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Building Blocks

Making the most of your many, many minutes

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Ten, fifteen years ago, block scheduling was more popular than iPods on middle and high school campuses. Across the country, everybody was tuning in and hearing a new song: More time to teach! More time to learn!

But these days, you're more likely to hear about schools and districts returning to a traditional six- or seven-period day or a hybrid of blocks and shorter periods.

Many have found that the learning potential offered by 90-minute block periods never was realized—sometimes because school districts didn't invest enough money in staffing or classroom resources, or didn't pay much attention to scheduling details, or (no, not this!) never really talked to teachers about how they could make it work.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of people making it work— extremely well. And they have plenty of advice for their colleagues who are still struggling to fill… oh dear, will this class ever end? I can't think of anything else to say…

"Kids, let's work on homework now."

That is, in fact, not what your colleagues recommend. Instead, you'll see that the most enthusiastic practitioners of block-schedule teaching have turned their classrooms into creative workplaces, like the 21st century offices where teams work on branding messages or social networking features. These are places where students "workshop," often working in groups, practicing new skills, and confidently presenting their findings.

Go back to 45 minutes? Impossible….Every one of those 90 minutes is spoken for.

Let's make plans

You know who adores a 90-minute block period? A teacher of the arts. Take, for example, a dance class. You start with a 30-minute warm-up, then work at the barre for 30 more minutes, and then, grand jeté! It's time for floor work! That extra half-hour can make a tremendous difference when it comes to making connections between academic theory and actual practice, says Frank Timmerman, NEA member and director for the performing arts at the Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts at Pebblebrook High School in Georgia.

His school has used a 4x4 block for most of the past 10 years—and it's not a coincidence, he says, that the school also has become a nationally known arts magnet during that time. "For the arts, it's perfectly designed," he says.

But you don't have to be an arts teacher to sing along to the gospel of blocks. The key, Timmerman says, is making sure that instruction is varied and taught "bell to bell." The teachers who succeed with a block, he says, "have planned out really good exercises for the kids for every minute."

What the Research Says

One of the most recent studies of block scheduling appeared in Science Educator magazine last year, after its authors looked at survey results from 7,000 college students. They found that students who experienced block schedules in high school didn't do any better in college classes than students who experienced traditional schedules.

In fact, "no real differences were demonstrated." The authors, lead by Adam Maltese, did note that the results suggested that the A/B block may have provided an extra boost to high-performing science students, but a specific disadvantage to lower-performing students. "These findings may suggest that block scheduling does not equally address the needs of all students," he wrote.

Previous researchers have made other statements. In 2003, a study published in the Kappa Delta Pi Record said block scheduling enhanced the "environment for learning for both teacher and students." But a 2000 study noted that students receive less classroom time (22 percent) overall.

And, while many teachers say they like the opportunity to do different kinds of teaching, a 2002 study published in The Journal of Educational Research that involved 2,167 teachers in North Carolina found that teachers really didn't vary their instructional methods, regardless of schedule.

And consider this from Montana's Wendy Warren: "My guess is that the studies showing no 'advantage' to block scheduling are measuring only those things that can be measured on standardized tests, and I would argue that the most important things that occur in a child's education can't be measured that simply."

After 22 years in the classroom, Montana's Wendy Warren, a middle school communications teacher, says she's still learning. Every year, a unique group of students enters her classroom and she tries to match her teaching to them. With a block, she has much greater flexibility with her teaching methods to do that kind of matching. Still, there are similarities every year.

Like Timmerman's artists, she fills her blocks from start to finish with activities that make connections: between her and her students, between the students and their own writing, and between the classroom and the community.

This year, Warren is kicking off her classes with a time that her students last year named "Freedom to Speak," a kind of learning circle where group members can share whatever is on their minds. It creates community and provides Warren with information that she can use for writing topics. Another new idea is "Windows on the World," a time for Warren and her students to visit (virtually) another part of the world to learn about current events and social justice issues.

Later, it's off to Writing Workshop, a time for small groups of students to work together on genre studies, grammar in context, writing, and listening to each other's writing. "I am so thankful to have a block of time to use

this way and to be in a district that trusts my professional judgment and experience enough to allow me to continually improve my teaching," Warren says.

Plug it in, turn it on

Mike Jones, a veteran social studies teacher at San Lorenzo High School in northern California, starts off his classes with a 15- to 20-minute introduction, followed by some teacher-centered instruction. Eyes on me, guys! But then, he frequently takes his class into uncommon waters: He asks them to go surfing.

Jones' classroom has wireless Internet and every student has a laptop, which allows him to design lessons that require students to surf the Web for answers to his questions. For example, in his economics classes this year, he's asking students to research the tax plans of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, and apply what they've already learned about taxes. Are they progressive? Regressive? Or maybe, in U.S. History, for lessons on immigration, they'll go to the U.S. Census Bureau's Web site and compare immigration patterns from 1900 to today. "I call them 'Webquests,'" Jones says.

"I'm more oriented to project-based or what I call 'problem-based' learning," Jones says. These are life-long skills that he hopes his students will develop: how to work together in teams, how to do research and present findings, and how to maneuver in the world of technology.

Still not working?

No, you say. I am a fabulous teacher for 45 minutes—and that's it. That's my strength. Ask for more and you'll get less. Well, you're not the first to say so, and there may also be an answer for you.

The hybrid schedule is growing in popularity. Basically a combination of 90-minute periods—usually claimed by the science geeks for extended labs and others who cherish the opportunity for workshops, Webquests, and more—and "skinny" periods for all others, it is a well-received compromise in many districts.

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