Welcome to my Journal: One Teacher's Experience

A Teacher's Journal: Day 2
July 9, 2002

"New Building Blocks"

When a teacher makes the transition from teaching on the 45-minute period to the extended block, a transformation takes place. The entire atmosphere of the classroom upgrades itself toward one of cooperation, collegiality, and connectedness. The teacher knows that the extended time frame calls for new strategies, and the students usually respond in a positive manner if challenged appropriately. The primary shift involves a transition from teacher-centeredness to student-centered activities. The result of this shift is that students are more involved, more engaged, and they develop a greater stake in their own educational process.

The block schedule leads the teacher to rely on all the resources at his or her disposal. The teacher will rely on traditional tools such as the textbook, audio-visual resources, and the computer, but a new dimension enters the mix as well. The teacher must set a positive tone for learning. The teacher must enunciate a reasonable rationale to the student for wanting to be engaged. And the teacher must model the desire for acquiring new skills and knowledge that will resonate within the student in the form of higher levels of inquisitiveness and motivation. Most importantly, the increased time in class will allow the teacher to build positive relationships with the students, even behaviorally and academically challenging ones. In fact, it is the at-risk population from which the renewed teacher-student relationship can most benefit.

Middle school students need extra outreach on the part of the teacher to know they are accepted and included in the educational process. Their developmental stage often brings many insecurities and idiosyncrasies that can be reduced if the teacher takes a moment and lets the student know they are valuable as members of the class. High school students seek a common bond from which to operate within the student-teacher relationship. They want to know the teacher more personally and wonder what interests and hobbies they have in common with the adults in their lives. The block schedule calls on the educator to use the time to communicate with students about topics that are important to them.

Once the teacher is armed with that knowledge, the teacher can touch on those topics as they relate to the content area. 

The block schedule calls on the educator to use the time to communicate with students about topics that are important to them.

If my 8th graders listen to rap music, I can base a discussion on the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment around artists I know are of interest to my students. I can also bring in articles and music clips (appropriate ones) that fall within their interest level. The block schedule allows for greater exploration of student interests as well as offering ways to link them to the curriculum.

The block schedule allows for a deeper exploration of any given topic in a single class period. Teaching strategies must be recalibrated to take advantage of this ability to delve deeper into the topic at hand. The lesson of the block schedule is not too different from its shorter counterpart. But there are some significant differences. The teacher must outline the learning objectives for the session. But students still need a "hook" to get them motivated or interested in a subject's subtopic. One teacher-consultant called these "wow" moments. A Wow Moment is one where the teacher dazzles the students with a concept or idea through a demonstration, a discussion, or a presentation. This "anticipatory set," as it is called by Madelyn Hunter, sets the stage for anticipation as the students wait and see what the next activity will bring. The teacher might engage the students in a game, read a passage from a primary source, display an artifact, or tell a personal anecdote related to the topic. Or the teacher might review a previous lesson or find out what the student already knows about a new topic.

The next two activities are longer and allow for in depth learning. The teacher can present some new information in a lecture discussion format that should not last more than 15 minutes (20 for more mature students). The presentation should be peppered with questions that stimulate thinking while drawing on students' prior knowledge. This process builds interest and confidence simultaneously. The lecture might include a visual component where images are projects on the screen and analyzed by students. The difficulty of questions relating to the images and the content of the lecture should "spiral" upwards from the basic elements of knowledge through analysis, synthesis, and eventually to evaluation. Students can take notes, or for younger or less able students, they can fill in the blanks of a text-version of the lecture.

Then students are asked to apply the information they gained in the interactive slide lecture. The teacher might have the students break into pairs or fours and give them a problem to tackle. Each group would discuss their issue until they arrive at a consensus and then present their findings. The teacher would then place student summaries or responses on the board or overhead (or computer) for students to discuss and evaluate. 

The guide on the side
These are just some of the many types of activities that allow for deeper exploration of a topic within a class period. The modern teacher knows that change and transition are required due to today's shortened video-trained, MTV-fed attention spans, so a variety of approaches must be available in the teacher's "bag of tricks" over the space of the lesson and the unit. Cooperative learning methods will be a centerpiece for introducing and reinforcing course content. When students interact with each other, they are more involved and gain badly needed social skills in the process. Heightened involvement leads to greater retention of the material as well. Students who manage their own learning help change the classroom focus by changing the teacher from being the "sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side." 

"The Guide on the Side"

When the teacher is able to guide students through the process of designing their own learning experience, the job of both teacher and student becomes easier and more effective. Once the teacher gains mastery over the process of planning and implementing the cooperative model, the block schedule will have lost its fear factor and given way to a community of caring that enhances learning for the student and makes teaching more rewarding for the educator.

Thanks for reading...

Email: George Cassutto