Blocking Out Time to Learn
5th grade has wholeheartedly embraced a new change in their daily schedule. This year 5th grade students and teachers rotate classes according to a block schedule. In addition to teaching individual academic classes, 5th grade teachers partner and co-teach for a 2.5 hour block of time every day. English and History partner together to teach a Humanities block while Science and Math partner together to teach a Connections block.
Our 5th grade teachers and Academic Dean, Janet Fox, were eager to try block scheduling for its many benefits. With the traditional scheduled classes in middle school, faculty are allocated 45 minutes to teach. The transition period between classes (i.e. the time it takes to focus students at the beginning of class and pack-up their belongings at the end of class) eats into the 45-minute period. Moreover, the start of a topic on one day with the continuation of it on the next day is problematic as instructions have to be repeated and inspiration reignited. Block schedules help to reduce transition periods for students giving them longer time to focus on their class work, experiments, projects and research. Projects that have taken a week to complete are now done in one block period.
Another benefit of the block scheduling is the reduction of student stress. Students don’t feel the rush to “get to class” constantly. Moreover, when they are in class students have access to two teachers. This cuts down on the stress of waiting for one teacher’s help when two are available.
Combining two classes into one block period has also helped to redefine the curriculum. A Connections block does not simply mean that students have twice as long for Math and Science, rather it means that Math and Science are consistently taught in conjunction with one another. Co-teaching subjects gives a greater context for learning because the value of a subject is not readily apparent if it is presented in a standalone class. Math, Science, English and Social Studies have greater application and purpose when put together. In return, seeing the relevance of what they are learning keeps students more engaged. Research also shows that the more knowledge is presented through integrated subjects, the greater retention of this knowledge. Co-teaching is breaking down the silos of subjects and creating a more authentic environment for learning.
5th grade takes advantage of their block scheduling on a daily basis. Their latest integrated Humanities unit covered the Journey to Jamestown at the start of the 17th century. While the novel, Blood on the River, was a text introduced by English teacher, Frank Singer, Social Studies teacher, Kate Stoessel, ran with this historical novel to get students to examine the context and setting of that historic time period. Students were amazed that a fiction novel could be based on something so historic. At the end of the Humanities study of Jamestown, teachers asked students how they wanted to share their learning. The students responded in every class that they wanted to act, build, use fine arts, and write. From that discussion, “Journey to Jamestown: An Immersive Theater Experience” was born. Students were split into teams representing the different parts of the journey from England to North America. Focusing on the push-pull factors that led gentlemen and servants to leave England were the “Gentlemen’s House” and “Poor House” teams. Highlighting the experience on the journey were the “Tween Deck” and “Map” teams. Finally, analyzing life in the New World were the “Jamestown” and “Powhatan Kingdom” teams. Putting together this theater experience would have taken multiple classes across several weeks in a traditional schedule. As such, teachers would not have readily embraced the project for fear of too much “lost classroom time.” However, with the block schedule, teachers were able to let students bring their own ideas to fruition rather than imposing a different and perhaps less meaningful exercise. The 2.5 hour block of class time enabled the project to be completed in one week. When students are able to have a say and direct what they are doing, their learning becomes an unforgettable experience. Take a minute to watch 5th grade's recording of “Journey to Jamestown: An Immersive Theater Experience.” While it is not a polished theater piece, this authentic video certainly illustrates student learning and the incredible effort put into this project.
Block scheduling affords teachers the time to dive deeper and integrate their lessons across multiple subjects. The current block schedule pairs English and Social Studies while Science is paired with Math. 5th grade teachers hope to do more cross-curricular projects by the fourth quarter of the year so that all subjects can integrate with one another better. 5th grade teachers hope that their integrated approach to learning will reach all students in a meaningful way. Multiple pathways for learning empowers students to have a place to access learning regardless of their individual learning style.