A new year – a new schedule

Over the past few years, the only year that my school made AYP was the same year that we utilized a block schedule – where students meet with their core teachers every other day, for ninety minutes at a time instead of a traditional schedule where students meet with each teacher every day for classes that last about fifty minutes. In addition to using a block schedule that year, the core teachers had two separate preparation times. One preparation time was to take care of personal teaching duties, such as grading papers and contacting parents. The additional preparation time was devoted to collaborative activities with teachers’ interdisciplinary teams and grade-level department lesson planning.

The core teachers’ meeting times were scheduled during the times when their students were attending PE and electives classes. Until this year, our electives and PE teachers did not have the collaboration time in their schedules that the core teachers had. I am so pleased with the schedule that a colleague of mine put together with our principal for this year. They revised our block schedule that allows time for all teachers, including PE and electives teachers, to have personal planning periods and collaborative time with their grade-level departments and cross-curricular teams each week.

I admire the perseverance that my colleague demonstrated as she checked with teachers while putting the schedule together, trying to balance our instructional needs with our professional collaboration needs. Our foreign language and performing arts teachers resisted block scheduling in the past. Although they felt that through collaborating and  establishing their departments as professional learning communities they might advance students’ progress, they were concerned about how a block schedule would take away time for daily practice with their students that would impede their progress. My colleague devised a block schedule that allows each of those teachers to meet with their performance groups daily and still have time to meet with their colleagues during the school day

Block schedules traditionally utilize class periods that last for ninety minutes or more, but scheduling requirements limits blocked periods at our school to only seventy minutes. I like the schedule. It’s been a challenge to find the right pace for instruction – and planning how much material we can address each day, yet I find that the blocks provide a great relief from the harried pace that our traditional fifty minute periods allowed: sit down, take attendance, get to work, pack up, and get out quickly before the next group arrives. Whew! Just thinking about last year’s hectic schedule tires me out!

I find that the block makes it easier for me to get to know the students, but some of my colleagues find that seeing the students every other day makes it more difficult to get to know their students. They prefer seeing their students every day and believe that the students are better organized (and more likely to turn in their assignments) when classes meet daily.

Some of the teachers are finding that they can’t cover enough material in the shorter block time to make up for the lack of daily instruction. Other teachers report that they haven’t bonded with their students in the way that they’re accustomed to bonding – we want our kids to feel comfortable and safe at school, but will they feel that way if they don’t get to know their teachers’ expectations and procedures by the end of the second week of school?

In our school district, middle schools moved to block scheduling several years ago, to help students make the transition to high school, where block scheduling was used to accommodate students’ needs to complete all of their required classes in time for graduation. Our high schools have returned to traditional scheduling due to budget restraints, so middle schools also stopped blocking. Yet some research shows that a block schedule is conducive to the needs of middle schoolers and can help raise student achievement levels. It seems as though our large school district wants every middle school to use the same instructional strategies and apply identical interventions when students aren’t achieving, so I am somewhat surprised that we have the opportunity to implement our unique block schedule.  Blocking classes might not help students increase achievement in every school, but in the past, it has worked for our school.

The students appear to be fine with the schedule, but the school year has just started. The hallways seem to feel more exciting than last year during student passing time. Several of my colleagues have said, “I feel that this is going to be a great year,” and I feel the same way. But perhaps we should be asking a few questions about our new schedule. What’s best for the students? Will they learn better with the block schedule? How much does the teachers’ comfort zone impact student learning? We’re expected to differentiate our instruction to best meet students’ needs, but why are teachers expected to all teach in the same way? How can a school’s schedule accommodate the needs of all so that everyone can effectively learn and teach? Is anyone out there ready to tackle creating next year’s master schedule?