????? What was going on?

It turns out, when you work in a French Immersion school and have a dwindling English population, combined grades are more common because they’re more necessary. It becomes much like a regular very small school: if there aren’t enough students to put into straight classes, then splits are inevitable. That year we didn’t even have a straight grade three at all, only my two-three split grade and a 3/4.

To be perfectly honest, teaching a two-three split grade wasn’t as easy as the ½ had been. It should have been–I had less behaviour problems than in any of the ½ splits. But the real reason is the difference in the two grades. While grades one and two are very similar to each other, grade three is almost junior by comparison. In fact, at my school, the grade threes are often lumped in with the juniors as a matter of course.

Why? Apart from the fact that there are so many primary students at our school, grade threes are BIGGER. They are more independent in their work habits and more responsible in their social skills (usually). It’s difficult to expect most grade threes to do very in-depth research projects. However they can read chapter books and other more complicated non-fiction materials.

So putting the two in the same class in a two-three split grade presents several immediate problems.

In a two-three split, students need different-sized desks. That means you either have to seat them separately or have them all use tables or desks that may or may not be an ideal fit. This is not exactly a monumental crisis, when you consider how many global schools there are, where simply having enough desks at all is a big issue. But if you teach in a school where it's expected that you'll fit the desk to the child, it is a consideration.

More critically, if you teach in Ontario, you have E.Q.A.O. tests to consider. Standardized testing happens in many countries. If you have to have the curriculum completely covered a month before the end of school for one grade but not the other, as we do, then it makes teaching both grades at the same time pretty much impossible past a certain point. I found the grade 3 math to be so much more complicated that I had to begin teaching separately after awhile, at least some of the time.

One interesting way to accomplish this is to have your grade twos do pre-explained, pre-established math centres during the time you need to be “alone” with your grade threes. I’ll get some math centres stuff together for you as soon as I can, hopefully over the summer. If you’ve trained your grade twos to be independent and respectful of the rules, they should be able to handle these activities well. You’ll want to encourage your stronger readers in your two-three split grade to assist the weaker ones in understanding directions here and there, but it should all be good.

Another way to do it is to have your grade twos do independent reading or writing (or literacy centres) at this time, and then switch it around later so you can spend some quality math time with your grade two, while your grade threes are reading. It totally depends on your schedule and what you feel comfortable with. Experiment and see what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to change things around! If you try something and you don’t like it, don’t feel obligated to stick with it unless you have a class full of autistic students–in which case you’ll want to map out your program in far more regimented detail than what I provide here. I’ve run this program with no more than one or two autistic students in a class, and it’s been fine.

My preference was to run my two-three split grade around my literacy program. I taught the two maths together as much as possible, and always taught the language arts together, since they’re pretty similar. But what to so about social studies and science?

In Ontario, at the moment, there are some places where the two curriculums can be combined quite nicely. For example, the grade 2 science unit on “simple machines” and the grade 3 science unit on “structures” blended with the social studies for both grades on community. Grade three students researched and built urban and rural communities, while the grade twos designed and constructed the playground (which is all simple machines, when you think about it: inclined plane, simple levers etc.)

Another potential crossover point is that Grade threes study pioneer life and aboriginals, while grade twos focus on understanding that Canada is a country of many cultures.

Both grades study nature, with grade twos focussing on animals and grade threes studying plants. So this lends itself very well to blending with studies about social responsibility and the environment. “Conserve, reuse and recycle” can form the basis of responsible ecology in your classroom community. Grade threes can contribute an understanding of how critical the environment was to settlers and First Nations peoples, while grade twos can embrace how multiculturalism fosters the understanding and empathy needed to truly respect one another and our environment. Both grades together can support each other toward seeing how important it is to nurture and protect our physical and social environment.

So as you can see, there can be curriculum challenges in a two-three split grade. But where you can create crossover, you can have the students in your class collaborating. The more you can do that, the better it will be for your class culture overall. The last thing you want is to have the two grades completely ignore each other! Encourage them to study together, read together, write together and play together! Take them to the park, the creek, the library, whatever you have available. Invite parents to a class multicultural festival to celebrate your differences and similarities! The time you invest in creating an inclusive classroom culture will go a long way toward ensuring your two-three split grade works for both you and your students.
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