How often have you been at the end of a lesson, ready to bring it home – and the bell suddenly rings! No time left to wrap up or reflect with the students as they abruptly rush off to their next class. Even the most experienced of teachers have watched their class minutes slip away and found that a traditional 50 minute period is just not enough time to do everything we want and need to do in a great lesson. But how could we get more time out of the school day? Many districts are addressing this problem by ushering in block scheduling. Although there are a variety of block scheduling models, in its basic form, it is fewer classes per day, with more time allotted to each of these classes. Often, schools use an A-B day rotation, or block certain classes by quarter, or half year semesters. There are high hopes around this potential solution, but how does it fare in real life classrooms? What are real teachers with real students saying about the success, and failures of this alternate scheduling? I can answer with the personal experience of a teacher recently immersed in an A-B block schedule in a NJ middle school.
Big upside: finally, more time! This science teacher embraced the fact that she no longer had to break labs from the initial content and discovery lessons. A block period allowed for undisturbed time, leaving opportunity for more in-depth lessons and engagement with lessons from start to finish. Lessons can become more developed, not just a do now to start, but well aligned and luring anticipatory sets, followed by multiple intelligence content with time to practice skills, reinforce concepts- and actually wrap up and reflect! Without the rush of needing to “beat the bell” the pace slows, allowing for more one on one interaction to meet individual needs. Since the kids see you every other day, they have time to digest and reflect on the lesson, and an extra night for homework, which can feel like less pressure for some students.
But, wow: 80-100 minutes is really a long time to keep kids engaged and focused! Don’t plan on lecturing all of that time away. This is not as easy as “just teach two lessons a day from your old stash of plans.” It should be no surprise that you will have to restructure your lessons, and maybe your teaching style, to fill this amount of time well. An untrained teacher can really flounder here, so be prepared to devote some time to training on block scheduling teaching techniques. If your district does not offer this, be sure to research and find your own. It is always difficult when students are absent, but under block scheduling, absences create even more problems. Consider that missing one block period is equivalent to missing about two class days’ worth of content. Worse, when they return the next day, they are not scheduled in your class, and they often do not check in. This means that when they come back to you 2 to 4 DAYS later, they are already behind and lost for yet another class. While we can train and model here, I have found that lower-performing, less driven students have a very difficult time. These same students will have a harder time retaining information from class to class as well, because they are not reflecting on lessons or completing homework on their own. The every other day schedule just adds to their confusion and disorganization.
Within my teaching career, I have adapted to 50, 60 and 100 minute classes. I have found that there is no such thing as the perfect schedule. With the extra time come other challenges that teachers will have to meet. While the debate on block scheduling rages on, some of us are in the trenches. We love it…we hate it… we live it. The secret to surviving block scheduling is about effectively using the extra time- so pull up your sleeves, as these changes will take some careful planning and work from you. Here are some things that helped me survive my first year of block scheduling.
- To start, don’t panic. You can do this: just like you have handled all the other changes throughout your teaching career. We are a profession of constant changes; we adapt, and adapt well. You may even like blocking?
- Bring the fun back. You have time again! Add some meaningful, engaging and fun activities. Bring back those anticipatory sets you haven’t had time for! Add the games, puzzles, scavenger hunts, debates, and virtual field trips. Talk to colleagues about what’s working for them. Research outside of your teacher’s editions. Think outside of the box. It’s time to put back stuff that we’ve been cutting out because of the 50 minute crunch!
- Lose the lecture. Although some teacher centered lessons have their place, teaching is much more than lecturing. Speaking the content does not equal the kids learning the content. You will not survive if you don’t add to your methodology. It’s time to mix it up. You and your kids will be miserable if you plan on filling 80 minutes of time talking at them. Not sure what to do? Research or find some professional development in block scheduling: project based learning, discovery learning, LATIC, etc.
- Plan ahead. Many teachers feel behind when they are block scheduling. It can be hard to change your thinking to make one day with your students equivalent to the two that you are used to. It is easy to fall behind. Sketch your chapter and quarter out so that you can see when concepts need to be addressed, and then be flexible. We all know plans don’t always go as intended, and some students need more time than others. Your timeline is a guideline to keep you on track. As you make changes, write them down and keep these for next year.
- Chunk your class time. Most students’ attention spans last about 15-20 minutes. With this in mind, plan to switch up activities about every 20 minutes, employing varying techniques to meet multiple intelligences with the same concepts. More engaging activities like engineering and labs can span more time.
- Over plan. It takes time for you as a teacher to adjust to a block. There are days where you over-, or under- estimate time needed. Content timelines demand that you cover about two classes worth of material within each block. So, even with more time, you don’t’ have time to lose. Try to have a 20 minute chunk lesson that can fit in whenever you have the time. Don’t just throw homework at them to fill the time- this will cost you in the long run and you will fall behind.
- Loop your lessons. Every class should start with a review of the previous lesson (or lessons). This helps meet the needs of struggling and absent students. It is also a good practice that addresses the inconsistency of not meeting every day- which is one of the biggest challenges of block scheduling.
- Keep parents and students informed. Organization is a developing skill in many students. They need help. Post information in your classroom and remind them in person and at home (https://www.remind.com/). Make class information available online using e-boards, Google Classrooms, or a class website. Send parent letters home. They should be your allies in keeping your students on task and organized.
Jessica Cicalese Kurtz is a veteran middle school engineering and science teacher at Toms River Schools. She has experience as a curriculum developer, teacher trainer, and is a regular contributing writer for NJ-teachers.com.