Educator Resource: Facilitate Mixed-age Learning in Humanities Class

Khan Lab School
November 12, 2021 / 5 mins read

Try This: DEAR Families Mixed-Age Learning Activity

"Try This" is a series of blog posts geared towards educators that features smart but simple tips from KLS teachers. Our hope is that these ideas are something you can implement in your own classroom right away. We'd love to hear how it goes. Leave a comment or tag us on social media @khanlabschool if you try any of these strategies!

One of the core components of the KLS model is a mixed-age approach to learning. Along with grouping students into Independence Levels (think of these like a homeroom cohort) that each span a range of ages, our teachers create intentional learning activities that bring students together in a mixed-age setting. In these settings, students are encouraged to collaborate and form authentic relationships with peers, supporting one another in their learning along the way.

Recently, our teachers have implemented a series of activities focused on community building and mixed-age learning in Humanities called “DEAR Families.” DEAR (which stands for Drop Everything and Read) Families are groupings of students across Independence Levels (ILs) 1, 2, and 3, that participate in peer-led read-alouds, storytelling, and reflection. Our IL3.2 students practiced leadership skills by facilitating these activity groups with teacher supervision.

Here are some steps and tips for bringing this kind of activity to your school:

Student Facilitator Preparation

A photo of a small whiteboard with a brainstorm of leadership qualities.

Before diving into this mixed-age activity, the lead student facilitators need some preparation time. To prepare our IL3.2 students to lead small groups, teachers reviewed the logistics of the day and the lesson plan with them ahead of time, and IL3.2 students also brainstormed the qualities of a good leader.

One way our teachers prepare IL3.2 students to lead these activities is by setting intentions via a brainstorm about the qualities of a good leader. “It was great to hear students identify qualities like patience, kindness, and active listening as main traits of a good leader,” Lower School Humanities Specialist Arden shared. “Often, younger students tend to identify leadership qualities that lean toward ‘commanding' or ‘top-down' leadership; however, our IL3.2 students identified that the ability to listen, create space for one another, and support the younger students are equally, if not more, important.”

Our teachers also prepare student facilitators by ensuring the students are clear about what their leadership tasks will involve. To do this, teachers spent time talking through the lesson plan with student facilitators, giving them time to ask questions. “In the future, after more sessions of the activity, our hope and intent is that students will outline the objectives and create the lesson plan for their DEAR families,” Arden explained.

Mixed-Age Activities: Read-aloud, Discuss, & Crafts

After arranging students into mixed-age groups, we assigned a few groups per classroom to gather in circles on the floor, allotting a time block of 45 minutes for the entire lesson. At the start of the lesson, students went around in their circles for self-introductions, including their names, which IL cohort they are in, their Halloween costumes, and their favorite Halloween treats. Our activity took place the week after Halloween, which was the inspiration for these icebreaker questions—when developing the questions for this introductory activity, consider the context for what students have been experiencing around the time that your lesson takes place.

Our first activity was a read-aloud of a story about Thanksgiving. Student facilitators paused throughout the read-aloud to ask contextual questions in order to keep students engaged and create space for student reactions to the story.

A group of students being read to by a peer.

When selecting a book for a mixed-age group, our teachers recommend using the youngest and oldest student ages as a guide. “I [like to skim] through the book to make sure it is appropriate for the youngest in the group, but not too young to keep the older students' interest,” Lower School ELA Specialist Shannon Rossi shared. “Then again, students usually like a good picture book read-aloud at any level.”

Next, our IL3.2 students facilitated a discussion related to the themes of the read-aloud. Topics for discussion included sharing about favorite Thanksgiving traditions at home and what comes to mind when thinking about the Thanksgiving holiday. These discussions are important for community building. “One of the ways the group can get to know each other better is through these discussions,” Shannon said. “Younger students are typically shy and they need a little help opening up, so having an older student guide the discussion helps.”

A group of students sit in a circle on the floor and one student is reading to the group.

The discussion portion of the activity led into an arts and crafts activity connected to the Thanksgiving theme. Students were given several pieces of colorful paper with leaf outlines, and the objective was for each student to cut out a leaf and write or draw something they are grateful for on each leaf. Student facilitators collected finished leaves, which were later used to create a community gratitude tree in the hallway. This activity should take the bulk of the time spent in this lesson. Once students finished their leaves, the activity came to a close.

A group of students in a circle on the floor prepare for an arts and crafts activity.


Following these mixed-age activities, teachers also spent time guiding the student facilitators through a reflection activity about their leadership. The reflection included three prompts:

  • What was most challenging about DEAR Families? Why was this challenging? How could you tackle this challenge next time? Think of this as identifying an area for improvement. Be specific.
  • Look at your white board (the whiteboard contained the qualities of a good leader that they brainstormed). Identify one trait that you believe you embodied. Explain how you embodied this positive trait. Be specific.
  • Complete the following sentence: "My co-leader _______ (insert their name here) embodied ___________ (quality of a good leader) by ______________________ (explain how they embodied this positive trait).

Here's an example of a completed reflection by one of our IL3.2 student facilitators:

A photo of a student's written reflection on a piece of paper.

The reflection portion of this activity helps students to identify how they aligned with their intentions from before the activity began, to identify their individual strengths, and to cheer one another on. The DEAR Families activity is intended to be a series that recurs throughout the Term, which gives students multiple opportunities to lead and practice their skills. “The more they can learn from their past sessions and implement the changes they desire to see, the better!” Arden said.

Students also use these reflection points to develop affirmations for one another, which they share during morning Advisory group meetings the week following the DEAR Families activity. “Students got to learn about their peers' strengths, cheer each other on, continue developing good rapport, and learn from each other's successes,” Arden explained.

Interested in bringing DEAR Families to your classroom? Our teachers have made the lesson outline for this activity available via the download below.

Download Sample DEAR Families Lesson Outline

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