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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue C ::: September 1997

Building Community and Skills Through Multilevel Classes

by Judy Hofer and Pat Larson
If your philosophy of literacy includes community building, then working within multilevel classes makes perfect sense. From this perspective, education is about fostering relationships among people, breaking down barriers of separation, and using authentic ways through which people can find common ground and bridge differences. Deliberately-formed multilevel classes are created based on the assumption that all human beings have strengths as well as deficits, that all have something to contribute to enrich the group s learning, and that communities are actually strengthened by the diversity of their members.

At The Literacy Project, a community-based adult education program in Western Massachusetts, we have taught multilevel classes as a way to foster our program's mission of "helping individuals and groups to make changes and engage in actions to improve the quality of life for themselves and the community as a whole." We hope that working collaboratively across their differences in class helps students to work more effectively with all kinds of people in their day-to-day lives, including neighbors, fellow workers, and public officials. Although we also teach classes grouped by skill level and feel that a place exists for such grouping, we continually strive to find ways to bring people together across the lines that have traditionally separated them.

Multilevel classes make sense in terms of student achievement in reading, writing, and math. We believe that knowledge is socially constructed through the interaction of people and texts. This means that people become increasingly literate and knowledgeable about the world not only by working on activities and reading and writing on their own, but also by actively engaging with others, talking, discussing, and creating text as it relates to their own experiences and perspectives. Rather than focusing on the one right answer to a technical question, this view of literacy emphasizes learning for understanding: looking at issues from many, often contrasting, perspectives is valued. The skills of reading, writing, and math are then woven into this larger context.

How literacy and meaning are socially constructed is illustrated in the following example from one of our sites, where a multilevel class of eight women used reading, writing, and discussion to pool their knowledge about welfare reform. The women read newspaper articles and listened to news reports about the push to get mothers off welfare and into jobs. They discussed the issue and critically reflected on how mothers receiving welfare benefits for their children were being blamed for their poverty. Independent of the teacher, they generated a list of questions which they wrote on the blackboard, including such concerns as: Where are the jobs when mills are closing down? How can women find and keep jobs when there is no public transportation in the area and a car is too expensive to own and operate? How can women work at minimum wages, support their families, and still afford safe childcare? They read more about the issue and created a hand-out on their concerns about welfare reform legislation. The women distributed this hand-out and spoke out at a community forum attended by more than 60 people, including representatives from community agencies, state legislators, and welfare officials.

Getting Started

Getting started can be the most difficult step in getting the multilevel class to work. Our students do not typically say they are returning to school to foster relationships and build community. They talk about wanting to read and write better, pass their GEDs - tests of General Educational Development - and get better jobs. Students come through our doors expecting, not surprisingly, to be tested and assigned by skill level. The novelty of a mixed class is sometimes met with confusion and resistance.

The key to enabling students to become comfortable with and invested in this new way of learning centers on building group identity. We work to foster a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation from the onset. Building connections among participants serves many purposes. These include establishing the safety necessary for learning, creating a climate where students learn with and from each other, breaking down the isolation that many feel upon entering our program, and helping participants identify and act on issues that are central to their lives. To begin weaving a sense of belonging, we encourage a lot of talk in class around who we all are as human beings.

We are also intent on building a structure within the class that allows for an ebb and flow between students coming together to work on a particular activity, project, or issue and moving apart to work individually or in small groups or pairs. Learners may work in small groups or pairs at the same skill level or at different levels with the more advanced students taking on a teaching role and, in so doing, grounding their own learning and developing their leadership skills. During this open study time, we rotate among individuals or groups of students to offer more one-on-one attention and support and often ask our tutors to provide additional help. Achieving the right balance between group and individual work is critical to ensuring that the process of building community and building basic skills are not in opposition to one another, but truly complement and enhance each other.

Skill Building

One of our favorite mixed-level classes was an outdoor writing group which met weekly and wrote together at the Quabbin Reservoir watershed, where, more than 60 years ago, five towns had been flooded to provide drinking water for Boston. The area today is full of both folklore and natural beauty. We wrote in the cemetery that had been moved, we wrote by the old stone walls that can still be found, and we wrote by the oak trees that had survived the floods. Janet (all students' names have been changed) was a member of this group. As a beginning writer, she first felt intimidated and questioned whether she belonged in this group of writers. After several months, she realized that she not only had a lot to learn from the group, but also had a lot to offer. In reflecting on her own growth, she wrote in her journal:  There are two kinds of people. The ones that go out and read and write. [They] have the ability to handle anything that comes their way. [They are] not afraid to do it. They have the confidence they need. There are also people that stay back in a closet. That can t come out or [are] afraid to. But sometimes we see a little light in the dark. We are looking for more light. When we do, we find it very interesting. We found out that we too, have a very good mind and feelings about things.

I found out there are many intelligent people in the dark closet after all. [They] have the same confidence. We need to come out of that dark closet. The light we see feels so good. We need more of it. It s like being blind and [then] you can see.

Being with more advanced students was critical to Janet's learning in two ways. First, her enthusiasm to write was inspired by the more advanced writers who modeled that writing, regardless of one's proficiency, is often both a joy and a struggle. And second, by seeing that she could contribute to the learning of others, the "smarter" ones included, she slowly came to believe in her own intelligence. The burden of her internalized belief that she was inferior to others was gradually lifted.

Community Building and Problem Solving

We are fascinated with the process by which adult students, who often consider themselves deficient, learn from each other and solve problems by bringing their experiences to the table. Mixed classes set the tone for collaborative problem-solving as, by design, they communicate to students that they all have strengths and can learn from one another.

For example, in a class that was examining what it takes to survive, Lucille, a woman with two children, mentioned that she thought she was going to be evicted from her apartment when her partner left, and she could not afford the rent. This personal dilemma prompted other women to talk about housing issues, to read and discuss the high rents listed in the want ads of the local newspaper, to observe the number of vacant and empty buildings in their community, and to share their fears of being homeless with their children. As these women continued this conversation, they encouraged Lucille to talk to her landlord. A few suggested that the landlord might be interested in lowering the rent to let her stay if she was a good tenant. Encouraged by the group, Lucille agreed to talk to the landlord. Later she reported that the landlord agreed to lower her rent so that she and her two children could keep the apartment.

Again and again, we have found that when learners share a problem with the class, discussion, reading, and writing are sparked and the students move toward collaborative problem solving and action. In many of our multilevel classes, students have taken on such projects as building a new class and community space, advocating to get public transportation in the area, publishing community newsletters, and producing a video on domestic violence.

Keeping It Going

Once common interests and issues are identified, where do you go from there? The curriculum emerges from the group. In one group, students, having just read many social studies passages, realized that women's experiences were excluded. The class became very interested in learning more about women in history. We began a multilevel unit on this topic with an easy reading piece and thus included all in the activity. Students then went to the library to find readings on women in history that were based on their own personal interests and skill levels. With all students contributing from what they had read, they collectively created a time line of major accomplishments and struggles of women. In another group, the curriculum evolved around students' desire to plant a community garden. Math lessons were based on creating a budget for this project, drawing a garden plot to scale, and working with perimeters and areas to figure out borders and space available for planting.

The simple use of newsprint may be one of the more effective strategies for working with multilevel groups. For example, one multilevel group established a pattern of talking, posting ideas on newsprint, reflecting on these ideas, and then adding to them. One student, who initially was unable to write on her own, one day realized that she could. This collective pad of paper seems to help students improve their literacy skills. We want to investigate the "magic of newsprint" further to better understand how and in what ways it systematically promotes such progress.

Grouping by Skill Level

Grouping people by skill levels may be preferable in certain circumstances. Many of our students hold down a number of jobs to make a living and do not have much time or energy. It makes sense for those in this category, who are also close to passing their GEDs, to work together and complete GED review materials so they can pass as quickly as possible. However, we constantly ask them whether getting the GED is their only goal, as we realize that they may also need other skills to help them find their way out of a piecemeal existence. Since their goals often shift over time, it sometimes makes sense for them to move into a more diverse class, where group work and discussion are central to learning.

Some students may at first feel overwhelmed in a mixed class. These learners sometimes prefer to be with others at a similar level or work with a tutor. Many eventually actually prefer to be part of mixed classes for a block of time, so they can interact and socialize with others.


As adult educators, we try to learn from the experiences students share when they enter our programs. One student visibly shook as she described how, as a child, she was made to ride to school on a separate small red bus that was reserved solely for the slow' ones. Many of the other children who rode on the standard yellow bus made fun of her and others like her. Being completely segregated from the normal students, she learned to think of herself as stupid and left school as soon as she turned 16. Now in her 30's and back at the adult education center, this woman was filled with anxiety, fearful that she would again be humiliated by being singled out and separated from the others. Based on this and similar stories, we have learned that to track students would replicate the type of power dynamic of "one-ups" and "one-downs" that we are trying to change.

We are concerned that the United States continues to be a segregated society. Communities are divided along class and race lines with whites separate from people of color, rich separate from the poor. Many elderly are in nursing homes, away from children who are in day care. Within the workplaces, management is typically separate from the workers. We ask ourselves, where do we as members of this country have the opportunity to cross these lines and learn to work and interact with one another?

Our belief is that community-based learning centers can be one such place. We want to model how all human beings, when given the chance, may learn from one another and contribute to their community. Mixed classes can be a microcosm of how we wish the world to be: where the diversity of its participants is truly seen as an asset, rather than a deficit.

Our own hope is to move our program even further in the direction of becoming a multilevel organization, meaning that we do not simply offer multilevel classes but throughout our organization, students, teachers, administrators, and board members are sharing decision making and working together to make a positive difference in the communities where we live and work.

About the Authors

Pat Larson has been a site coordinator and teacher at The Literacy Project site in Orange, Massachusetts, since 1990. Before joining The Literacy Project staff, she taught in public high schools in Massachusetts for 15 years.

Judy Hofer was a site director and teacher at The Literacy Project site in Ware, Massachusetts, for six years. She is now the research coordinator for NCSALL s staff development research project at World Education.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL