Thriving On A Block Schedule

Last week, I was working with a Middle School that is transitioning from a 7-Period Day to a Block Schedule.  Using longer blocks of time effectively and efficiently help both teachers and learners slow down, dig deep, take time to get to know each other and most importantly ….breathe. There are a few guiding principles that help teachers actively plan for longer chunks of time:

Teach how you learn.  If you learn best by doing, give students time to “do” as well.  If models help you see what you are supposed to do, provide models so students can see what you want.  If targeted and immediate feedback improves your learning, consider ways to do the same for students.

Teachers are experts not babysitters.  Instead of planning how you will occupy students during class, plan how you will have students apply, practice, and demonstrate what you have taught.  Ask yourself, “What will kids read, write, solve, discuss, or create today?”

Choice drives engagement.  Offer it whenever possible. Sometimes providing choice means providing two different articles to choose to read or two different math problems to choose to solve.  Sometimes choice comes in letting kids decide how they will demonstrate understanding.  Offering the option to annotate text or use an inner voice sheet may increase the number of students who turn in their work.

Practice make perfect.  According to John Hattie’s meta-analysis, practice with timely feedback closes the achievement gap faster than any other instructional strategy.  When designing lesson plans and how you will grade, consider how you can use student work time and the work you ask students to do to provide useful feedback.

Teaching is incredibly complex.  Teachers have one of the hardest jobs there are.  No one has completely mastered the calling.  So, collaborate with colleagues. Ask for help.  Share when you can.  Take care of each other.

Time is the enemy.  We have more to teach than time to teach it. When it comes to students knowing your curriculum, consider what will make them smarter, more successful adults down the road.  Ask yourself, “What about my content is worthy of my students knowing?”
When planning for student learning, remember to ask yourself, “What will the students DO tomorrow, and HOW will I share with them WHY they are doing it?”  Start there, and you will be amazed at how large blocks of time fly by as you and your students are immersed in the “flow” of thinking and getting smarter– you’ll never want to go back to the 48 minute period again.
Have a great weekend,

A First Day with Substance

Ed. Note: Today we have a guest blogger. Please welcome our dear colleague  Colleen O’Brien, an Instructional Coach from the Cherry Creek School District in Denver, CO. We think you’ll love her thinking. – Cris & Sam

A question all teachers ask at this time of year is, “How should I begin a school year worth coming back for every day?”

Let’s set the stage: Thirty sets of wide-eyes dart around the room studying the walls and watching the teacher’s every move. Necks crane to see the papers on the teacher’s desk and to see who is across the room. Unuttered questions are spreading in student brains like wildfire: “Will this class be interesting? Can I do the work? Who else is in the class? Will this teacher like me? Where will I sit? Will I be a star in this class?”

The quiet electricity in a classroom in the first ten minutes of the first day of class could power the florescent lights that are suspended from the ceiling.

What to do with this student energy?

Choice A: Pull out the syllabus, read what you wrote, explain classroom rules, assign seats, play a name game. Message to students: Teacher does all the talking. Teacher sets all the rules. Teacher does not need my participation. This class is just like all the others. This class will be boring. I have already done this before.


Choice B. Ask students to read, write, and talk about a controversial and timely content- based question. Ask them to do the real work of scientists, artists, critics, citizens, and mathematicians including asking questions, formulating ideas, offering opinion, strategizing with classmates. Message sent to students: The world is interesting. My opinion counts. The teacher thinks I am smart. I have to read, write, and talk to learn. There is more than one answer. Asking questions is a good thing. My classmates need me to participate.

For the first time in twenty-one years and with bittersweet feelings, I am not preparing for the first days of class. Instead I am coaching fifteen first year teachers to get ready for their students on Monday. I asked teachers to read Chapter 4 of Intellectual Character (Ritchart, 2002) entitled “First Days, First Steps initiating a Culture of Thinking”.
Here are some of the big ideas we are discussing in our planning meetings this week…

1. Ponder big ideas: Pose big questions about your content on the first day of school and allow students time and resources to begin to answer them. Are you a Democrat? A Republican? A Tea Partier? Are Babies Racist (Newsweek, 1999)? Is DNA destiny? Do all stories need a beginning, middle, and end?

2. Celebrate student thinking: Ask students to write their thinking about the big ideas. Write back to students before the next class and give them positive feedback on their thinking. Hang student work on the wall before they come back to class the next day next to their pictures. Share highlights of student writing with the whole class.

3. Read a great piece of text: Current, controversial articles are everywhere. If I were teaching this year I would begin my class with an article from Entertainment Weekly about the movie The Help (August 12, 2011) that poses the question “Who should tell the story of the Civil Rights movement?”

4. Study your students: Intentionally plan your lessons so you have time to study your students. Watch them as they read, write, and talk. Before entering the classroom each morning, ask yourself, who am I going to learn about today? Pick a few students and snoop a little, learn about who they are as readers and thinkers. Find out who their friends are and what makes them proud. Find out what worries them and what makes them laugh. Find out about their families and ask them to tell you a story about their lives. Look into their eyes and at their noses. Knowing students deeply will help you choose engaging texts and help you to create learning situations that motivate them to know more. This yearlong study of students begins on the first day of school.

Are you still unsure if you will choose A or B on the first day of school?
One more thought. Think about the first staff meeting you sat in this school year. Did it give you energy to start a new year, or make you long for summer? Did your leadership team choose A or B?

Choice A: Message to staff: Principal does all the talking. Principal sets all the rules. Principal does not need my participation. This school year is just like all the others. This school year will be boring. I have already heard this before.

Choice B: Message to staff: School is interesting. My opinion matters. The principal thinks I am smart. I have to read, write, and talk to learn. There is more than one answer. Asking questions is a good thing. My staff needs me to participate.

Have a great first week with students! Thanks for all your hard work.

— Colleen O’Brien, New Teacher Mentor/Coach, Cherry Creek School District, Denver, CO

Radical Idea: Take Time to Plan

Figuring out what we will teach, as well as WHY we will teach it is the best way we can ensure that students will not only learn, but also jump out of bed each morning eager to get to school.  And, here’s a little secret – it is also the best way to get TEACHERS to jump out of bed eager to get to school.

When you know why you are doing what you are doing, it takes away the fear factor.  It allows your full focus to be on students – where it belongs.  They should be the surprise each day – the incredible ideas and thinking that comes out of their mouths and pencils.

If we want teachers to be ready for kids to arrive, most of the time before schools starts needs to be dedicated to PLANNING.  What will students know at the end of the first 3/6/9 weeks of school? What will they be able to do? What will they understand that will help them be better human beings and feel more powerful in the world?

When teachers slow down and take the time to long-term plan – in a minimum of 3-week chunks, students learn more, can do more, and be more, because we are teaching with intention, not by accident.

In your myriad of meetings and classroom set-up activities, give yourself the gift of time. Grab a colleague and start to discuss the big ideas behind what you will teach this year, then figure out what the students will create to demonstrate their understanding. Commentary for the local newspaper? A memoir excerpt they’ll share at an Open Mic Cafe Night in October? A “How to Save Energy” brochure to distribute to the neighborhood around the school?

As you are planning, all along the way, write learning targets that address knowledge, skill, and reasoning goals….backmap these goals to the standards you are required to teach, and then, take a really radical step:  challenge yourself by doing your own assignment!  This will help you revise and refine your thinking, add some skill targets, take others away.  When you experience first hand all that goes into creating a high-quality piece of work, you get more real about goals for your students and how much time it takes.    Get out a calendar and map it all out to make it real.

Spending 4-8 hours before school starts thinking through WHY you are teaching particular content and what you want students to walk away with will have huge payoffs, in terms of energy and happiness, oh, and LEARNING for you and your students.

Happy Planning this week (and the next, and the next, and the next… ),