December 23, 2005

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 4x4 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

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December 19, 2005

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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December 18, 2005

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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December 13, 2005

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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