When I started teaching in 1995 at an alternative high school in Chicago (a school that gave dropouts a second chance at a diploma), we were on a block schedule. I saw students every other day for about 90 minutes a class. I hated it.
As a new teacher then, I found it difficult to plan to engage students that long. And this is the era when we still had VCRs—I was still buying music on cassettes—so showing a video clip to add some variety or depth was complicated. I had to go to Blockbuster and pray they had the movie I needed. Back then, with an emerging World Wide Web, without YouTube, without TED Talks, teaching high-school students for 90 minutes every other day was hard. Add to all of this the fact that our students missed school A LOT—like 1-3 days a week—and a block schedule made teaching nearly impossible.
But a couple of years ago, I became a loud voice in favor of a block schedule. After a union-member vote where 52% of our staff voted in favor of a block schedule, my high school on Chicago’s Southwest side changed from eight 50-minute periods every day (I taught five of those periods every day) to a schedule where we only have 4 periods every day.
Each period is now 90 minutes. I love it, and students like it too.
According to the National Education Association, these are some benefits of block schedule:
• Students have more time for reflection and less information to process over the course of a school day.
• Research found students retain information longer.
• Teachers see fewer students during the day, giving them more time for individualized instruction.
A recent article in The Atlantic discussed how the demands of teacher schedules, with such a high percentage of our time in the classroom, contributes to teacher burnout. The traditional high-school schedule provides short non-teaching (“prep”) periods, each less than an hour, in which we’re trying to grade work, plan lessons and assessments, call families, meet with colleagues, and do everything else we have to do. A block schedule puts that time in larger chunks, making all that work less rushed and leaving time to reflect.
Our block schedule has evolved. This year we have two alternating days (A day and B day). On A days, I teach two 90-minute classes. I also have two 90-minute non-teaching periods where I can plan and grade and do “teacher stuff.”
B days are heavy. These days, I teach three 90-minute classes, with one 90-minute “prep” period (and a 45-minute lunch).
Some B days I have a department meeting during that non-teaching period. Other B days, I’m part of Academic Lab. Think of this as 21st century study hall, much more effective and meaningful than the study hall I was subjected to in the 1980s. I sat silently in a big room with lots of tables and lots of chairs. Three teachers stared at us to make sure we weren’t doing anything bad. We could do homework, daydream, or take naps. I usually just daydreamed. It was nice, but not the best way to spend time in school.
In contrast, Academic Lab means that I’m in my classroom for about 80 minutes (we have a time for attendance checks to prevent cutting), and students who need to see me can. It’s like office hours. Students make up work. They can get individualized guidance on assignments. They can do that evening’s homework. Or, if they’re caught up with everything, they can relax and socialize, play games, read, or listen to music. This definitely requires a shift in mindset.
I stay at work almost every day until 5:00 p.m. I’m still always behind in grading and other paperwork. But with this block schedule, my instruction is stronger. I’m able to engage students with content at a deeper level. I see the instructional thread in my teaching more clearly, and can help students understand it better as well. I have time to make the connections happen. With longer chunks of non-teaching time, I’m also able to develop lessons that include more variety. I predict and address students’ misunderstandings better. I follow the mantra: depth over breadth.
Interestingly, my students, all of whom are regular neighborhood kids, show up to school more often. If they are absent, I’m able to design instruction so it loops back to what we did last time but also propels students forward. The block schedule increases the amount of entry points for students to engage with content. Students tell me that biggest advantage is that they have two nights to do homework and work on their essays.
The block schedule isn’t perfect. My personal challenge this year is to get students out of their seats every class for a learning exercise. They can’t sit for 90 minutes. And I try to give them a brain break every class: two minutes to check their phones. After all, a shot of dopamine can lead to more attentive students. This is our 21st century reality.
But there is no way—simply no way—I could ever go back to teaching five 50-minute classes every day. Many of my colleagues, even beyond those who originally supported the shift, would agree.