Block Scheduling

Does your school use block scheduling? Some years back, and I’m sure someone who remembers the particulars can fill us in with a comment, lots of schools jumped on the block scheduling bandwagon. Block scheduling would allow students to take, in most cases, eight classes a year. This would accomplish several things — first, students would be able to work for longer stretches without interruptions, which would help them get more done; second, students who failed would have more wiggle room in their schedules to re-take classes; and finally, it would serve to make the day less hectic.

I currently teach a modified block schedule. Each of my classes meets for 45 minutes three days a week. One day a week, each class has a double-block of 90 minutes. There is also one day off for each class. It took me a while to learn my schedule; it’s a bit complicated. I’m used to it now, and I have figured out how to make it work, but I won’t pretend it wasn’t an adjustment. Students, on the other hand, take a total of eight classes (one of which is either Study Hall or Spanish) each year except senior year when their schedules are often very light. On any given day, they will attend six classes, two of which will be 90 minutes long.

My daughter goes to a school that runs on an A/B block. She has four classes each day, but they alternate. On A day, she takes Science, Orchestra, Social Studies, and a Focus class (organization, skills, minimester-type classes, such as Southern Music). On B day, she takes Math, Language Arts, Reading, and a Connections class that changes each nine weeks (this past nine weeks it was Spanish).

My first year teaching, I taught a 4X4 block schedule, which meant students took four classes each day, but each was 90 minutes long. Two semesters were covered in one semester. I didn’t find it worked that well with English, frankly, and in order to keep my disadvantaged, low-level, non-reading students interested in English for 90 minutes, I most often wound up teaching a lesson and giving them an assignment based on the lesson. They almost never had homework, and if they did, it wasn’t done.

It looks like some schools may be moving away from block schedules. The Washington Post reports that schools in Ann Arundel may drop an A/B block schedule due to teacher complaints of a heavy workload. Rather than teaching five classes and planning for one period, teachers were teaching six classes and planning for two periods over two days. The increased workload of one class did not outweigh the “extra” planning period, teachers found. The extra class typically expanded the average teacher’s number of students from 150 to 180.

When I taught a 4×4 block, I taught three classes and had a 90 minute planning period. I also had about 90-100 studens. This was really nice. But I can see how it would not work the same with an A/B schedule. At my current school, the normal workload for a teacher is five classes, and not six as in Ann Arundel schools. Because I am also the coordinator for a new track in the 10th grade, I actually teach four classes. We also sub for each other whenever one of us is out, so some of my blocks are designated sub periods. Some days of my week are very hard — Mondays, for example, I teach three single blocks and one double block; all four of my classes meet. On Tuesdays, my lightest day, I teach one single block and one double block. While I teach two doubles and a single on Wednesday, it doesn’t seem as hectic as Monday, because I don’t meet with all my students. Thursdays are heavy meeting days for me, aside from the three single blocks I teach. I teach all four classes in a single block on Fridays. I also have a small number of students. I currently teach about 65 students in four classes — my largest class has 20 students.

Class size and the number of blocks make a huge difference. I don’t know how I could do an adequate job teaching writing without enough time to grade all the student essays. As a matter of fact, I feel like it takes me forever to grade a set of essays as it is. I can’t imagine having to grade 180 essays each time. It makes my head spin.

Ann Arundel has a serious problem on its hands. The block schedule was cited as the number one reason for leaving on surveys taken by teachers leaving the system. To solve the problem, Ann Arundel is looking at the 4X4 block. I think they will find that while it will lighten the workload, the 4X4 schedule is not without problems. The article cites issues with AP and IB classes. I don’t know enough about IB to comment, but I know that AP tests typically take the school year for which to prepare. It is problematic to contain these classes in one semester — if students take them first semester, too much time elapses between the end of the semester and May, when the tests are taken. Electives, especially ongoing classes like Band, Chorus, and Orchestra, will find it difficult — students will have scheduling issues. We didn’t have that problem at the school where I taught 4X4 because we didn’t have those classes available to students. The schedule also allows for gaps in learning. A student can take Algebra I first semester of freshman year, for instance, and possibly not take math again until second semester sophomore year.

You can read some research in block scheduling from EducationNews.org.

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Dream Bloggers

Who would you like to see start blogging?

I would love to see Jim Burke and Carol Jago start blogging. Both have contributed so much interesting dialogue to the field of English Education that I can’t see how they can fail to be excellent bloggers. Of course, there is that sticky problem of how much time they already devote to their careers…

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College Writing and Literacy

One of my side interests is genealogy, and several months ago I visited my grandfather’s cousin to see some old pictures and discuss family history. Her husband is a professor at Mercer University, and it is my understanding that he works with teachers in training quite often, though he is a professor Religion and Philosophy. He asked me if I had noticed a decline in the writing ability of my students during my tenure as a teacher. I nodded, understanding his meaning, but I need to explain… I have been teaching nearly eight years, and I feel that my students do not write as well as my own peers did when I was in school; however, I don’t feel I have been teaching long enough to see a long-term trend of decline. Indeed, my first year teaching was at a poor rural school in Middle Georgia, and my students’ writing skills were nearly nonexistent. My current private school students are much more advanced than my previous public school students, but I still see some rather startling issues in their writing. Duane, my “cousin,” explained that his college students did not write as well now as his students have in the past. We had a very interesting discussion.

Today, I came across Friday’s New York Times article about declining literacy levels in today’s college graduates. I believe firmly that reading and writing go hand in hand, and the more a person reads, the better he or she will write. It is a matter of being exposed to writing models much more often. For example, last year, two of my students moved up from the lower track to the middle track. They also just happened to be the two students who read the most on their own. Less able writers who do not read do little to expose themselves to effective models for writing.

What I find alarming about the article is that “[t]hree percent of college graduates who took the test in 2003, representing some 800,000 Americans, demonstrated ‘below basic’ literacy, meaning that they could not perform more than the simplest skills, like locating easily identifiable information in short prose.”

OK, I’ll ask the question. How is it that these people became college graduates if they cannot perform basic reading skills? I find that frightening. It tells me that a college degree today must be worth less than a college degree awarded, say, in my own parents’ generation — the late 1960′s.

The usual culprits — television and the Internet — were blamed for the decline in literacy. In fact, many of you are probably aware that the works of Shakespeare will be available in text message form, ostensibly to be a good study resource. I fail to see how that can possibly be true, but that’s beside the point. The fact is, we’re living with a generation who routinely inject chat speak in their essays and spell “ludicrous” like the rapper “Ludacris.” As teachers, we have to do something to get students to read. Tim Fredrick suggests offering more choice, which is fine if the curriculum allows, but I think part of what we need to do as English teachers is help students establish a cultural literacy that comes with reading. For example, students of The Scarlet Letter will understand what it means if someone says, “Fine, why not just slap a scarlet letter on my chest and be done with it.” Or even this — watching a Star Trek movie and understanding what Alfre Woodard means when she says Captain Picard is like Captain Ahab, still chasing that white whale when he expresses determination to pursue the Borg. There is a world of meaning in our collective cultural consciousness. I don’t think it will die out. There are those that will carry it on; however, I do worry that the gulf between different socioeconomic classes will remain as long as there is this disparity between literacy levels.

Two students in my class recently had an “argument” over whether a quote by Walt Whitman could be used to bolster one student’s contention that John Steinbeck was Marxist. I’m not worried about them. But they are part of the smallest minority, and that worries me.

You can read more about the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

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So Many Resources, So Little Use

As you may recall, I have been considering the question of how to get my students to utilize the class blog and wiki I’ve set up for them. I have bounced the idea off colleagues, and it seems to me that the most common response is to require it. My students all have access to the technology at home. Even if they didn’t, they have access at school during our long lunch period, breaks, and study hall time. There is little reason why they might not be able to fulfill a requirement to check and/or post to the site or wiki.

I decided to bounce this idea off the education blogosphere. What exactly would be considered in my requirement? Should I, for instance, require students to make a certain number of posts? What sort of posting? My blog is not a classroom blog in the vein of Mike Hetherington’s or, I’m sure, of other similar classroom blogs.

Also, what suggestions do you have for engaging students more actively in discussion in the blog or on the wiki?

I actually became so frustrated with the work I’ve done on the blog (with so little use) that I didn’t update yesterday. No one noticed or said anything. I did a catch-up post today, but it bothered me. I think I have gotten past any issues I may have had with requiring students to use the technology. I’m ready to do it. Suggestions?

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What Am I Doing This For?

The obvious answer is “me,” because the students don’t seem to be getting much out of it. This is a short vent about my students. Each day, I post an update to my classroom blog. It doesn’t take long. I find it enjoyable. I give them a short literary story, then I recap the day and make announcements. I also created a wiki for them.

They won’t, WON’T use them. It’s frustrating. Why am I bothering? I don’t want to give up, but I feel… sort of defeated. Do I need to require them to use the blog and wiki in order to ensure that they will be? That just bugs me to have to do, but I’m not above it.

But the kicker is what they said yesterday. They might actually use my site if it was on MySpace. Can you freaking believe that? They claimed it would be easier to check. Oh, much easier I’m sure than typing a URL once and bookmarking it so you never had to again. I have already resorted to posting extra credit on the site and not mentioning it — ever — in class. Mixed results. Well, no results, really.

OK, tell me to keep plugging away and it will pay off eventually.

MySpace. Please.

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More on Student Blogging

Without realizing it, I seem to have hit upon a hot topic in the technology in education blogosphere with my post about student blogging yesterday. I was simply thinking about concerns I have about my own students — and reminded that I had meant to post about those concerns by Bud Hunt.

I have been visiting the posts written by others, and I wanted to say that I wholeheartedly encourage the use of technology in education. I have found blogs and wikis a valuable resource. My students aren’t yet participating as much as I’d like, but I see some real potential. What scares me is the “blogging” they do on their own time. I am concerned that they are posting things that could lead to their harm. I think it is our job as educators to, well, educate them about the dangers online. Actually, I think it is the job of parents, but I have to wonder how many of my students’ parents can possibly know they have MySpace.com sites when I read the things they post on them. I floated the notion of having a learning session with students during one of our morning programs, but I haven’t yet heard from the powers that be.

That said, I think benefits outweigh the risks, and I hope that was clear.

You can read some excellent posts on this topic at:

If you’ve seen others, let me know.

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Students Blogging

I recently wrote about students being suspended for blogging at a Catholic high school in New Jersey. It seems that the dangers inherent in student blogging have been a hot topic recently in the education blogosphere. Ed Wonk writes about students in Texas who faced disciplinary action because of the content of their blogs. But what if their writing is actually putting them in danger? What if they are doing reckless things, such as posting their cell phone numbers, where they live, where they go to school, and lying about their ages? What if they’re getting involved with people who are dangerous? Bud the Teacher recently asked himself this very question.

Most of my students have MySpace.com sites. They are posting fake ages and admitting to drinking and drug use. They are posting provocative pictures of themselves. In other words, they are inviting the attention of a pedophile or a dangerous person like David Ludwig. My husband is a true crime writer for Court TV’s Crime Library website. He has become quite savvy at tracking down the weblogs or websites of both victims and perpetrators in the news over the last year, beginning with Rachelle Waterman, a sixteen-year-old girl who encouraged and aided her two 24-year-old boyfriends to kill her mother. Waterman had a blog at LiveJournal, another popular blog-hosting site. After that case, others cropped up: Joseph Edward Duncan, who kept a Blogspot blog, was a level-three pedophile who killed most of Shasta Groene’s family, including her brother Dylan, after he kidnapped the two of them in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; both Taylor Behl and her accused killer, Ben Fawley, had online presences; most recently, David Ludwig, an eighteen-year-old boy, is accused of murdering the parents of his girlfriend, Kara Beth Borden.

You can call it the uglier side of the blogosphere if you want to. Basically, I just wish my students would at least set their sites to be viewed only by friends, or make them private, which is easy enough to do. They probably don’t realize this, but websites can be cached and will be available for years after they thought they deleted content. While Google only make caches available for a short time, sites like the Internet Archive Wayback Machine make them available for years. Unless they know how to alter their HTML to prevent search engine robots from caching their sites and adding them to search engines, they can’t do much to prevent this from happening* (see suggestion below). I just wish my students would play it safe and look out for themselves. But they’re young, which often means they believe themselves invincible.

* If you have a website and want to do this, simply add the following code somewhere between the <head> and </head> tags: <meta name=”robots” content=”noindex,nofollow,noarchive”>.

I do not guarantee 100 % that this will prevent your page from being crawled by search engine robots, but it has worked for me in the past when I so desired.

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The English Department

Our English Department consists of three teachers — or four, if you count the college counselor who will teach a short course to seniors who are going to Israel this year — but it feels more like three. Of course, I’m one of them. The other two are Randal and Josh. I am in the odd position of being the only woman in the department for the first time in my career. Randal is probably the best writing teacher I’ve ever worked with. Josh is a first year teacher, but taught undergrad freshman comp classes last year as a grad student.

I gotta say… I think I’m part of the best English department I’ve ever worked with. We delivered the first part of a two-part presentation to the faculty on how we teach and assess writing. I didn’t get a chance to do my bit on the research paper, but that will come next week. I feel very privileged to work with these guys. Their presentation was amazing (I spoke little this time) and really interesting. They received a lot of compliments from the faculty. The faculty were invited to attend, but not required, which was one reason why I was so pleased by the high turn-out.

I asked Josh if he thought I should hook up the laptop and projector next week for the second half of our presentation and show the faculty my class wiki or would it suck up too much time? He thought it would be a great idea. I love being able to do that — just bounce ideas off the fellas. Our meetings are by turns really insightful and productive and completely hilarious — Randal and Josh happen to share a rather sharp wit. Actually, they’re a lot of fun.

I hope, if they run across this, they don’t mind me sharing a recent moment that really cracked me up. We were all in the classroom that Randal and Josh share. There were students in there, too, but I can’t remember why. One the students on yearbook came in to ask Randal if he could take his picture for the yearbook. Randal said no. They argued for a while.

I said, “Randal, quit being so cantankerous and let him take your picture.”

Randal: “No, the paparazzi killed the princess!”

Josh: “You’re no princess.”

Student: “And I’m not the paparazzi.”

Randal: “OK, fine.”

Hmm. On paper that isn’t even close to being as funny as it was in person.

I love being in the English Department.

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Junior Statesmen of America

Our school established a new charter of Junior Statesmen of America (link was giving me trouble, but appears to be active — just down) this year under the tutelage of my colleague (and classroommate), Sarah Parker. They went to their first conference over the last weekend. Of the ten students who attended, three won best speaker awards. I think this is an incredible achievement for students in the first year of an organization like this, and two of the award-winners were freshmen to boot. Congratuations on your achievement, JSA members. I’m really proud of you.

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If a Tree Falls in the Forest…

I wanted to thank my friend Roger for the kind mention in his blog. Roger wonders “how many teachers are using blogs and wikis”? Well, I know of at least three wikis:

I’m sure there are others. I haven’t even tried podcasting, which seems to have a lot of promise. My students aren’t really blogging, either. However, invariably my colleagues and even some students react to this technology with the standard “What is that? I feel frustrated by the fact that my students have not yet tapped the potential that exists in all this technology I provide for them. It isn’t any good if it isn’t accessed and used. I think that I need to start requiring that students post content. Next year, I can just make it a clear part of my course expectations in the syllabus, I suppose.

Roger says my students are lucky that they have a web savvy teacher. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I agree. I’m pretty much alone in that regard at my school, with the exception of our technology specialist. I think I would really have liked to have all this “stuff” I’m providing my students. In my day (listen to how grizzled that sounds), we didn’t have computer labs. We were lucky if we had old Apple IIe’s around. I took Typing class and thought it was snazzy to be able to use an electric typewriter. I used a word processor in college and thought I was really something. I keep telling my students how lucky they are to have all of this technology at their fingertips. I tell them stories about having to retype entire pages after making one mistake — of having to draft essays on notebook paper with pen or pencil (horrors!).

But what good is all of this technology if the students don’t use it? Isn’t there anything else we can do besides IM friends and update Myspace pages?

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