mccoyderek

Why Does Algebra HAVE to be at 11:34?

Our current schedule is a 7 period day. We have been working hard to transition to a modified block. Our leadership team has been involved in a great deal of planning and communication to make sure that this transition is seamless to our organization and that our teachers are supported and prepared for change. I’ve been writing about this through a series on my blog.

Recently, I was performing my instructional rounds and visited our 8th Algebra class. As usual, it was a great lesson designed by a great teacher – rigorous problems, kids working together, and a silly theme [kids wearing boas is always good]. Lots of laughter, group work and smiles in the room. As I was circulating, I noticed a student slow to get started. I know this student so I asked him what was up, was he ok? To paraphrase, he was just feeling the day. Algebra is offered 4th period, exactly in the middle of our day and that day was simply a rough one for him. I could only imagine what his night was like and, I could only hope, that his morning was filled with mentally exhausting and mind blowing instructional activities. I left his group with an image of the four students around the table – 4 capable students, one needing a mental break to help him better prepare for a rigorous class.

We are a small middle school, our numbers fluctuate around 500. As such, we have one 8th grade Algebra class [though my goal is to do a better job identifying our more of our students who are capable of handling rigorous, well-planned and well delivered classwork]. The confines of a schedule dictate when classes are offered, sticking kids in a narrow box. More class offerings gives the school more options but it doesn’t equate to being responsive to a student’s needs. I think of the student from earlier – it would have made a significant difference if he could have been able to regroup and participate in his group work and assignments when he was ready and better prepared to give his quality work.

Flexibility Maximizes Student Outputimages

If you’ve read Clayton Christensen’s ‘Disrupting Class’, you can understand what I’m referring to when I say flexibility and options. The student in Algebra would benefit from a disruptive change. None of us would object to laying out multiple assignments for the day and serving as facilitators, not sage on stages, to ensure the work is getting done.

This is a timely topic with us being in the middle of developing next year’s schedule. We have a great staff at Spring Lake Middle but we haven’t had any discussions about this type of shift so this topic isn’t on the table – yet. I think its our responsibility as planners and developers to at least have a talk about this and what it could mean for kids. I think the potential outcomes would far outweigh the shift in comfort and familiarity we adults have.

‘Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.’ Rabindranath Tagore

Even though my visit to the Algebra class is what started this thought experiment, the potential benefits apply to all students at every level. A shift like this is a matter of training and holding high expectations. I fully acknowledge that maturity levels and self discipline varies significantly in middle school students and that it would also take time to build this successful program. But student success begins with setting high expectations, monitoring and improving on the successes our schools realize. Any successful educational program that does a good job serving kids takes time and planning to build.

Shift starts with vision and is made successful with commitment. And shift has to be responsive to the needs of the kids we serve.

Middle School Schedule [4]: Our Schedule

Our current schedule is a seven period day. It affords 50 minutes per class in all subjects. The way the seven period day has run here over the last couple of years is grade levels are given one common planning period in the morning by having the grade levels go to electives during  either 1st, 2nd or 3rd period. Grade level teachers are given a second planning after lunch. This second planning is not with the grade level though and is not guaranteed to be with the common subject teacher.

Picture3   Our schedule next year has a block framework. We divide our day into four 95 minutes blocks with additional time added to first and third block for homeroom and lunch respectively. The first picture shows the framework for the school schedule. One huge difference we make next year is that all four groups will go have common planning. This is grade levels and grade level subject areas. Maximizing our opportunities to plan and collaborate will make a huge difference in lesson and activity design. Our leadership team has started developing a planning tool that will facilitate and drive our planning efforts. This tool outlines essential elements of what a great lesson looks like.

   Mentioned above, our grade level teachers have common planning in the morning but not in the afternoon. This has significantly hampered creating middle school teams. This has been one intervention that I think we have sorely missed. Our students come from elementary schools where they may see 2 – 4 teachers a day and are now put in a mix where they see seven teachers daily. This is how students get lost. The middle school concept began as a means to support students during this adjustment period by utilizing teams as an intervention strategy.  Transitioning to this new schedule shows that a schedule can either create or hinder intervention opportunities for students.    

Benefits of ‘The Block’

  Our new schedule has a block framework and creates some great opportunities:

  • By combining reading and language arts classes into a new ELA class we can teach a more holistic, integrated curriculum and the 95 minutes give us more time to play;11
  • We are able to increase math time to 95 minutes;
  • Changing to this format gives science and social studies classes the option to either continue teaching in 50 minute classes [daily] or alternate in a block rotation of their choice. Teachers have the autonomy to adjust the schedule to suit their needs based on what is being taught. Ex. They can teach all six classes in a day or do an A/B rotation by day or week however they see fit. Its important to note here that our Electives teachers, particularly our performing groups, want/need to meet with students daily. With this schedule, that is not a problem

We have constant talks with our teachers about changing our teaching practices – to decrease teaching and increase facilitation. This is especially needed as we move forward with this shift.

Mission POSSIBLE: Our iPad Planning Team

The Mission: Recruit several highly trained and motivated professionals for a secret iPad mission [not really top secret, in fact no secret at all]

The Team: 2 Instructional Coaches, 2 first year Science and Social Studies teachers and an veteran math teacher.

The Objective: To search and gather iPad apps and resources and plan for training delivery to our staff

Our instructional leadership team came up with this great brainstorm. With our newly acquired iPad Project Carts, we wanted to give the teachers good support in coming up with and implementing project based/cooperative activities with our new technology. Our project carts were designed for collaborative experiences, requiring students to work in pairs or small groups. The members of this team all have prior, deep experience with iPads either personal use or professionally. We’ve had talks and presentations on good collaborative work. Its our goal that these resources will help change what goes on in the classroom.

I truly regret not being able to participate in this planning. The teachers did a great job and we have some great outcomes:

  • Resourcing: The teachers searched the internet, combed apps and any resources that I have shared with them [check out the resource on the whiteboard] to find apps to begin framing projects for teachers to begin using in their classrooms. 
  • Integration: The iPad team made sure that all the work done, all the apps and programs found are not blocked and cost free. A major consideration and planning point they drew on was to plan for use of the apps and resources with Edmodo! We are an Edmodo district – ensuring that there is seemless integration will help tremendously with our teaching efforts.

The operatives selected for this mission proved to be valuable assets. We have realized two important mission parameters for all future missions and future teams:

    1. snackCollaboration is key! 6 great minds working on a singular vision is much better than 2
    2. Keeping operatives well fed [and on a sugar high] helps and is a prerequisite of mission success!

A Great Lesson

 These are pictures and notes I’ve taken from an observation with a new teacher, Mr. Caquias. Caquias is an 8th grade Social Studies/Science teacher. I visited him while he was teaching a lesson on properties. He has been an active co-planner with an 8th grade Science teacher who is impactful with students and instructional planning and delivery.

 There are several things that stand out about this lesson, things that get me excited about seeing a teacher enter the teaching field:

  1. The great noise – Students were up, active, talking on task and about the assignment.
  2. Real Life Connection – Students had to discuss properties of different objects and one of the objects is an automatic air freshner!
  3. BYOD[ish] – Our school has several computer labs, and multiple laptop carts. This year we have also purchased iPad Project carts. But for this lesson, simply allowing any student that had a smartphone, or their own tablet, that’s internet ready to conduct research, not only got the job done but was a best practice as well. At the core, this activity was designed for discussion and that’s what happened. For tech integration, we don’t always need a computer lab or a cart.
  4. Evidence of planning – If you want great learning, maximize your collaboration efforts with teachers. This lesson was about the teacher getting out of the way of the kids and their learning. The activities in the room aligned with the learning learning artifacts in the room, including the vocabulary wall and EQ.

I captured this video on my phone, it wasn’t planned but I had to make sure I recorded the engagement and focus on this lesson.

Great lesson! This is how we get our kids ready, not just for a standardized science test at the end of the year, but also for critical analysis, collaborative work – skills beyond this 8th grade experience

What’s Best for Kids..,

     We’ve recently had our first principal’s meeting with our new superintendent, Dr. Dale Ellis. We heard a lot of great things about outlining our future efforts in reaching and teaching kids. As he talked about making a difference and the importance of good decision making, he spent a great deal of time speaking on ‘what’s best for kids is often not the easiest thing for teachers.’ This really captured some of great conversations I’ve recently had with veteran and new teachers.


     Bell to Bell Convenience [not so much] – Our efforts to design quality lessons for student learning won’t always be done between the opening and closing bells. Planning a quality unit, lesson or assessment won’t look the same every time and it can’t be a systematic or formulaic process. It will and should be different each and every time we sit down because we should be expecting different outcomes. Inspired planning isn’t on a schedule.

    Working out of your zone! – If we are truly designing learning for our students, we should see a significant shift of work from our end to the students’ end. ‘Parking lot planning’ is desperate and last minute – when we aren’t prepared we resort to it. It looks like generic work sheets and reflects the lowest of expectations, for our students and ourselves. We won’t prepare students for their world if we aren’t moving away from the safe and easy plans. It takes inspiration to start the race and determination to stay in it.


     We owe it to students to do more for their learning. Here are two things that will make a big difference.


     Big Picture Planning – We are a Learning Focused school district. There are several planning options from  designed to accelerate and/or support learning on all levels. Student Learning Maps are used outline the key learning concepts, organize them and provide a clear picture of what we want students to know at the end of the unit. Essential questions and Vocabulary are critical to this process. Identifying them won’t happen in the parking lot.

    PLN / PLC – Another killer to student learning and achievement has been solo planning. Don’t get me wrong, individually we can come up with some good, creative activities for students. But imagine how much more impactful our learning efforts can be if increase value added support from our colleagues.  Seeking out input from others could make the difference from having a teacher-centered lesson to a student centered one; a fact-finding reading assignment to an activity that requires analysis and evaluation.


     We signed up to become teachers to make a difference and be a difference for students.  We owe it to them to be the best educators we can, that will mean moving out of our comfort zone and gathering as much support as we can from each other.