Lower School students spend around 2,100 minutes a week in school. About 300 of those minutes are spent transitioning from home to school, lunch, recess, and specials. In 2018, a schedule redesign team comprised of administrators, teachers, and staff, wondered if the time and energy spent during all the transitions were developmentally appropriate and if it was the best use of our students’ time.
In a world where children are already over-scheduled, the schedule redesign team examined schedules of Lower School students and looked for ways to enhance the school experience for some of our younger learners. They looked for ways to decrease transitions, spend longer blocks of time in the classroom, and preserve unstructured playtime.
One way to accomplish this was to “block” specials. Changing a school schedule is enormously complex and fraught with details, but block scheduling, hardly a new idea, is making a comeback. Block scheduling has been implemented in high schools for several years, but elementary schools are now realizing the benefits for younger students. Proponents maintain that less time is lost during the school day between transitions, going to different classes, and activities. The Education Alliance at Brown University, an educational laboratory, found that block schedules “resulted in reduced discipline problems, increased achievement levels, and stronger personal relationships between teachers and students.”
During the 2018-19 school year, a block schedule was piloted in kindergarten and second grade with the Lower School Spanish and science classes. Instead of students attending these specials two times during the rotational schedule for thirty minutes, students attended one of these specials for 45 minutes, three times during the rotation. With the block system, students received 200 additional minutes of instruction.
Feedback from the faculty was positive. With the block system, special area teachers forged stronger relationships with students since they saw them more frequently. Teachers also reported students were more engaged since there was not as much time between classes. Students seemed to quickly pick up where they left off and spent less time reviewing concepts, which allowed teachers to go deeper into their subject matter.
What did classroom teachers observe? With fewer transitions, they saw their students re-enter the classroom more calmly and less harried. Classroom teachers heard more Spanish words from the students, and their students talked about science concepts during morning meetings and classroom discussions.
Then COVID brought new challenges, and cohorting was needed to keep our community safe and maintain in-person learning. With that in mind, classes moved from the semester blocking to six-week blocking, where students attended the same special-area class every day for six weeks. Students then had another six-week block with the same specials later in the year. PE classes were the exception, with classes held daily for the entire school year.
Similar to the semester blocking, teachers appreciated having consistent schedules, fewer transitions, which allowed more time to cover content.
Teachers aren’t the only ones who appreciate the block schedules; students appreciate the consistency and diving deep into a concept. For example, a second grader shared in science class that they can check daily for any changes in their experiments now, instead of waiting a week to see what is new or different. Likewise, fourth graders told me they enjoy seeing their Spanish teacher each day, and feel their Spanish vocabulary has grown at a greater rate.
Looking closely at the feedback and observations over several years, the administration and faculty decided to continue with the six-week block schedule in Lower School. The continued monitoring of student progress and instructional time will be essential as we continue to seek a healthy and manageable schedule for our students.
Teaching Spanish Using the Block System
By Kelly Viseur, Lower School Spanish
On only the sixth day of school this year, a kindergarten student joyfully entered my classroom declaring, “I love Spanish class!”
When I see my students daily, I learn their names quicker, and I also identify their personality traits faster. It’s remarkable how rapidly I can assess unique learning needs and classroom management requirements when you see a class every single day. It also allows me to pivot quickly for the next day if a lesson needs more or less time or if a surprising new idea is generated by the students.
When returning to teach the same grade after a 12-week hiatus, I have found that I only need one day of review to encourage their memory of Spanish vocabulary. By the second day, we are off and running with the new curriculum. The momentum is notable.
In other rotation schedules, there might be six days when a student doesn’t see their specials teacher. In that model, the teacher spends the first portion of the class reviewing and reminding the students, not only of the vocabulary, but also the classroom norms.
Within the block system, I have enjoyed teaching the common Spanish phrase, “¡Hasta mañana!” (See you tomorrow!). It’s a cheerful way to end our class and builds anticipation for the next day’s fun in Spanish!
Making More Music Using the Block System
By Justin Miera, Lower School Music
Adapting to a new situation can be challenging, but when that transformation is helpful to children, it makes the process much easier. Previously, Lower School specialists have traditionally seen their students once, or maybe twice a week. In music, that meant months of practice to prepare for a concert and perpetually relearning new concepts. However, the new COVID scheduling protocols gave us a chance to create an improved system to teach subjects such as art, drama, and music.
While our cohorting objective was to limit the number of cross-grade contacts in music, we are now able to teach one grade level at a time, every day for six weeks straight, two terms per year. This has instantly reduced the number of concepts that need to be retaught, such as melody reading, rhythm literacy, and skills like singing in head-voice. Likewise, we have been able to rehearse performance pieces in one week rather than five.
Though the new rotation has been undoubtedly helpful in nurturing young musicians, the most powerful outcome has been the opportunity to connect with our students on a more personal level. We can recall a student’s interests, follow up on their daily experiences, and it’s easier to remember their names. This consistency not only provides students with a stable emotional experience but also builds a platform from which we can encourage positive risk-taking and exploration.