We all remember the first time we were told we would be teaching on a block schedule, the dread that immediately permeated the room. In my six years of teaching, up until last year, I’d actually only taught on a block schedule, so contrary to popular response, when I recently heard my administration announce that we would be teaching in ninety-minute blocks, my heart jumped for joy! Seriously, I don’t know how teachers get anything done in less than that!
If you are feeling nervous about teaching for ninety-minutes straight please know:
You are not alone.
Your feelings are valid.
You can do this.
The key to success when tackling a block schedule is to understand how to schedule the class period and to remain consistent.
Ninety minutes can seem daunting but follow my tips below and you’ll soon find yourself asking how you ever taught any other way!
Here is how I structure my ninety-minute social studies class:
I begin each class period with a Bellringer (also called a Warm-Up). This is a relatively easy activity [think Level 2 or 3 if you use complexity scales in your classroom], that only takes between five and seven minutes to complete. My favorite Bellringer activities include matching, cartoon analysis, and having students write original sentences using content vocabulary terms. I also frequently use multiple-choice questions as Bellringers to review or remediate previously learned content.
If you teach United States history, you can check out 180 Bellringers for 180 Days where you’ll find all the work already done for you! One Bellringer for every day of the school year including vocabulary handouts and informational text excerpts.
Why it works: When teaching a ninety-minute block it is imperative that students have a consistent structure and something to do immediately after entering the classroom. By incorporating a daily Bellringer, students are actively working as soon as the bell rings and you have time to take attendance before Johnny starts throwing paper balls.
I am a firm believer that direct instruction should never, under any circumstances, exceed ten to fifteen minutes of the total class time. Most child development experts report that the attention span of a fifteen-year-old is ten to twenty minutes. This is a fun fact I’ve had memorized for several years and incorporate into my practice regularly.
When I went in search of a citation to support this idea [because a good teacher does their research], I found there is actually no empirical data to support this claim. This happens frequently in education research predominantly because most research is subjective to the behaviors of children, all at varying stages of development.
So what then do we do with this information? I know my students struggle to pay attention for long periods of time. I know the look in their eyes when their face is present but their mind has left the room. They are no longer listening. They are no longer interested.
Let’s chalk it up to this:
You have between ten and twenty minutes of undivided attention before things get dicey and trust me, they will get dicey.
This is information we will use to our advantage. When it comes to direct instruction such as notes, lecture, or modeling a skill, less is more. Regardless of whether or not the attention span claim is true, you can do much better teaching and your students will do much better learning, when you’re focused on working with them instead of talking at them.
Here are three ways I tackle direct instruction in ten minutes or less:
When taking notes, I never [and I promise you I mean NEVER] lecture. This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a good storyteller and just as I would never lecture, I would never judge a teacher that does. I would however, ask you to take a few moments and think about the various needs of your students. Out of all of your students, how many are kinesthetic learners? How many have been diagnosed with ADHD? How many are hard of hearing, have an auditory processing disorder, or are speakers of a language other than English? When we take stock in the needs of our students, there is a good chance that the majority do not benefit from the traditional listen-while-you-take-notes approach. Furthermore, if you choose to continue lecturing despite this knowledge, you will most likely find yourself doing twice as much work to meet the needs of all your diverse learners. Think of it this way, if you skip the lecture, it’s one less thing you have to worry about.
Instead of lecturing, I create a PowerPoint with guided notes, images, and clarifying questions. I hang these slides around the room and require students to rotate throughout the classroom, completing their own copy of the guided notes that I have provided to them. I set a timer for ten minutes and play music as they are working. If a student finishes early, I ask them to return to their seat and read over the notes they just took. I also print additional copies of the slides for students who are English Language Learners or have accommodations that include note-taking assistance. This process is extremely helpful to them because they can move at a pace that is comfortable without the wandering eye of their neighbor. This practice makes my life easier by freeing up opportunities to help multiple students, answer questions, and manage behaviors.
In my classroom, we also do something with our notes. Modern social studies instruction is centered around literacy and critical-thinking skills, not necessarily rote memorization. So while names, dates, and events are important, what is more important is that students know how to use that information. One of the most common skills we practice is how to categorize and connect historic information. Most of the time, we do this by creating a chart of a thinking map.
In order to keep this form of direct instruction under ten minutes, you’ll need to incorporate the Guided Practice model, or I Do, We Do, You Do [in Florida we call it Y’all Do]. Using this instructional method required modeling and a discussion of the meta-cognitive process.
In other words, you will first model how to complete the task and explain why you chose to complete the task in that way. This is the “I Do” portion of the method. Then, complete the task a second time but ask the students to help you. This is a simultaneous review of the process and a quick formative assessment that will tell you which students needs additional assistance. Finally, release students to practice the skill on their own while you maneuver around the classroom checking student work and offering assistance.
Why it works: This method allows every student to move at their own pace which in turn, creates a more productive classroom environment. You’ll rarely have a student act out because they are either too far ahead or behind. Additionally, the Guided Practice method allows you to meet with every single student and offer remediation and assessment.
Videos are an excellent way to condense direct instruction into ten minutes or less. They are often concise, have visual interest and the really good ones have a rockin’ soundtrack! DO NOT play a video of a university professor lecturing, this is the same as you lecturing. No. Just, no.
NOTE: I understand this may be different for AP or AICE classes however, I still stand by my lecture-as-little-as-possible stance. If it must be done, ten minutes or less please!
Why is works: Videos engage students in a form of media they are most familiar with. They are pleasing to a variety of learners and while not every student will respond to the auditory content, the visual images will fill in several gaps, especially if the video is more narrative in style.
Pro Tip: Always select video that have closed captioning available and print transcripts for your students with accommodations and English Language Learners.
In a ninety-minute class period, you must ALWAYS have an activity. This will take up the majority of your class time. An activity can be anything where the students are doing the majority of the work. My favorite way to do activities is through rotations that move through various forms of content application. This allows me to create three, twenty-minute activities rather than one sixty-minute activity.
For example, if we are learning about industrialization, I may do a union negotiation simulation, a photo-analysis highlighting the conditions in factories, and a categorization activity with various examples of horizontal and vertical integration.
While rotations are my favorite way to incorporate content specific activities here is a list of other equally effective ways to use the activity portion of the class period.
- Have students create a visual representation [cartoon, advertisement, picture] of what they are learning.
- Assign groups different topics and have them create a poster
- Have students write a R.A.F.T. letter where they are assigned a topic and a perspective to write from.
- Any kind of matching activity for vocabulary practice.
- Give students a list of topics and have them categorize them.
- Re-write a primary source in modern language.
- Reenact an important moment.
And always remember that games count! Here are my favorite games to play with students when practicing new content.
- I Have, Who Has
- Give One, Get One
- Quiz, Quiz, Trade
Additionally, when you’re ready to review, here are my Top Five Social Studies Review Games!
The final ten minutes of class are not the most important part of a ninety-minute class period, however, they do provide an opportunity to make a massive impact.
The closing of class solidifies the main points of the day’s lesson and the learning that has taken place. Students should always have a structured moment at the end of the block to pause, process, and response.
Here are three ways I conduct the closing of class:
I give students a question related to the day’s content and have them answer on my true beloved, the Post-It™ [Where my sticky note lovin’ peeps at!?]. I then have them include a hashtag that summarizes their response and place their Post-In™ on the wall under our What’s Trending? section.
Pro Tip: To further incorporate movement, present students with multiple questions placed around the room and have them place one Post-It™ with their response under each question.
Regardless of how “hipster” my teaching tends to be, it doesn’t change the fact that we are part of a system reliant on standardized testing. At the end of a ninety-minute block, a short three to five question quiz is a solid way to assess student knowledge and practice test-taking strategies.
Why it works: Short quizzes serve as a formative assessment of how effective the lesson was and can provide insight into your student’s strengths and opportunities for improvement, especially from the standardized testing perspective. Such a large part of standardized testing requires advanced vocabulary and critical analysis skills rather than content knowledge. By discovering these opportunities early, students are more likely to perform to their highest potential later in the year.
Exit surveys are a great way to give students the opportunity to reflect on their level of understanding from the day’s lesson. They are different than a quiz because the questions are more focused on how the student feels about the content rather than the content itself. Plus, in this new age of digital learning, there are several apps that allow students to complete this process from their computer or cell phone increasing the privacy and safety of the activity.
An example of one of my exit surveys is below.
Pro tip: The more information you can gather from your students, the better off you will be. Always ask questions, collect data, and adjust your plans to remediate weaknesses early.
So when we break it down, a typical ninety-minute block class should be timed as follows:
If you add these all together, you’ll notice the structure equates between 85 and 95 minutes. If you have ever taught a day in your life, you know that timing is a highly important, highly unpredictable part of excellent teaching. Leaving yourself room for interruptions, reteaching, or any of the other snafus that so frequently occur in our classroom will ensure a lower level of stress and greater level of success in your classroom.
Pro Tip: This model can also be adapted for the 45-minute class period. Just cut your Bellringer to five minutes and your activity to thirty minutes instead of sixty!
The ninety-minute block can seem daunting and difficult to fill. However, if your classroom follows a consistent structure with engaging learning opportunities, you will be shocked to find yourself asking why the class period isn’t longer!