How to Transition to Block Schedule


Did you just find out your usual lineup of short daily class periods just became your lineup of one or two looooong class periods each week? You're not alone! Schools all over the country are switching to a block schedule or intensive term classes to minimize interactions and task switching.

It's a big adjustment, I know, but I'm totally on board. Not only does it keep kids interacting with fewer classmates and teachers to help minimize the risk of COVID transfer, it allows them to dive more deeply into material and projects, and waste less time transitioning physically and mentally from thing to thing. Working in the same space on the same subject for a long chunk of time is also much more like the situations students will encounter in the working world beyond school (and that's a good thing to talk to them about!).



So let's start by talking about how a block schedule is different.

  • You'll have TIME to dig in. There will be far less flurried activity and transition, and far more opportunity to concentrate deeply on the goals of the day.


  • You'll probably need to focus in on the best parts of your units and/or the best units of your year. Usually in the transition to block schedule, some work and homework time is lost. You'll have more focused students, but you'll have them a bit less. It's worth it. It's OK to cut some material to make space for depth and engagement. 


  • You'll plan your periods in chunks, thinking about how to provide variety for your students and help them stay productive throughout a longer period of time. A key phrase here is "Mix and Match"! Reading and writing, discussion and project time, mini-lesson with workshop and blogging, etc. If your students are all in person, you may want to build in a five minute break for them to get up and stretch, go the bathroom, etc. between chunks. 
  • Routines are helpful. Maybe you always begin with a fun attendance question or other quick social-emotional learning activity, then move into an initial chunk, then a break and check-in, then a second chunk. Maybe you always start with ten minutes of reading or writing, then show a short video lesson, then move into a long work period, then end with a short activity that brings the class together and lets you say goodbye. Think about your priorities and how you can structure that long block to help you accomplish them. Consistent routines make it easier to plan your classes and easier for students to meet your expectations. 
I've taught block schedule at two different schools, in two different countries, and both times I found it to be a big improvement on the speedy schedule I first began working with, when my students rotated every fifty minutes to attend seven classes per day. 

So let's say you're going from five fifty minute periods a week to two ninety minute periods a week. At the same time, you're probably planning in a different way to accommodate blended or remote learning, so you're redesigning units to be more digitally-focused and project-based. 

Think about structuring what you want students to accomplish in sections of the class period, with some variety.

Let's look at some examples.

Imagine you're working on a podcasting unit. Your students are listening to podcasts, responding to podcasts, learning about podcasting forms, learning recording skills, scripting their own podcasts, and potentially doing research and interviews for their podcasts. You're going to want to keep the ninety minutes varied with a few of these different engaging tasks each day. 

Maybe with two fifty minute classes in a row, the first two classes of your unit might have looked like this:

9-9:30 Listen to a podcast episode together and fill in guided sketch notes about content and form

9:30-9:45 Podcast discussion with guiding questions on the board

9:45-9:50 Wrap up, final questions, share homework to brainstorm podcast show ideas

But in a 90 minute period, you're not going to want to just listen to two podcasts and discuss them. Not enough variety! So you mix and match more of what you'll be doing throughout the unit - some listening, some discussion, some group brainstorming, some independent work. 

You might consider something like this: 

9-9:10 Transition, Fun Attendance Questions, Reminders about how to turn in the homework electronically, explain what's coming and share needed links in an agenda or hyperdoc

9:10-9:35 Listen to an episode of "How I Built This" independently via QR codes and fill in guided sketchnotes with content and format takeaways

9:35-10 Meet in small Google breakout rooms, discuss podcast with three prompt questions, then write down and share three brainstorming ideas for your own podcast and get feedback 

10-10:25 Independent work - fill in podcast plan with general show description and three episode ideas, begin writing show introduction

10:25-10:30 Back together for final announcements, answering questions (via Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc. as needed)

This plan has three main chunks of activity - listening and writing/drawing, group brainstorming and conversation, and independent work. There's a nice variety and you're hitting on a lot of the overall pieces of the unit. It's not very teacher-centered (ideal if you're teaching kids at home and kids at school at the same time). At the same time, if you're required to see students face to face, you can pretty easily make sure everyone is with you via the opening and closing transition times. 

Let's look at some more examples of how you might use a long block. 

Let's imagine you're teaching Angie Thomas's novel, The Hate U Give. Students have read fifty pages of it since you last focused on it in class.

9-9:10 Welcome, transition, Attendance Questions (live check-in with everyone over Zoom or whatever platform you're using), explain what's coming and share needed links in an agenda or hyperdoc

9:10-9:25 Google Hangout/Zoom Discussion of the reading, with kids raising hands in their video feed so you can call on them to share their ideas. Everyone begins by jotting down a question so you can call on folks to ask a new question if conversation is running dry on the last one. 

9:25-10 Students watch a related Ted Talk via QR code, then design a takeaway slide in a collaborative conversation slide deck, then view others' takeaways. When they're done -> 

10-10:25 Shift gears into independent reading, blogging, genius hour, writing lesson series, or other complementary program to wrap up the day

10:25-10:30 Class gets back together for final questions, announcements, homework

Again, you'll see in this plan three significant chunks. A chance to talk about the reading, a chance to view something that adds to that reading and respond to it through writing/art, and then a chance to dive into some independent program work. 

Now, imagine you're in the midst of a poetry unit, and preparing for a virtual poetry slam.

9-9:10 Welcome, transition, Attendance Questions (live check-in with everyone over Zoom or whatever platform you're using), explain what's coming and share needed links in an agenda or hyperdoc

9:10-9:30 Students watch a playlist of performance poetry clips via hyperdoc links, scoring each one on a 1-10 scale as if they were at a poetry slam

9:30-9:50 Meet electronically as a group, go through the titles and poems and invite volunteers to share the scores they gave and explain what they did/did not like about the poems

9:50-10:25 Writing workshop - "I am From" Poems. Student listen to the audio of George Ella Lyon's poem, then use a provided workshop template to craft poems of their own (this poem will be one of several workshop pieces they can choose from later on as a performance piece) 

10:25-10:30 Class gets back together for final questions, announcements, homework

I think the big shift when it comes to this transition is not so much to think about "how can I entertain/engage kids for this long," but to think about "what exciting things can we really dive into now that we have so much more time together." Because kids have always been at school all day, doing schoolwork. They just usually have had to change gears constantly. I think you'll be surprised and pleased to discover that they like the block schedule, and prefer doing deeper work. And hopefully, so will you!





2 comments

  1. Love this post! Thank you Betsy!

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  2. I shared this in an email to all the teachers at my school. Thank you so much - this is so helpful!

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