For the last several years, the school where I work was the only school in the district on block schedule. While I have known many teachers to lament this schedule, I absolutely love it. I know that in the beginning I struggled to fill 90 minutes of class time, but now I find myself rushing through my material as quickly as I can as I try so hard to squeeze all of my instruction in. There are many days I am still directing rehearsal as normal when the bell rings, and the students and I are shocked to see that it is time to go. Of course, not every day is like that, and not every class is like that! But thanks to some mentoring from other teachers in my school and living in the block schedule world for several years, I am comfortable with this routine and am enjoying its many benefits.
This year, my school will not be alone on the block schedule. There are a few other high schools that will be transitioning to an A/B schedule and the teachers will be responsible for teaching 90 minute classes. I have never experienced an A/B schedule. Instead, we are on a semester system. I see my students every single day for 90 minutes. However, with both schedules, teachers will find that a lot of planning goes in to a successful 90 minute class. Today I would like to share my 5 most helpful planning methods for teaching on this schedule.
1. Organize your block in small increments of time. Most high school students have pretty short attention spans. With this in mind, you need to plan on moving from one activity to the next pretty quickly. Ideally, each of your activities should only last for about 15-20 minutes. After this, you start to lose them. You want to keep them engaged, so keep it fresh. I know I could easily spend 60 minutes working on that difficult section of our current Eric Whitacre piece. My brain too often says, “No! Don’t move on until this is fixed!” But then I look around after 30 minutes and see that my students are checking their phones, talking to the person next to them, and generally looking pretty defeated. I can absolutely lose myself in the music and rehearsal, but unfortunately, not all of my students can do the same. So I will work on that tricky passage of music for about 15 minutes, but then I know it’s time to move on and come back to it later.
2. Schedule out the entire block. What will your first activity be? How long will it take? I find it helpful to write it all down and so I will often make a list like this:
- Warm-ups 10 minutes
- Announcements/Reminders 5 minutes
- Review new music from Tuesday 10 minutes
- Teach pages 6-7 15 minutes
- Rehearse new music in sectionals 15 minutes
- Theory Lesson 15 minutes
- Have students sing new music standing as full choir 5 minutes
If I am not sure how long an activity will take, I underestimate. The goal is to not have any leftover time at the end of class. You might surprise yourself after putting your plans on paper. While a few different activities might feel like it would easily fill up 90 minutes, once it’s on paper and you add together the allotted times, you might find that your plans only fill up 75 minutes. What are you going to do with that last 15 minutes? By scheduling the class from start to finish on paper, you are giving yourself a map to help you stay on track.
3. Plan for more than 90 minutes. This has saved me so many times! Even after creating your “roadmap” of the class by scheduling out every minute, it might be that you get in to an activity and it’s just not going as you planned. That new idea you got from Pinterest that you can’t wait to implement in your classroom falls flat and you can’t bear to see it through to the end because your kids are staring at you as if you are speaking another language, so you ditch that plan and move on to the next activity. Then you are left with the dreaded dead time at the end of class when your kids are getting out of their chairs, checking their phones, and packing their bags even though there is 20 minutes left in class. No worries, because you are ready since you planned more activities than you thought you would have time for! On the other hand, if you don’t use it, you will have it ready to go for the next day.
4. Keep your students moving. On our block schedule, students have four 90 minute classes a day. That means that there is the potential for the students to be sitting in desks for six hours a day. When they are sitting for such long periods of time, they struggle to stay focused and attentive. Help them stay engaged by incorporating physical movement. In the Chorus classroom, I find this to be very easy. Have your students stand and sing in different formations, such as circles. Try having the students walk around the room in rhythm as they sing or have them learn theory through physical games.
5. Change it up! If you have spent an hour as a large group working on music, take at least fifteen minutes to break in to smaller groups to work in sectionals or tackle a music theory lesson. I like to break my students in to groups that include both strong and weak sight readers and let them practice together. The weaker sight readers learn from the stronger ones, and the stronger sight readers become even more confident as they teach what they know. I also like to give my students a change of scenery. If it’s a pretty day, I will take them outside for a quick singing exercises. I also like to take them to the hallway to sing so that they can experience the difference in acoustics in a different space. The more you can get them moving and doing different things each day, the more you can keep the students’ attention.
I would love to hear more ideas from others as I am always trying to make the most out of my block classes. I can’t imagine the switch from 90 minutes to 50 now that I am so accustomed to this schedule. There are challenges, but for my choral rehearsals, I am thrilled to have so much time with each choir to work on so much music.