PODCAST: Little Learners, Big Ideas

Third grader teacher Alex Smallwood works with two students in her “vertical learning” classroom at Richards Elementary School in Newport. Photo by Sarah Earle.

To support their youngest learners as they adapt to full-time, in-person learning — some for the first time — educators are rethinking classroom structures and focusing on building relationships.

*Note: This podcast was recorded prior to the recent surge in COVID cases. Some of the referenced events and activities may have changed.


Chaos. That’s what I’ve been warned to expect as children from three grade levels converge and then redistribute themselves into three different classrooms in one wing of Richards Elementary School in Newport.

With their fluid arrangements and flexible seating options — wiggle seats, balls, rolling chairs, standing desks … who knew there were so many options? — the classes taking place here are unconventional, sure.

But to be honest, I’ve seen more chaos at a knitting circle. 

Within minutes, about 45 kindergarten, first, and second graders have settled into their appointed spots around teachers and classroom aides and are hard at work sounding out blends, forming letters, and discussing literary terms.

(Sounds from the classroom)

I’m Sarah Earle, and this is School Talk, a podcast by Reaching Higher NH. Young learners are taking giant steps this year, adapting to full-time, in-person learning, many for the first time, while hitting their academic stride. The new “vertical learning” program at Richards Elementary School is one way educators are supporting their needs. The idea is to meet learners where they are by eliminating traditional age groupings and focusing instead on skills.

PATRICE GLANCEY: It’s a mindshift from the way we typically do things. They’re really drilling down to a personalized learning plan for each of the kids.

Patrice Glancey is the new principal of Richards School, as well as the director of education for the Newport School District. Previously, she helped steer the district through a transition to competency-based formal assessments. Over the summer, Glancey and the teaching staff grappled with how to meet the varied and distinct needs of their youngest learners. Three teachers — first grade teacher Jen Paquette, second grade teacher Eileen McCart, and third grade teacher Alex Smallwood — signed on to operate a multi-age cluster of classrooms. Students in the program hopscotch from one classroom to another, receiving targeted instruction in each academic area.

JEN PAQUETTE: They know that they’re going to a classroom. They don’t think they’re coming to a grade… You’re working on the progression of their skills.

Jen Paquette has been teaching at Richards School for 15 years, working her way up from a paraprofessional to a classroom teacher. She’s adapted to a lot of changes at the school, including a shift toward the collaborative teaching style that makes vertical learning possible. 

PAQUETTE: It’s constant talking. Communication is a huge aspect, and it helps a lot to be able to have chunks of time to do stuff like that.

For McCart, who’s new to the school this year, the collaborative nature of the program has contributed to her own growth. 

EILEEN MCCART: Being a newer teacher, being able to have that open door of communication with a first grade and a third grade teacher, I’ve learned so much — so much about curriculum, so much about how to support students, and being able to just pop my head in and say, ‘what do you think of this idea? What do you think will best support these students?’ I think is one of the best parts of having a vertical learning team. 

Another key to the program’s success is small class sizes. The school used some of its federal relief funds to hire an additional teacher in order to keep classes in the “vertical learning” program small. Each one has just 14 students.

Implementing the program has created some logistical challenges, such as ensuring the students get to be with their grade-level peers for lunch, recess, and specials. 

But already, the teachers are witnessing growth. In fact, some students are shooting ahead of where their grade would normally be at this time in the school year.

PAQUETTE: They’re able to accelerate faster than they would have been able to.

And there is already talk of expanding the program. 

GLANCEY: Slowly it’s kind of naturally becoming a thing we’re going to do.

Newport isn’t the only district that’s rethinking traditional classroom structures.

Caitlin Friend Rushton is piloting a new multi-age classroom for 14 children, ages 6 through 8, at Pleasant Street School in Laconia. The district used federal relief funds to hire a new teacher and shift Rushton, a long-time kindergarten teacher, into the new role.

CAITLIN FRIEND RUSHTON: I have a big focus, especially this year, on oral language learning, learning through play, because that’s a piece that these kids have missed a lot on, so I’m really focusing on using our dramatic play area. We started the year with a grocery store setup, and we incorporated math by coming up with prices, and that met my youngest learners by counting the objects, and it met my higher level learners by adding the prices together. So it’s meeting the different needs in that area. We labeled all the different sections of the grocery story. The younger learners were just looking at the letters in the labels. The learners who are able to spell more sounds and words were able to stretch the words like “fridge” and “freezer” and “cans.” They were very adamant they wanted a canned section. And they used those skills to play, to really focus on communication, problem solving. The expectation is always: you have strong words, you use them. I’m always happy to help you solve a problem but only after you’ve tried on your own first. … When I presented this opportunity to families, I presented it as a gift. This is a gift they’re giving their children… this is a gift of time. This gives them a chance to really develop more skills.

Like Newport, Laconia is already seeing signs of growth.

DAVID LEVESQUE: We are finding some kids that are really excelling. They’re moving quickly and they’re gaining confidence and they’re feeling better about themselves.

David Levesque is the principal of Pleasant Street School. The day we spoke, he was helping a second grader prepare to give a presentation to the school board about the new program.

LEVESQUE: He’s beaming. He’s feeling his oats. That was one of the things: Let’s give him a little more time to give him some confidence and desire to be a leader. And he’s developing into that, and we’re only 30-some days into the year.

Nurturing traits like confidence and leadership, kindness, and resilience, are at the forefront of Levesque’s mind as students settle into a new school year. 

Contrary to many predictions, Pleasant Street students didn’t lose any academic ground due to the pandemic. Test data held steady from one school year to the next. 

But that doesn’t mean everything is just back to normal, especially for the youngest students, who have yet to experience a “typical” school year.

LEVESQUE: We know that kids who experience trauma, kids who experience loss, kids who experience a pandemic, struggle. And the one thing that you can do to help support students is build relationships.

So, along with assessing their classroom practices, educators at Pleasant Street School are working hard to create an environment where kids feel safe, cared for, and connected.

In the coming weeks, the school will resume a program called We Connect, where students come together in K-5 advisory groups to focus on important social-emotional skills and build strong relationships with adults. Virtually every staff member, including the school nurse, librarian, and custodian conduct advisory groups, and they often become a student’s go-to person when challenges arise. 

LEVESQUE: If I’m a second grade student, and the last time I was in school was in kindergarten, and I had a great relationship with my teacher, we want to rebuild that relationship. So if things get difficult, we can say, ‘can you go visit your We Connect teacher?

Building relationships extends beyond the school walls as well. 

LEVESQUE: When COVID hit, we lost a lot of our community connections, which is really hard for a school… We’re starting to rebuild those connections. We started with baby steps but we’re starting to take bigger steps every day.

The annual third grade field trip to the fire station, town hall, and police station has resumed. Ditto the apple orchard field trips and the annual holiday parade. Last week, the school brought back “haircuts for the holidays,” with stylists from eight area salons setting up shop in the school to offer free haircuts. And next month, the beloved Presents for Pleasant Street returns. The school collects donations from families and businesses and sets them all up in the gym, and then students can come “shop” for presents for their families. High school students join in the fun and help wrap the gifts.

Later in the year, the students will give back to the community, with events like “pride day,” a day of games and activities that raise money for community causes. 

LEVESQUE: Over the last eight years we’ve donated over $5,000 back to the community. We bought the police a bicycle. We bought like thousands of jars of peanut butter for the lunch program. We make it into a competition and then we give everything back. We’ve created a scholarship program for any student who went to Pleasant Street School, for $500 if they want to pursue a degree in education, we’re going to give them a $500 scholarship.

These field trips and family festivities and fundraisers nourish the school’s root system, which Levesque believes is as vital a task as any academic intervention.

LEVESQUE: Those things really mean a lot to us… I think that whole thing of being connected to the community is huge. …We want our kids to feel safe going out in this community. So if I get a haircut or go to the coffee shop, I can say, ‘I’ve been here. Here’s where they make coffee. This person cuts my hair. This is where the police are.’ It’s building that connection with the community so they feel safe and they’re embedded in what we’re doing. Without the community, our schools really won’t function. We’re always trying to look at ways to bring the community to us and how we can go out into the community.

Thanks to all the educators who took time out of their busy routines to chat with me. To stay up-to-date on education news, sign up for our newsletter at reachinghighernh.org and follow School Talk wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.

About this series: This podcast is part of a series highlighting solutions, success stories, and best practices at schools around the state. If you have a story you’d like to share, contact Sarah Earle at s.earle@reachinghighernh.org. 

Read other stories in this series: