How To Make the Block Schedule Work

block schedule
block schedule

Transitioning to a longer class (block schedule) is not as simple as combining what was taught in a few shorter lessons plans and throwing in some homework time at the end of class. It requires looking at the key elements of a lesson and re-thinking how they can be leveraged in the context of more instructional time.

  • Content – what knowledge and skills will be studied?
  • Process – what material and procedures will be used?
  • Product – what will student produce to demonstrate their learning?
  • Evaluation – how will the learning be assessed?

Instead of the block becoming an insufferable 80 minutes of having to “entertain” students, it becomes a learning environment filled with more student exploration and reflection on their progress as learners.

I’ve helped many teachers see the block as an opportunity to create a more engaging student-centered classroom by giving students some measure of decision making in these four elements. Instead of the block becoming an insufferable 80 minutes of having to “entertain” students, it becomes a learning environment filled with more student exploration and reflection on their progress as learners.

Of course, you can’t simply “throw students in the deep end” and expect them to take responsibility for all their learning decisions. But with scaffolding and support, students can take increasing responsibility for their reading, writing and critical thinking.

In support of a training project I’m conducting this week, I’ve created a Google web that features handouts, resources, videos and web 2.0 links. It also serves as a model for how Google docs and webs can be used as learning tools in the classroom.

Image credit: flickr/dibytes

How Does A School Foster Hope?

One of the best aspects of my work is that I get to meet many talented educators. I’m on the road this week, and I invited two of them to do guest posts. This second post is by James Steckart, Director of Northwest Passage High School. I met Jamie this past summer at the Project Foundry unConference.


“Hope… which whispered from Pandora’s box after all the other plagues and sorrows had escaped, is the best and last of all things.”
 Ian Cadwell (The Rule of Four)

Portage We can disagree whether hope is the best of all things, but let us suppose for a moment that Cadwell speaks the truth. What does hope give the student, the teacher, the parent, the community? Most parents wake up and hope that the lives of their children are better than theirs, whether they live in poverty or in opulence. The community hopes that its members contribute in some positive way to the better of the whole. Most children when they grow have real meaningful dreams of hope. Finally, most teachers hope that their work contributes to the healthy development of the students in their charge.

This concept of hope is common sense, yet most schools do not understand how they can produce hopeful students. In fact for a majority of students working their way through the a conventional school system, I would argue and data we have would suggest that their overall hope disposition decreases with the more time spent in school. Why would anyone stay in a place where their dreams, questions, and hope are called into question and disparaged?

Let’s look at a school where the concept of hope is front and center. At Northwest Passage High School (NWPHS) the mission of the school is simple: Rekindling our hope, exploring our world, seeking our path, while building our community. Embedding hope into our mission statement, we sought a way to measure this concept to see if we were fulfilling our mission.

NWPHS is a small progressive charter school where half of the day students work with their advisor designing projects that meet state standards, and the other half of the day they are in small seminar classes focused on an interdisciplinary topic involving field research and working with community experts. In addition, the school schedules between 30-45 extended field expeditions to further enhance learning. In a typical year the students travel and conduct research in a variety of urban and wilderness areas throughout the United States and 2-3 select international sites.

Each fall new students to our school complete the Hope Survey for new students, and each spring every student completes the ongoing Hope Survey. The survey measures student engagement, academic press, goal orientation, belongingness, and autonomy and is administered through an internet browser.

This allows us to get a sense of how much and whether hope is being grown. For us the longitudinal data confirmed what we knew in our hearts about our philosophy and methodology of working with high school students. Our ongoing students last year had a high hope score of 50.74 out of 64 possible. What lessons has this given us to share with others?

  • First, hope is built when you give students choice and autonomy. At NWPHS, project based learning gives students real choice while they meet Minnesota graduation standards. We track their learning with a sophisticated project management tool called Project Foundry.  
  • Second, we focus on building positive relationships with youth. We do this through intensive field studies, advisories, and service learning.
  • Third, we have faith that students will learn when you help them develop short and long-range goals through the use of continual learning plans and student run conferences which include the student, their advisor and at least one parent. These conferences last 30-45 minutes, and the student leads the discussion on their progress using their continual learning plan as the guide.
  • A student devoid of hope is a shell of a human being. They walk around listlessly living each day by the seat of their pants. Our job as educators, parents and community members it to instill a respect of these students and provide opportunities for hope to flourish.

Image: James Steckart

Shouldn’t Staff Development Model What We Want to See in the Classroom?

Recently I was asked to return to work with a group of high school teachers who were in their first year of transition to teaching in a block schedule. During my first training visit with them 6 months ago, my goal was to give the teachers the experience of utilizing a variety of learning situations of varying lengths. I wanted them to see the learning strategies in action, but I wanted them to leave with more than just teaching ideas. I hoped 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.

So when I was asked to conduct small group (with 6-10 participants) follow up discussion groups with the same teachers, I thought the best approach was to model it in a typical block format with three different activities that demonstrated real-time transitions in an 80 minute block. For more on my approach to professional development see my post: “A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: 15 Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer”   

I choose activities which would facilitate our discussion and feedback on how “teaching in the block was going.” But I also wanted to use activities which teachers could easily adapt for use with their student in a variety of classrooms. The teachers were first asked to participate in the activity to gather feedback and then to reflect as observers on ways they could use the activity with their classes. 

Here’s the three activities / prompts I used:

1. We opened with a “Brainstorm-Group-Label“ activity. The prompt I gave them was to list all the thoughts that came to mind when they reflected on the first semester of teaching in a block. As you could imagine the results were illuminating and ran the gamut from strongly positive to negative. This activity helped us probe larger issues of what was / was not working in the transition to the block.

2. Our second activity was a “Fishbowl Discussion.” A few participants volunteered to debate the statement “Student-centered instruction is great in theory, but in reality most students are not willing (or able) to take responsibility for their learning.” Other teachers served as observers who were assigned the task of tracking the arguments they felt were most compelling. Then the “observers” were asked to synthesize their ratings and share back their assessment with the entire group. This brought our feedback discussion closer to exploring the underlying assumption about the efficacy of the student – centered approach that underlies a block instructional schedule.

Diagram  3. For our last activity, I gave a teacher volunteer a simple diagram. See sample diagram at left.  I asked them to instruct the rest of the group how to draw it. Download Communications exercise. They could not show the diagram to the group, nor look at the progress any group members were making in recreating the diagram. Then we shared my diagram and the group member’s attempts to “copy” it. The exercise proved to be a bit frustrating for the volunteer and the rest of the group who had great difficulty getting it right. 

Why the last activity? In my mind it mimicked what the traditional classroom lecture does every day  - make the assumption that you can teach something by simply telling it to someone else. Thought I’d leave them with food for thought.

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.