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.

Spanish Quiz Bowl 2013 – QSM

Quien Sabe Mas! 20130312_125223

Saturday March 9th was a great day at Spring Lake Middle School!

We had the distinct pleasure of hosting the Spanish Quiz Bowl for all middle schools in Cumberland County! This was a first for me! This was a cultural celebration as well as an academic competition. This event was organized by county level personnel but we enthusiastically agreed to serve as the host site. All middle schools from around the district are asked to form teams and begin training students for the Quiz Bowl. During the competition, students are asked trivia questions in Spanish and have to respond in Spanish. Teams from different schools are invited participate in contests all morning. This is a big, spectacular event that everyone involved got something out of.

Below are pictures from some of the displays schools set up at the entrance way of the school:

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The size of the event, the number of participants and teams was awe inspiring! With teams ranging from 5 – 10 students, we had 12 schools in participation along with coaches parents and school system employees. The following pictures are of our culminating event in the afternoon and the large group lunch.

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The afternoon event included musical performances from county personnel and students. A guest speaker from Fayetteville State University, a lecturer from the World Languages Department, gave a great speech on the value of learning a second language. Students who learn second languages do better in school, better on standardized tests, have a higher graduation rate than students who don’t learn a second language and have a higher probability of gainful employment. Great speech to a great group!

The winner of  the day’s competition was the team from Mac Williams Middle School. The team had a great showing. I took a picture with the principal from MWMS [picture below], Steve Morris @smor1955. Steve spoke highly of his team’s coach and described him as a motivator and great educator.

I’m extremely proud of our team! Last year the Broncos didn’t do very well in the competition. This year with new coaches and a new focus they finished 2nd in our division. Our kids were nervous and anxious and did not disappoint! They did us proud.

Its events like this that keep us in education!

One word for this day – awesome!!

Middle School Schedule [6]: Book Review ‘Making Teamwork Meaningful’

‘If teams of teachers are going to accomplish anything of substance, they need regularly scheduled opportunities during the school day to collaborate. In addition, if a school truly want to provide differentiated learning experiences for students – the teachers need regularly scheduled opportunities during the school day to provide targeted interventions.’ Ferriter, Graham, Wight, 2013

   Fortunate circumstances or divine intervention led my friend Bill Ferriter, @plugusin, to share his latest collaborative venture with me. I feel honored that he thought enough to share this great book. Bill is an authority on PLCs and building collaborative, goal oriented cultures in our schools. You’ve probably seen a couple of his works on the Solution-Tree catalog.

   Making Teamwork Meaningful is a great piece that dives into looking at all the systems and processes in a school that affect how students learn and teachers teach and a big part of that is how we promote and protect collaboration. This includes taking a look at our hiring process, developing intervention efforts and of course increasing our efficacy in collaboration and as the book points out, the school schedule is a critical starting point. This is a piece that all school leaders have to key into if we are going to make student learning a priority.

   Related to my series on middle school scheduling, there are some takeaways I thought that really resonate:

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  • Teachers can’t be effective in ineffective structures
  • Outlining priorities and planning methods to protect them
  • The master schedule should support collaboration
  • School leaders have to create and protect opportunities for teachers to collaborate
  • School leaders should  consider how reflection and a commitment to flexibility will play a role in the schedule

   In addition these great points the book provides four key questions in guiding the building of the school schedule:

  1. What are our organization priorities, and who should help protect them?
  2. Who needs opportunities to collaborate to advance priorities, and how will we create time during the school day for that collaboration?
  3. What role will reflection and a commitment to flexibility to play?
  4. How can we be creative with positions and time to free teachers for intervention?

 I received this book well into our planning efforts for next year’s schedule but this was a timely read. Of course there are more aspects to this book developing a school scheduleIf you’re a school leader that’s involved in the decision making process including school improvement planning, building the schedule or designing interventions this is a must read. There are great points on every level for every level.

Middle School Schedule [2]: Block = Flexibility

Our current schedule is a 7 period schedule. We take our instructional day and divide it into 7 equal blocks of time allotting additional time during lunch as well as consistent transition time between classes.

 Next year, we will be moving to a modified block schedule.

images (1)   There are several options and models of the block schedule. High school educators, and most people who have recently graduated from high school, will know the 4 x 4 or the A / B block schedule. They are both creative ways to maximize classroom/instructional time by giving students four classes a day, eight for the year.

   Our current 7 period day has been in place for a while. Even though the schedule has changed since the school was built [this is not the original schedule of the school] this schedule is very much a junior high schedule. Right now, our teachers don’t all have common planning with their subject or grade level counterparts. This is a necessity for the middle school concept. Common planning is not only for time for instructional design, it allows for more creative ways to provide interventions for students. Common planning time for teams and subjects has been a staple for years at the middle school level – this was before Common Core was a thought. Our shift to this will enable some great collaborative opportunities for our teachers.

   Common planning will make a huge difference. But the biggest benefit to this block transition will be the flexibility our school will have in serving our students. Increasing common planning means teachers can schedule regular time, either on team or grade level, to discuss student, group or grade level concerns that need special attention. The options here are only as limited as our imaginations.

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   One opportunity I’ve seen success with is taking a chunk of time from all 4 blocks and placing it either at the beginning of the day or the end and using it for special functions. At the beginning of the day, we can get creative with remediation/acceleration efforts, clubs or mentoring opportunities. At the end of the day, we can use it for concerts, assemblies, pep rallies or other functions. In either situation, we are still maintaining significant time in the classroom and benefiting from special time given to instruction or operations. At one of my last schools, we had a tough time getting kids to stay after school for tutoring. We used that special block of time in the morning for additional instructional time. We had to create a different mindset for teachers – treat this additional time like you would for students staying after school. This time made a huge difference with learning and planning.

   This flexibility isn’t available with our current 7 period schedule. Part of my job as the leader in my school is to create options, different opportunites for us to support students. This will be a huge difference maker for us in the upcoming school year.