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Friday, August 12, 2011

Why Block Rocks

I think all educators can agree: Parents will find most anything to complain about. My daughter is entering Pre-K this year, so in about two weeks I'm sure I'll understand their perspective too. But, for right now, I can't help thinking a large percentage of parent whining is silly and useless. We are all trying to do what seems like the best idea at the time for keeping our children publicly educated. Sometimes it works out; other times it doesn't. If you don't like what's happening, chances are we don't either. I'm not saying don't try to change what you don't like, but don't blame the teachers or even the administrators. We really are doing our best.

The particular beef for parents of students at our school right now is block schedule. We recently moved to a full block schedule from a ridiculous - no, scratch that and make it completely idiotic - modified block schedule. Last year, students went to seven 50-minute classes a day for three days out of the week, and four 90-minute blocks of those classes for two days out of the week. Of course, they only had seven classes total, so that left them with one period a week of "nothing" time, which went about like you'd expect. It also left teachers without a planning period one day out of the week. I thought I was just too green to handle what was going on, but at the end of the year I heard a veteran teacher I greatly respect admit that it was the worst year she'd ever had because of the schedule.

This year's schedule is like an oasis of rainbows and fluffy puppies in comparison. Students attend four classes a day. Each one is 90 minutes long and lasts one semester. They have the opportunity to earn eight credits in an academic year instead of seven. All teachers have 90 minutes of planning time per day. Instead of having 160-180 total students on our rosters at once, we have no more than about 90.

As a military kid, I myself attended three high schools. Two of them had six period days, the final one had a block schedule like the one we have now. I can say with absolute certainty that I learned more on a block schedule. On the other schedules, just when I felt like my brain was finally warming up to the content that was being thrown at me, it was time to switch modes again. How can we force kids to jump between SEVEN subjects in a span of eight hours, with all their social concerns thrown in between, and then expect them to actually retain any information they encounter?

Yes, there are some problems with a block schedule, but they pertain mostly to poor teaching technique. Some teachers complain about having to teach for 90 minutes at a time. Some claim you "can't" teach their subject on block (namely, math). Some are lecture-oriented, so they bore their kids for an hour and a half at a time. Some point to discipline issues.

But I took math on block, and it was the first time the coursework didn't fill me with an all-consuming hatred for arithmetic. I had time to become steeped in it like never before, and found that I actually kinda liked it. I wasn't half bad at it, either, like I'd been led to believe I was all my life. I find that if I keep working to be a better teacher and don't rely on the same lesson plans year after year, I can avoid lecturing more and more. Every time I throw my old lesson plans away and start over, I see a more student-driven classroom emerge. It's a lot of work, but with the increased planning time we can all adjust the way we teach as long as we're open to improvement. As for discipline issues, longer class periods and a lighter load of total students means more opportunity to get to know them. Students I get to know - really get to know - don't give me trouble with behavior. They're the ones who keep in touch with me long after they graduate and tell me about their lives.

If someone can come up with a legitimate reason for disliking block that I can't quickly debunk with a quick application of some light logic, I'll consider alternatives. So far, non-block's only champion seems to be laziness.

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