Learning the Lessons of Teaching in a Block Schedule


Teach in the Block
Teach in the Block

I’ve been preparing for an upcoming two day workshop at Nassau County SD (FL) – assisting high school teacher with strategies for teaching in a block schedule. It got me thinking about my attitude about class length and how my perspective evolved as my instructional vision changed.

When I first started teaching high school social studies the central planning question I asked myself was, “What am I going to do with my students?” The focus was on my activities, because I thought my job was to convey information to my students – to tell them things they didn’t know. Then they could practice working on what I told them. Finally my students could prove they “got the things” by giving me back what I gave them on a test. Thus my curriculum planning centered about how I was going to deliver the information to them. I had a lot of information to cover and had to figure out how to cut it up into 180 bites. “This year I hope we can at least get to WWII!”

Seen from the “lecture” perspective, I liked short classes – holding the attention of 30 high school kids was a challenge. I remember when our class periods got cut from 48 minutes to 45, I thought – great, now I don’t have to talk as long. I can shave a few minutes off my delivery.

When I first started teaching, the question I repeatedly asked myself was, “What am I going to do with my students?” The focus was on my activities, because I thought my job was to convey information to my students – to tell them things they didn’t know.

After a few years of lecturing, I had the realization that I was the hardest working person in my class. I was doing most of the learning – research, analysis, synthesis and preparation of summaries to share with my students. And so I began the long journey of redefining my role as teacher from “teacher as talker” to “teacher as designer of learning environments.” I had to figure out how to create situations where my students could “research, analyze, synthesize and prepare summaries” to share with audiences (other than me). And as I made the transition, I longed for longer blocks of instructional time. I found that students needed time to decide how to approach a task, trouble shoot their approach, execute their plan, present what they learned and reflect on how it went.

Thus I learned the first lesson of transitioning to the block schedule. Don’t ask teachers who lecture to suddenly work in a block schedule – get teachers comfortable with student-centered learning and wait for them to demand longer class periods. In other words, instructional vision precedes organizational tinkering. (Later as an assistant superintendent, I put that lesson to good use.)

So how will I structure this week’s block scheduling workshops ? For starters I won’t spend the day talking at them. Of course, teachers will want specific strategies they can use. While I will share many approaches, the workshop has to be more than a collection of lesson ideas. That’s too much like my early method of teaching – me simply delivering information. Besides I won’t be the smartest person in the room.

Staff development should model what you want to see in the classroom. As Donald Finkel has written, teaching is “providing experience, provoking reflection.” My goal will be to give the teachers the experience of transitioning through a variety of learning situations of varying lengths. I want them to see the learning strategies in action and get a feel for how their level engagement can impact their sense of passage of time. I want them to leave with more than teaching ideas. I hope to provoke their ongoing reflection on what happens when students have more time to take ownership of the content, process and evaluation of their learning.

8 Replies to “Learning the Lessons of Teaching in a Block Schedule”

  1. Having taught the typical 48 minute period and the block, I have really enjoyed modified block the past 3 years. We have Mon-Tue-Fri of regular 48 minute periods. Wed/Thu are block days. Periods 1,3,5,7 on Wed and Periods 2,4,6 on Thu (the first 90 minutes of thursday is teacher planning and meeting time).

    It is the best of both worlds, imho.

    Wish I could have sat in on your seminar.

  2. I, too, wish I could’ve been at your seminar. I love when I go to things and they model it similarly to what you would do in the classroom. I’m giving my first PD this fall and my plan is to model everything I’m talking about with the participants.

    I’m so excited about block I can hardly stand it–we doing it for the first time. I started off a lot like you. Lecturing. And I could tell the kids were bored out of there minds. Now, I try to look for strategies where they “play” with the content. Less of me, more of them talking and doing.

    Thanks so much for this post. I’ll be sharing it with my colleagues on my team.

  3. David and Miss Teacha,

    Thanks for your comments. I’ll pass them along to the workshops. Nice to hear that you are both enjoying your work. Nothing better than feeling like you’re getting it right!


  4. Don’t ask teachers who lecture to suddenly work in a block schedule – get teachers comfortable with student-centered learning and wait for them to demand longer class periods. That is a great line. So you are not really doing a workshop on block scheduling but one on project based learning.

  5. Paul,

    That was a lesson that I learned after suffering through a failed top-down block schedule implementations as teacher.

    Today’s workshop? Like beauty, the value of staff development is in the eye of the beholder. Some teachers recognized my style is to serve as a catalyst for reflection. As one evaluation said “One benefit of the session was how to restructure the learning.” Some left wishing I could have given them a more prescriptive formula. Another eval said “I thought this session was going to help me on the block. It was only about being a good teacher.”

    I don’t think I have a definitive answer for how to sequence an 80 minute block that will work for all. But I do think I can help teachers to discover different flows of information and thinking in their classrooms that they will be able to adapt to a variety of time configurations.

  6. It is interesting how often administration wants teachers to learn a different way of teaching, so they deliver the message through lecture and sit-and-git sessions. Since administrators–of which I am one–are to be instructional leaders, one would expect that they would model the behaviors they are looking for in teaching.

    It comes as no surprise to me that you do this. Thanks for the thought regarding making teachers comfortable with student-centered learning. Now, I only have to decide how to begin.

  7. Randy,

    Thanks for the reinforcement. I would go so far as to say – if we expect teachers to differentiate in the classroom, then we should differentiate staff development. If that’s too difficult for PD planners, then imagine what teachers are going through every day when they are asked to do the same.


  8. Seeing my colleagues do the 48 minute period and the block, I can see that some want more time to fully teach and interact with the students more, and just not throw a lot of “stuff” from the text book and go home. After getting project management training, I am better able to complete my teaching in 48 minutes or less.

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