Sometimes modified block schedules work best

High schools in the US have about as many different formats for bell schedules and class periods as there are high schools: 7-period day, 8-period day, 4×4 block schedule, A/B block schedule, and everything in between. Each format has its ups and downs, and school administrators often find themselves weighing the benefits to students and the drawbacks each format brings.

Voxitatis talked with Todd Minichiello, the coordinator of counseling for the high schools in the Rockwood R-VI School District near St Louis, Missouri. The district offers its high school students a true choice in scheduling: students can decide on an individual basis whether to take all their classes in traditional-length periods of about 49 minutes or to use a few of those class periods as an extended period with 74 minutes of instruction on two days a week.

Sounds good, right? Some classes—lab classes that require a lot of setup or prep time, physical education classes that spend some time just changing clothes for the activity, cooking classes that require time for food to get warm in an oven, and so on—benefit from the additional 25 or 30 minutes of class time a block schedule offers. And other classes—foreign language, some math classes, and so on—have been shown in research to work better with the daily reinforcement provided by going to the class every school day, even if it’s shorter.

At Lafayette High School in Wildwood, one of the four in the Rockwood district, the bell schedule can be difficult to figure out, simply because it has different times for different students at the school, depending on whether they’re taking advantage of what Mr Minichiello called a “flex” schedule. “Sometimes it seems like the bell rings every four minutes,” he said. And then, some days are designated as A days, others as B days, and others as C days, and lunches are, of course, available for every student every day.

Students at Lafayette can decide to have seven classes on A, B, and C days, with the same schedule on all three types of day. Or, they can pair their classes up and use two of those “periods” as a flex period, meaning on B days they go to one of the two classes, skipping the other, and on C days they go to the other class, skipping the first. The catch: students who make this decision have to pair up block-period classes.

“Kids either like it or hate it,” Mr Minichiello said, and the district finds itself constantly evaluating how well this type of scheduling is working for students. They can take advantage of the extra time in classes where it matters, but in order to do that, they have to pair the class up with one that the school can offer as a block period.

Then, if not enough students choose that same class as a block period, the school can’t offer it that way and some students end up not getting their choices.

For example, a student may want to take a chem lab as a block period but the only other choice is a math class. He may not have wanted to take the math class as a block, but the requirement that he pair up the chem lab with another block class that has a sufficient enrollment for the school to even offer it that way means he’s taking a math class in a block format.

Like Rockwood, schools in Illinois are evaluating the pros and cons of block, traditional, and hybrid scheduling. But just so administrators in Unit District 5 in Normal know they don’t have to go all in on a block schedule or a traditional schedule, Melissa Schill wrote an op-ed in The Inkspot, the student newspaper at Normal Community High School, to tell them about Rockwood’s flexible scheduling approach.

With the permission of both Melissa and the paper’s faculty adviser, we are very pleased to present the results of The Inkspot’s informal poll and reprint her editorial here.

49 minutes.

49 minutes to take attendance. Settle the class down. Collect homework. Pass out worksheets. Begin a group discussion. Separate the students into groups. Shuffle the desks around. Log in to the computers. Pack everything back up. All this in 49 minutes.

Cramming all of this—not to mention the teaching itself—into a 49-minute class period requires an infeasible amount of agility from both the teacher and the students. It is time for NCHS to consider the option of block scheduling. Students could benefit from spending more time in classes. Core classes specifically, namely those in the science, social studies, and English departments, need the extra time: more time for labs, more time for discussions, more time for in-class projects. More time to truly delve into the material.

Former NCHS student Kelli Rinkenberger, a junior, moved recently to St Louis and in the fall began attending Lafayette High School, one of the many schools across the nation that follows a block schedule.

LHS uses a Copernican schedule, a model of block scheduling that offers longer class periods for core subjects while electives take place during shorter class periods. Rinkenberger, for example, takes AP literature and AP physics during her blocked periods. Classes such as choir and business take place during the classic 49-minute periods.

Poll Results

In an informal poll online, The Inkspot asked students if they would be “interested in block scheduling for select classes.” Of 75 respondents, 65 percent said they would be interested and 35 percent said they wouldn’t.

The Copernican model offers what NCHS needs.

Within a week, there are three “types” of days: an A, B and C day: On the one A day each week, students attend each period for 49 minutes: a traditional school day. On the two B days, students attend first, second, fifth, sixth and seventh hour for 49 minutes each. Students also go to third hour, but it lasts for 1 hour 14 minutes. On the two C days, the schedule mirrors the B days, but instead of going to third hour, students attend fourth hour for 1 hour 14 minutes.

Not all students may want a block schedule. Block scheduling should be an opt-in—those who don’t want one can stick with a traditional schedule. This option would be convenient for students who are already in an extended “class”: BACC students. Opting out would also be prime for students whose attention span is shorter and could not handle the extra time spent in class.

Focus, however, may not be as big of an issue as those opposed to block scheduling make it out to be. With more time to fill, teachers can explore and experiment with new, more extensive classroom activities. A nontraditional class length calls for a nontraditional classroom experience.

The options are endless for the extra time. Some days might include a class lecture and a group discussion time. Other days might consist of independent reading time and a group presentation. There is time for variety during the class, breaking up the otherwise long period.

“The blocked schedule,” Rinkenberger said about her AP physics class, “allows us to have more time for labs and get it done within that day and not have to come back the next day and try to restart from where we left off.”

In Earth and space science, students are assigned to create a “spacecraft” that is capable of safely landing two marshmallows when dropped off of a balcony. The project is spread over three days: the first day is spent explaining the project, brainstorming and beginning to create the ship. The second day is entirely a work day and the third day includes final adjustments and the final test. As is, students are interrupted in the midst of trying to create their spaceship. The next day they are forced to pick up where they left off, trying to remember where their design was headed and what needed adjustments. With a blocked schedule, this lab could be condensed into just two days. One day could be spent on a background lecture, instructions and brainstorming, while the second day could be spent on the actual construction and testing.

During a 49-minute class period, teachers often only have time for a lecture, leaving students bored and unsure of how to apply the knowledge they were just given. With the block, students have time not only to be introduced to the material but also to complete a full activity where they can apply the information they received.

True, teachers would have to receive some additional training. It is crucial that the teachers use the time to the fullest, and just a few hours of training would give the teachers the strategies needed to execute this.

Mr Witzig, a social studies teacher, has taught a blocked class. Back when school was held in the Kingsley building, NCHS ran a pilot program where freshmen students’ English and social studies classes were blocked. “It was incredible,” Witzig said. “I really got to know those students and we built a really good relationship and got a lot of work done.”

It wasn’t just the teachers that appreciated the extra time offered during the blocked period; students enjoyed it too. “They really liked that there was one less class during the day … it makes the day feel a lot faster,” Witzig said.

It has been done before and it can be done again.

Rinkenberger’s experience is a testament to how easy the transition can be: “It wasn’t hard for me,” she said. “I think what made it easier was I only had two classes that were blocked … I have a little bit of block scheduling and little bit of standard so I’m not completely changing from NCHS, which is nice and helpful for my adjustment.”

With only two blocked classes, the change would be subtle but effective.

One hour and 14 minutes.

One hour and 14 minutes to take attendance. Settle the class down. Collect homework. Pass out worksheets. Begin a group discussion. Separate the students into groups. Shuffle the desks around. Log in to the computers. Pack everything back up. All this fit comfortably within one hour and 14 minutes.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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