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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 [5]: Intervention and Operations

intervention   The transition next year is about  bettering how we teach and how students learn, those are first and foremost. Our discussions in SIT and leadership focus on how this move will significantly affect those areas and change what we do.

One opportunity created from this move is our ability to manipulate our schedule  and create a small period of time wherein we determine how it will be used, when it will be used and how regularly we will use it. I’m breaking down the benefits of this time into two functionalities – its opportunity for intervention and how it benefits school operations. Both of these are critical in how we protect and promote better practices in teaching and learning.

‘The How’s’

Our schedule will essentially be four blocks of 95 minutes with slight adjustments for added time homeroom and lunch to two blocks. By taking 10 minutes from each block and chunking that time we create a 40 minute opportunity. This flex period, with design and planning, will address student needs on multiple levels. Keep in mind, even when this flex period in place for the day, there is still 85 minutes of instruction for each block. The flex period, that we will call Bronco Time at Spring Lake Middle, can be inserted before or after any period. The school scheduler will need to be mindful of the changes to minutes and schedule because this will affect the lunch period, transition times and any other functions specific to a school that are set in the day.

Intervention

A big part of middle school concept is to design and structure support systems for kids in this transitional time. Middle school educators know that all students need support academically [either remediation or enrichment], socially [mentoring, group discussions]. Design and planning will help address these needs. Typically, this time is scheduled at the beginning of the day to reach kids while they are fresh are receptive.

Academic – Its important to know where our students are in terms of knowledge gaps and concept mastery. This is why schools use a variety of data points, both formative and summative, in their planning efforts. Using your schools’ data, you can create groups that focus on different objectives. The challenge here is to think beyond the traditional. We typically think in terms of who has reached a certain cut off in tested subjects and design lessons or activities that are either remedial, covering objectives students didn’t score well in or give some kids the opportunity to preview some new material. This support is important but we cannot limit our efforts to only this course of response. As a math teacher to my heart, I know this reaction well. This is a time for us to develop some creative lessons and activities that we normally wouldn’t dream of during school year [which we should be doing] and challenge all kids.

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Social – All kids need mentoring. This is their time to learn about themselves, dealing with people and problems and life and they need guidance. It is our duty to put a plan in place that will help kids. The students at Spring Lake Middle are great kids and many come serious needs that can easily be overlooked in the day. Our Bronco Time will be a strategy to provide regular talk and share time for our students. When the middle school concept began, there was major effort creating and maintaining an ‘advisory time’ for adults to connect with a group of students. Some middle schools have shifted from this practice. Speaking honestly, I have not given this the priority in my schools that it deserves. Protecting this times and planning the year out ahead of time will go a long way in minimizing internal school conflicts and helping kids know better ways to deal with problems.

While there is value in meeting regularly, using this intervention time will not be daily or even weekly for Spring Lake Middle. Strategic planning and implementation doesn’t mean we have meet every day or every week. It means we have to plan for our desired outcome, design instructional activities and implement them effectively.  Individual school needs will warrant different balances between the two intervention tactics. Be willing and ready to differentiate.

Operations

   This flex period can be held between any blocks of the day, including before and after the 1st and last blocks. Thinking of this period of time as a moving piece that can be placed strategically at any point of the day helps us in planning events. These include pep rallies, guest speakers and other special school events. It helps me protect the school schedule by making sure that we are planning school events that don’t significantly impede our school schedule. This is an important piece in our duty to protect the schedule – making sure that we are maximizing instructional time. Having a plan for these times beforehand is important. The above schedule outlines two of the more common uses for the flex period at my previous school. It will be worthwhile to develop a schedule for other possibilities and share all them with the staff at the beginning of the year. The staff needs to know what’s expected and how the day will look like. Making decisions on a whim is how we harm teaching and learning.

The flex period, our Bronco Time, will play a big role in reaching kids. I’ve seen it make a difference in a high school. We thought of that time as the opportunity to tutor kids who normally couldn’t attend after school. Expanding our thinking here to meet not just the academic but the social/emotional needs of our kids is how we are going to make a huge difference.

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.

Middle School Schedule [3]: Support

   We have school leadership meetings twice a month in my current school district, Cumberland County Schools. The topic of one of our middle school principal break out sessions centered around our thoughts, vision and plans for our school schedules for next year.

   This was a great meeting. It’s obvious that there has been a great deal of conversation in these schools regarding preferences, school needs, beliefs and philosophies. Principals talked about plans to implement a 7 period schedule, 8 period, and A/B rotations of various types. There was a lot of conversation and plans for support on all.

Differentiated Support

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This was a great talk. One of my take-aways from this meeting was the obvious level of support from our district leaders. Our meeting was attended by our Executive Director of Secondary Curriculum, a Director of School Support, an Assistant Superintendent and the Superintendent.

   The discussion generated a lot of conversation: pros & cons, ‘how would I implement this at my school?’, different school needs dictating different configurations. At no point were we told we all had to agree on one schedule configuration. Our only mandate was to ensure that high levels of instruction were maintained across the district and that transferring students within our district could move and not be hampered by different schedules in different schools.

I really appreciate this supportive outlook and approach. My school has different needs from other schools. Providing us the flexibility to make best decisions [as we see fit] supports principals and schools, but more importantly helps us implement a differentiated structure tailored specifically for our students needs.

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.