Scheduling Choices: A Basic Framework for Your Schedule

A few years ago, I was tasked with finding a method with which we could easily create a middle school, and school-wide schedule.  Each year it felt like we were reinventing the wheel.  If a template could be found it might make the year-to-year slotting less stressful.  Although there was a lot on philosophy–especially around block classes and integration within the middle school–it was surprising how few resources were available when it came to the nuts and bolts of laying out a workable schedule.

Traveling from site to site, some lessons did bubble up.  Here are my suggestions for a pre-K through 8 school, but it would apply to any self-contained middle school program or a school with diverse needs that share resources.

Recognize that everyone has different needs, but a win-win is possible.  People talk about the need for compromise.  I disagree.  There are some non-negotiable items for a program to run effectively–and if it’s not running effectively, why have it?  If those needs are made plain, it is always possible that everyone gets them met.  The trick, then, is for people to identify what they need for students to learn and get away from a) old ideas of how that happens and b) the idea that everything is essential.

Why don’t people see them?  Because most of our needs are taken as a given.  Much of our current practice has evolved over time (there is plenty written about the glacial pace of change in education, which is then compared, unflatteringly, to the business world, which is change, change, change).  The PE teacher, for example, assumes access to the gym.  But there are less obvious assumptions made all of the time.

The counter to this is that people, probably long ago, fit their needs to the old system.  Why is math sixty minutes?  Because it was ten years ago when the math teacher was hired and put the program together.  This stuck-in-the-mud rationale is pretty familiar.  The challenge, then, is to identify those underlying needs.  I know of one school that would not have PE move to eighty minute blocks because, the teachers believed, kids could not sustain activity for more than thirty minutes.  The focus then became creating healthy, active students with stamina.  For that math teacher, can students focus on math for longer than an hour?  No?  Perhaps.  But is that because of the delivery (lecture), or are brains unable to focus on problem solving for a set period of time before needing a break.  Both have different solutions, but are solvable.

See the week.  A schedule is not a day, but a school week.  While people may not get what they need on Monday, or daily, they should be able to get it at some point in the week. I would encourage people to think longer than that, too.  Inspired by J-Term at many colleges, where students do an intensive month-long immersion in a topic, I have tried coaxing my colleagues to host a week-long version each quarter.  Imagine a solid day of writing, every day for a week.  Or art, science, math or PE!  It would be transformative for those students who see only the drudge of the subject day-in and day-out.  So, if you’re feeling outrageous, think about trimesters or being untethered for some things.

Start with blocks.  To that end, let’s assume you have a six hour day.  Divide that into four 90 minute blocks.  Then, divide each block into two 45 minute blocks.  You now how 8 units to work with.

Note: In a pre-K through 8 school, 9 units might work better; one for each grade level.  In that case, divide the six hour day into three 120 minute blocks.  Divide each block into three 40 minute blocks.  You now have 9 units to work with, forty minutes each. Now you will create a list.

Which classes require a full block, and which require half?  A PE teacher from another school once told me her students could not sustain the class for longer than 45 minutes because of focus–they got hyper and it became dangerous, especially with the firth graders.  On the other hand, Social Science teachers tend to prefer blocks because they can mix in a lesson, a video, an activity, some reading and some writing over than time. By creating 120 minute blocks, you have the option of dividing them into halves instead of thirds, or creating hour-long units.  Many math teachers do not like classes longer than an hour, but don’t want only 40 minutes.

What, then, are the limits of everyone at the table? Then, who compliments whom?  Can they go back-to-back? Sometimes, this is impossible.  But I know of one school that is primarily multi-age put Math, which is grade level based, against World Language, also grade level based.  It wasn’t perfect, but it worked better than locking Langauge Arts in by grade level against a teacher’s will.  Our school divided the Unified Arts (UA) classes into those who took Band and those who did not–the split was 50:50.  Unfortunately, those who did not take Band were a bit more unruly as a group and they terrorized the UA a bit.

Note people’s comfort with consistency.  Many grade levels wanted predictable breaks—lunch at this time, and prep at another.  Some felt kids learned certain subjects best in the morning, while PE was not recommended for Kindergarteners at the end of the day. Others, though, liked every day to be different.  One year our Tuesday morning began with three UA blocks in a row.  After making it through Monday, I had that morning to photocopy, correct and get ready for the week.  It felt like a deep breath.  These folks are your hole plugs.  That odd time where the gym is open on Thursday morning, or Music has three slots on Thursday can be filled with these flexible folks.  Be sure, though, to ask them what THEY need in return.

But that might drive folks nuts.  Some people love it to be the same every day.  For students, consistency is calming, and there is nothing more important than to decrease stress.  For teachers, too.  Lead participants towards their comfort level.

Reward flexibility.  Some people has too many demands.  Others have one, and a good reason.  Work with those who are reasonable.  I call them the “coalition of the willing” and they can be an administrator’s best resource.  Solution people should always get the resources.  Soon, the others will crawl into a hole or join.  Only so many people can fit into that hole, and everyone in the sun will quickly leave them there until the administration is well justified in getting them out.

It’s a process.  Some people seem disappointed when the committee has to reconvene.  They expect a few tweaks, perhaps, but the idea of someone coming back to the table with real bones to pick is often a surprise.  That group, often with legitimate concerns, or at least fears that need to be assuaged, needs to e respected for any schedule to have power and longevity.

Expect outright rejection.  The best plans result in flaws being spotted early.  With rejection, the participants have made clear they take the process seriously.  Better now than in October. Your job is to manage emotions, because going back hurts.  Those who got what they want are going to be loath to change a thing.  And they have the power of inirtia on their side.  Help people see that it is a process, and be ready to scrap everything if that’s what it takes.

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