Time to Teach
Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy post on block scheduling is a quick dive into the block-scheduled classroom. She reviews what a block schedule refers to—1½ to 2 hour long classes, with fewer classes meeting each day—and finishes strong by quickly presenting five models for using the long block of time. It is a great way to consider some critique of the model and then start thinking about how to plan effective lessons within it.
Key to this post is Gonzalez’s speedy takedown of teacher-directed lecture, a “plank” argument fundamental to the Cult of Pedagogy ethos (and, candidly, central to why I’m drawn to her work). She looks at a teacher’s letter to a newspaper in which he dismisses inquiry learning as little more than “babysitting,” complaining that he can’t cover enough content in his high school class because of the long block “play-time.” Gonzalez identifies the teacher’s base assumption that “teaching = lecture” (and concedes that lecture-based instruction would not work for 90 minutes in a high school class!). There is a familiar breakdown between the specialist who imparts knowledge—the “sage on the stage” who believes that his talking (or writing) is what earns him the title—and the coach who leads students to discover concepts—the “guide on the side.”
Gonzalez glosses a bit over the telling indicator that supports this latter method, but it peeks through when she considers the two ways to lecture for 90 minutes:
“1. Lecture for the full 90 minutes, which bores students to tears… So in this case, you’re ‘covering’ a lot of material, but students aren’t learning it.
2. Lecture for half the period, then give students the second half for ‘homework time.’ This is also ineffective because that means students are actually learning only half the material over the course of a semester or year.”
Did you catch that? In both models, Gonzalez’s central question is: What did the students learn? This is the difference between teacher-centered and student-centered learning. The former focuses on what the adult did:
- Did you deliver the lecture/notes?
- Did you provide access to the information?
- Did you impart your expertise?
The latter looks at what the outcomes were for the child:
- Did they learn the information?
- Will they remember it on the test?
- Will they be able to use this knowledge or skill down the road?
This begs the question, If the students didn’t learn something, can you really say that you have taught it? To me, a teacher doesn’t earn their salary by showing up and talking (or writing); they earn it when their students learn the content.
(To be fair, this cursory assessment by me completely glosses over students’ responsibility to learn the material—by attending to the teaching, doing the work, studying. I also don’t mean to suggest that there is no place for teacher-directed instruction, or that anyone who lectures doesn’t teach kids; of course, this isn’t the case.)
Gonzalez rounds out the post by suggesting different methods to work through the material and break up the period. This would be different depending on the exact length of each period and what subject and grade level you’re teaching, but it provides a few basic models to start with.
Multiple activities will be planned for most days. Kids can’t sit still and do one thing over and over every day. The best way to harness the long block of time is to transition between activities.
- Sometimes this will take the form of introducing something, digging into it more deeply, coming back to reteach/relearn, and practicing again.
- Other times, it will take the form of bouncing between different strands of the curriculum.
When switching between activities, I would also recommend structuring it so that there is an opportunity to move. Sitting in one spot, not all kids will make the shift between activities; get them up and moving to get their blood flowing.
- Sometimes teachers worry that they will lose time “refocusing” the class. The best approach to avoid this is to let the kids know in advance what’s about to happen, and then let them stand and move. When you announce that it’s time to settle back in, they will be more likely to know what’s expected of them (and you should repeat your expectations, too).
- In a real pinch, you can also enlist the kids to your cause. Tell them exactly how much time they have to transition and why it’s important not to lose time: “We got caught up sharing our journal entries earlier, so I need to make up a little time here. We’re going to move these desks into small groups, but I really need to do it quickly so we can start the group work and not leave all this work for you to do on your own at home tonight.” Kids will join you, if you let them know why it matters to you—and even better, to them!
- Another option is to only have some kids actually get up and move. Call on one group at a time to avoid pandemonium. Or, assign classroom jobs to the kids who need the most mobility breaks, and get them moving around the room more often. Call on a fidgety individual and ask her to bring you something: “Can you grab my stapler off the back table and bring it up to me, please? Thank you!” (No, I do not need to staple anything, but you can bet I’ll find some bundle of papers to quickly fasten!)
When I first started teaching, I fiercely resisted posting an agenda on my board. I feared I would lose some of the “element of surprise” that kept kids engaged as I shifted between activities, and that it would stifle my ability to respond to teachable moments in the classroom. Under direct order from my principal, I started posting a bare-bones agenda, and I quickly grew to love it. It kept me moving efficiently through the daily plan, and it kept the kids more often on board because they could see what was next. I could still adjust the plan as questions or discussions came up, and it made my thinking more overt to the students when I did so. The opportunity to tell them, “We’re going to move that activity to tomorrow because I really want to keep talking about this chapter” was immeasurably rewarding. It showed my students how important their learning was to me: I wanted to hear their questions, I wanted to share ideas, and I was always ready to make adjustments as long as they were working to learn. I had 58-minute blocks when I started teaching, and I always appreciated having the time to teach.
Thanks to Tami Brass (@brasst) who retweeted this “oldie but goodie” blog post from Jennifer Gonzalez (@cultofpedagogy)!
Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Making the Most of a 90-Minute Block.” Cult of Pedagogy weblog. 13 Aug 2017 (accessed 21 Aug 2019).
(3.) https://www.flickr.com/photos/125892716@N05/14583659336 via https://www.amenclinics.com/
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