Recipe for a Successful Combo Class

Today I wanted to share my combo  class recipe for success with you today! Thankfully, my first year in Combo Land was nothing like the photo above!
This year I taught a combo for the first time in my 19 year teaching career. Until this year, I felt like I always "got out of" teaching the combo. I would always ask, "But how do you effectively teach two grades? One grade is hard enough to plan for and teach!" Well, I ended up having to face my fear when the only opening at one of the best schools in my district was a combo class, and if I wanted a position at that school, I had to take the leap! What I have come to realize is teaching a combo isn't as hard as I thought it would be, and it has many rewards. If you recently found out you will be teaching a combo next year, or if you have been scared off by combos like I had been, read on to ease your fears and discover my "ingredients" for a successful combo class. 
When a combo class is built correctly, with on-task, independent workers, it can be a teacher's dream. This year I had 28 very well behaved students who worked independently (for the most part!) while I was teaching the other grade. Having a well-built class is important and a huge ingredient to the success of your combo class. In my district this means no students who receive special services. Make sure to have this conversation with your administrator if you are asked to teach the combo class. It makes a huge difference! 
We always go over classroom procedures and expectations at the beginning of the year. With the combo, I spent more time going over and practicing procedures before releasing the students to be independent while I worked with the other grade. Simple things such as procedures for sharpening pencils, what to do if they were stumped on independent work and I was busy with the other grade, and what to do if they had to go to the restroom while I was with the other group were things my students had to practice before they could be left on their own. I usually rush this part, but with the combo, I took my time to be sure they properly learned the procedures.
Since I was teaching a 2/3 combo, my students did not previously know each other. I noticed right away the third graders gravitated to the other third graders, and the second gravitated to second graders. At recess they were only playing with those from their grade level. I wanted the students to be a cohesive group, so we did lots of team building with the Tribes Learning Communities book and discussed the idea of Bucket Fillers. After a few weeks, second and third graders were playing together during recess. Here are a few books I recommend for helping to build a positive learning community:
All of the Bucket Filler books are wonderful!
Maria Dismondy's books are excellent for building self esteem and discussing character. This one is my favorite!

This won't work for everyone, but if you are able to, ask the teachers at each grade level you teach if you can divide up and send one grade level to the them for certain subjects. This worked well at my previous school. Those of us who didn't teach the combo were so thankful that we didn't have to do it, that we felt the need to help out the combo teacher. The second grade teachers each had about three of the second grade combo students during the language arts block. This left only the third graders for the combo teacher to teach language arts. Then the third grade teachers took the third graders for math, leaving only the second graders with the combo teacher. The combo teacher did the same thing for P.E., leaving only the other grade for her to spend extra time with, and that was when she taught social studies or science.
This year I had four consistent, dedicated volunteers. I have always had classroom volunteers, but I knew I would really need them in the combo class during certain times of the day. I made sure to have volunteers during my math time and literacy block. During math, I started off with second grade and we corrected homework and I taught their math lesson for the day, while third grade completed an independent practice page from the previous day's lesson. Sometimes they needed clarification, and I wasn't there to help them, since I was working with the second graders. The parent volunteer answered questions and monitored the class and I was able to focus on teaching my lesson. After I taught second grade their lesson, they worked on the independent page for that lesson, while I pulled third grade up and we corrected their homework and I taught third grade their next lesson. Any second graders who had difficulty with homework would get called back to correct it with the volunteer, and the volunteer was there to answer any questions the second graders had, while I was able to focus on third grade. My volunteers are a huge component to the success of my classroom! 
During my literacy centers block, I had two volunteers. I usually did a close reading or other comprehension activity, and the volunteers focused on grammar or word work with their groups. We rotated about ever fifteen minutes, and every student was able to get the attention they needed. The parents also pulled back students one at a time who needed extra practice with fluency, spelling, and vocabulary. The planning page below is from my Classroom Volunteers Binder
I love to spoil my volunteers at the end of the year to thank them for all the help they've given my students. Click on the picture below to see my Classroom Volunteer Thank You freebie
This was an important ingredient to the success of my combo. When students were finished with their assignments, they needed to have a meaningful, engaging activities or projects to work on. Sometimes I posted task cards around the room and students worked independently or in pairs. 
Other times I had task cards set up in baskets and students would take one to their seats. 

During math, I set up dice games and students could practice basic facts with partners. I gave students a lot of choice during this time, since I knew they would be more invested in the independent work if they could choose what they wanted to do. My main focus was being able to teach and work with one grade, while keeping the other grade engaged and learning, not just completing busy work. 

This was really easy for me with language arts, since there are so many commonalities between second and third grade. (Math was a little tougher for me, so I taught both grades separately.) I taught writing and guided reading together. I was able to teach many grammar concepts whole group since many standards were the same or very close. Three days a week the students read from their anthologies, and those were grade level specific. On the first day, I read the story with second grade, while third grade read independently and worked on their vocabulary four square. One the second day, I worked with third grade, while second grade worked independenly and completed their vocab four square. On Wednesday they partner read and worked on a comprehension page with their partner. Each group also had a reading journal they completed and was due by the end of the week. The rest of the week was spent doing guided reading activities. 
There were days my parent volunteers couldn't make it on their scheduled day. When that happened, I had to rely on the students to work with each other if they had a question. This ended up being a good thing, because the students were empowered and seen as experts in the classroom. Students who had questions couldn't just ask an adult for help, they had to work together with their classmates to problem solve. 
I know this won't work for everybody, but this year our students each received their own tablets. We added Spelling City, Bite Slide, ABC Ya, Study Jams, Kahoot, and a few other websites our district purchased to their start menu. The students always had their tablets and an on going project to keep them engaged if they finished their assignments early. If your school doesn't have 1:1 devices, but you are able to get your hands on a few iPads or other devices, you can set up approved apps or websites for your students. You will be amazed at how engaged and on task they are!

What I have come to realize is teaching a combo is a lot like teaching a straight grade, but instead of having a variety of levels of students to juggle, you have the two grade levels to play ping pong with! I found myself going back and forth from one grade to the other, much like a game of ping pong. Since I had independent workers, I had very few behavioral problems. It was so nice to just teach for a change! I spent more time lesson planning, but no time in SST or IEP meetings, so that was a fair trade off. I feel I was able to teach more deeply this year than I have been able to in the past. I've already offered to teach a 2/3 or 3/4 combo next year if needed!

One thing that I struggled with at the beginning of the year was how to do my lesson plans. Even though I love 
Erin Condren's teacher planers, I knew an EC planner wouldn't work for me with my combo, so I opted for a digital version instead. I love this one by Polka Dot Posie Print
Everything you see on the right side page is what I taught whole class. I was modeling reading expectations and we completed a Me on the Map activity and PE together. On the left side, I have math, word work, and grammar, all subjects that were taught separately. The bottom page is second grade's lesson plans, and the part that I'm holding up is third grade's plans. I cut off the days on the third grade page and placed it on top of second's, so I could easily flip the pages back and forth in my binder and stay organized. This worked so well for me this year! 

If you are teaching a combo next year, or in the future, I hope you enjoy it like I have! If you have any questions along the way, feel free to email me at and I would be happy to help you!

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