Monday, October 13, 2014

Missing the Point.

Shadowing a student is a valuable idea, but she misses the point in the end.
I have made a terrible mistake.
I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. 
Which is a fine idea ... for an experienced teacher. The newbie? Not so much. That first-year teacher is just out of college and has no sense of what is appropriate for 15yo students, and probably would miss or misunderstand the important details in all of the other data and facts.

So, this teacher-turned-Learning Coach shadowed 2 kids ... for a day.
My class schedules for the day

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:
7:45 – 9:15: Geometry
9:30 – 10:55: Spanish II
10:55 – 11:40: Lunch
11:45 – 1:10: World History
1:25 – 2:45: Integrated Science
The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:
7:45 – 9:15: Math
9:30 – 10:55: Chemistry
10:55 – 11:40: Lunch
11:45 – 1:10: English
1:25 – 2:45: Business
Here we begin to get the glimmer of the real problem. The block schedule was sold to faculty in schools as an improvement on some or all of the following grounds:
  • The students could focus on fewer things throughout the day, making for more deliberateness. The phrase "Mile wide and inch deep" is usually tossed in here, as well.
  • They'd have fewer passing times and those minutes could be filled with instruction or projects or meaningful discussion or labs.
  • 80 minutes was a better chunk of time.
  • Teachers would have fewer preps.
In some buildings, including ours, the change was implemented over vacation and the teachers returned to a different schedule. "Surprise!"
  • It's better. We decided. The schedule has changed.
Not a single thought was spared to ask whether 9th graders should be in 80 minute classes or whether Special Education students would benefit from the extended periods. Nobody considered whether having 8 periods for which students could have one or two "free" periods was better than requiring the students to have four academic courses per day and no down time. And nobody dared to question whether 80 minutes was too much math for one day.

Anyway, back to our Coach.
Key Takeaway #1
Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
Thinking is exhausting. Focus is exhausting. Learning is exhausting.  If you're doing it right, education is hard, learning new things is difficult.  I'm not saying that students shouldn't move more, but that's not the issue.

Block scheduling is predicated on the idea that students will be allowed to focus on fewer things for longer periods, that mere "rote memorizing" of content would be subordinated to the intense, "deeper" thinking, critical thinking and problem solving.

If our coach could change the past, she would have implemented "a mandatory stretch halfway through the class", installed "a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play in the first and final minutes of class" and have built in "a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day." 

In other words, 80 minutes is too long and teachers need to pretend it's really two 40 minute periods ... or 75 minutes, with a break in the middle and some games at the end.

The most telling comment? "Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine."

Really? The block schedule selling point "Better use of time" goes out the window.  Her point in her article, and presumably to the teachers in her building, "I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective."

Instead of questioning whether or not students should get more of a break between classes, or have a free period to unwind, she is willing to advocate for giving that free time in the middle of the only time her students have to be with her. 
Key Takeaway #2
High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.
So change that, if you feel that it's more appropriate to your discipline. The idea that you need to start
every class with discussion, blitzkreig-like mini-lessons is entirely dependent on what you're doing rather than an appropriate plan for every day.

Likewise, worrying overmuch about the length of time you speak (and setting a timer) is not terribly good practice. If you're talking *at* the students rather than talking *with* them, you have a problem. A good lecture, on the other hand, can keep everyone in the room engaged for hours. A constant droning lecture, like pre-recorded videos in a "flipped classroom" or a Rocketship academy or Khan Academy, won't work for much more than as a substitute in your absence.

The bigger issue is the admin's constant refrain that the teacher needs to fill the 80 minutes with something. My admin, for instance, mention that we should "teach bell to bell." I am certain that everyone reading this can also hear the drumbeat of "testing", "accountability", and the political pressure to "excel" and "fire the bad teachers". Remember, too, that one promise of block scheduling was that MORE would be learned, MORE would be retained, and MORE would be understood.
Key takeaway #3You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.
I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention ... you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention ... that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run,  ... That is how students often feel in our classes, ... because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.
And what is part of that cause? In my mind, it's that we seem to have this idea that 80 minutes of math with no time between periods to unwind is a good idea. I am impressed that the schedule quoted above has 45 minutes for lunch - we have 22 - and that there is 15 minutes between classes - we have 3.

I'm going to ignore her comments about sarcasm, because they don't really matter to this discussion beyond the fact that kids not paying attention is a problem for us and that the whole multi-tasking thing is messing the students up something fierce.

We do need to pay attention to that but also remember that kids are kids, they're not allowed to vote, drink, smoke, drive a car, rent, sign a contract, go to war, or make decisions that matter ... and they're learning something entirely new.  Why should we be surprised that Johnny is not focused on the math for 80 straight minutes?

We need to remember that not every kid will be as enthusiastic about math, or learn at the same pace, or be 100% proficient by the year 2014, or care about all subjects equally, or have a home life that's stable, ... and so on.

But let's explore the aspects of Block Scheduling that our Coach didn't touch on, mostly because she seems to feel that it's "obviously" the correct schedule.

To a man, block schedule proponents claim that "more will be done" and that "students will understand the topic better because they'll have more time to work on it and discuss it" and be able to avoid that dreaded "mile-wide and inch deep curriculum."

As someone who has had roughly identical groups -- in the same year -- in 40 minutes classes yearlong and in semester-long block classes, I can tell you that the block classes do less, achieve less, learn less. Other teachers in my district report the same thing.

The differences are subtle but one thing sticks out to me: students in blocks run out of steam. You can't do twice as much all the time. You can't do lesson 6.1 for 30 minutes, stop and stretch, do a little practice, and then do lesson 6.2 immediately and expect that the two sets of homework are possible. Simply doubling the expected work isn't feasible. Sometimes, it works, but not always.

What you often get is Teach, practice, try a little more, and then let them get started on homework. The long period is just too long. If you restructure your course and completely change the way you teach, you can improve things a little but I would maintain that you should be doing that anyway ... and in 50 minute periods.

Other issues? The school's habit of constant interruption for assemblies, sports dismissals, announcements, calling students to the office, and so on. Snow days get in the way, too, as do Fun-time Fridays, and all of the days previous to holidays and days off.

And what of the Special Ed kids, the ADD/OCD/Ed/ODD and the kids who just aren't really thrilled to be there? Why 80 minutes? They have enough trouble settling down for 20; 40 is a stretch but 80 is unfair.

Look at those schedules above. 1.5 hours each of Geometry, Spanish, World History and Science. We don't even do that to college students. It's no wonder they're tired.

And yet, with no significant change to standardized testing or SATs or ACTs or even the state-wide final exams, you get vastly "improved" grades. Interesting, no?

1 comment:

  1. I was an excellent student at a very academic high school. Went on to the Ivy League. But I was out of my seat like a shot when the bell rang for each class, and each class at this school was only 40 minutes. Could not even remotely have managed 80 minute classes, except for the double period science labs where you are always doing something in addition to listening/writing.