Block schedule gets trial run

FAIRMONT – According to many teachers, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say only 35 minutes of a 45-minute class period are usable for efficient teaching.

Between settling into class and focusing on the subject and the eventual mind-wandering at the end of class, it isn’t easy to get a full 45 minutes of teaching in, and with state standards pressuring teachers, every minute counts.

To help students focus on their topics, four Fairmont junior high teachers have organized a pilot schedule of 94-minute classes for seventh-grade English and seventh-grade science, and eighth-grade English and eighth-grade social studies.

Sara Gudahl, the eighth-grade English teacher, presented the idea last year to Dave Paschke, the former principal of the school.

He was supportive of looking into the program and encouraged Gudahl to look into the specifics. Kim Niss, Paschke’s successor, has continued to help the teachers work through the details.

Gudahl presented the block scheduling proposal to her coworkers for anyone who wanted to try it.

Gudahl has taught on a block schedule at a previous school, as has Jared Thompson, who teaches eighth-grade social studies. Cheryl Kidd will also be teaching the new schedule for eighth-grade English.

One of the main reasons for the push is to eliminate transition time between classes.

“I would have kids for 45 minutes, and about five minutes before the bell, they would start to mentally check out,” Gudahl said.

Science teacher Anne Holm echoed similar frustrations with distractions that delay starts for classes: “So many hallway interactions are brought back into the classroom.”

Holm said in her science class, students will be studying life science and learning about biology.

Having a solid hour and a half with each class twice per week will give the students a chance to think about the topic without interruption.

“I think it will give the kids time to process what I am telling them,” she said, noting part of making long-term memories is having a chance to recode the information by applying it.

“That is what I am excited about,” she said.

She hopes to have the time to teach students important soft skills as well, like working well in a team.

The new schedule should also help the teachers focus on the students in front of them.

“I used to have 149 kids every day,” Holm said. “Now I will have 70 kids in one day.”

The schedule is technically called a modified block schedule, since the students will have each subject twice per week and every other Friday throughout the entire school year. Traditional block schedules do not pair the classes into an alternating schedule, so the students only have the class for one semester. The downfall is that if a student takes 11th-grade English in the fall of his junior year and 12th-grade English in the spring of his senior year, there could be an entire year in which the student doesn’t get English training.

For Fairmont eighth-graders, the schedule means one day the students would have English for 94 minutes, and the next day have social studies during that same time period. The teacher will have three sections of students each day.

Technically, that puts the block schedule teachers on a contractual overload, meaning they are teaching six periods per day and are eligible for special pay.

However this year, since the program is being piloted, the teachers will not receive extra compensation or need to change teacher contract language.

Gudahl said she is looking forward to incorporating reading novels into her class day. Because of time, she used to assign reading at home, but was unable to monitor the reading or determine if the students understood what they were reading.

In addition, she hopes to get through more content.

“I would introduce the topic, practice it, check it, practice it, and check it again,” she said. “In 90 minutes I can do all that. It would take me a week to get through a lesson (on a regular schedule).”

Holm said initially changing her lessons to accommodate longer class periods is a lot of work, but after the first year it will be easier.

“I am really looking forward to it,” she said. “I hope the kids will begin to direct some of their own learning.”

The teachers will evaluate how the new schedule works and report to their colleagues, some of whom seem interested in the idea. But Gudahl doesn’t expect to see the entire school switch their schedules.

“I don’t feel there is a big drive as a whole school,” she said. “We are just a small group of teachers who wanted to try it.”