Toni M. Poling, NBCT
On the fifth day of school, as the bell chimed to signal the end of my last class of the day, a student looked at me from the back of the room with a surprised look on her face.
“Is this class shorter than other classes?” she asked. Her confusion was understandable since the beginning of the year seems to be a series of days on wonky schedules while we struggle to establish routines and provide stability.
“No,” I replied. “They were all their normal equal time today.”
“Then why,“ she inquired, “does this class feel so short?!”
I could tell she was honestly curious and did not understand why 6thperiod AP English Lit seems to fly by every day and the bells always seems to catch us by surprise. Truthfully, the question was a valid one.
I replied as honestly and simply as I could. “I think it’s because of the way I have our class schedule set up with our multiple transition times built in. We stay busy from bell-to-bell, but we’ve focused on several different activities.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well…good job!”
It’s always nice to have the support of my students when it comes to my instructional practices!
My first two years in the classroom were spent in schools on a traditional four-by-four block schedule with 90-minute classes. I know some people thrive in that environment, but I hated it. As a new teacher I felt overwhelmed by the amount of planning and the responsibility to cram a year’s instruction into 90 days. Those first two years I was in survival mode and I was barely keeping ahead of the students. During my second year, I changed districts and I was provided the opportunity to attend professional development for teaching in a block. Given where I was in my career, I’m not sure I was in the right place to take in what I’m certain were sound pedagogical strategies for teaching students in a block. That’s not to say that I came away with nothing (one should never leave quality professional development with nothing!); my big takeaway was the importance of building in transitions to an instructional period, regardless of its time frame.
At the end of my second year of teaching, I said goodbye to my second school district (and block scheduling) and moved to my current school, operating on a traditional seven-period day. I’ve never looked back! Our current schedule does have its challenges: fewer instructional minutes per day (although more over the course of the school year), more class changes, short pass times between classes, more preps, and more students, to name a few, but nothing that cannot be overcome with good planning.
I have my students for 54 minutes a day. That’s it. In less than one hour per day I am expected to form a connection, teach my curriculum, reinforce my core values about teaching and learning, and meet all of their individual needs. Piece. Of. Cake. What I’ve found through my almost 20 years in the classroom is that building transitions into my class by employing a variety of related instructional activities can help to keep the students focused, on task, and (as a bonus) can make the class period fly by!
Here is how I structure my 54 minutes:
Bellringer:Daily Grammar Practice: 4 minutes. This is grammar practice to enhance their writing and their understanding of the grammatical moves that writers make. DGP (as we have taken to calling it) is a program created by Dawn Burnette. I attended a session with Dawn Burnette at a High Schools That Work conference several years ago. I had noticed that my students were struggling with writing partly because we didn’t have a shared vocabulary to discuss the moves that writers make. DGP has helped to create that and I have seen immense growth in my students’ writing!
Independent Reading: 10 minutes. This is a self-selected work in addition to whatever whole class reading we are doing. This is an enjoyable time of the day for both me and my students. Though some may seem a little resistant at first, by the end of the first week they remind me if I accidentally try to skip it! The key to successful independent reading time, in my experience, is that I read with the students. I model the type of reader I want my students to be.
Writers’ Notebooks: 10 minutes. We write in our notebooks at least two times per week. The prompts connect in some way to the work we are reading as a class and offer a real-world connection. This is a place for students to flex their writing muscles in a low-stakes arena where they are encouraged to take risks and express themselves in new ways.
Mini-lesson/Passage Study/Draft: 25 minutes. This is an opportunity to introduce a new concept OR select a passage from a lengthier work and really practice breaking down the text OR to draft a response to an essential question/reflect on the meaning of a work as a whole.
Final Reflection: 3 minutes. Answer outstanding questions, help make connections, quell concerns.
Share Out: 2 minutes. Students share their takeaways from the class period. I ask them to share the favorite thing they read, heard, wrote, or said during that day’s class period.
I cannot say that I am able to keep perfectly to this schedule every day, but I use a timer to keep us on track and stick as closely as possible to our time frame. The quick, set transitions increase student engagement and each transition always builds on to the next in an organic manner and the flow of the class keeps everyone moving.
WVCTE wonders how you structure your class period to maximize your instructional minutes and keep your students engaged and learning?