Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Block Schedule Planning

I had an opportunity to teach on a 45-minute traditional class period schedule and a 90-minute block. Both models have their pros and cons. I think my own preference is block schedules because you have so much more time to dive into content. There are fewer transitions and it just seems calmer and more conducive to learning.

However, one major challenge is finding purposeful ways to fill that block. If you notice that you are doing one activity for a long period of time, it might be important to think about chunking. What I mean by chunking is thinking of you period in 15-20 minute chunks of time and planning activities within those chunks. I find it's difficult to keep students attention if something lasts longer than 20 minutes, so that was my maximum for any activity (except an assessment).

I developed the following sample block plans based on 85 minutes. So, if you have 60 minutes you can think about cutting out one of these pieces. If you teach 90 minutes, add 5 minutes to one of the chunks. These aren't meant to be plans that you have to take literally. Instead, think of them as inspiration for how you might rework your time to give students a sense that they are working on several related activities, but not stuck doing the same thing the whole time. For more examples, you can check out a few samples here, where I found my inspiration for this post!

This first sample is something that I would use for providing time for investigation and practice. Our middle schools use Connected Math, which relies on investigation and discovery. However, before I jump into the lesson, you might notice that 15 minutes are for a math talk. I liked using this time to help students develop number sense which is a year-long goal for my students. My favorite resources are Which One Doesn't Belong, Estimation 180, and Clothesline Number Line. I suggest using 10 of those minutes for the actual discussion.

The next chunk is for an intro. If you are familiar with 3-Act tasks, I usually try to find a way to intro an investigation in the style of Act 1. So whether I'm using actual lessons from Dan Meyer, or finding a YouTube video myself, or even doing a little demo in front of the class using students, setting up interest with a "hook" is a must.

Next, students can work in partners on the investigation. They might be recording results on a table or playing a game. No matter what the activity, it should be leading them to look for patterns and coming to some mathematical conclusion.

I put in a brain break because at some point in the lesson, it's important to get the blood flowing to the brains. You might think that doing a brain break is too elementary or babyish for your middle school kids. Not true! Even 8th graders like being a little silly. But if you don't like using something like Go Noodle, think about some breathing exercises, simple yoga poses, or other mindfulness techniques.

After a short brain break, you might want to help the kids synthesize what they discovered during the investigation. Take a moment to write down important findings, formulas, or vocabulary that they can refer to later.

The next chunk might be having students continue in the investigation on their own or to do some individual practice. Using ClassKick or Formative might be good tech tools to use for this chuck so you can monitor student work and be pulling kids that need additional help from you. 

Finally, I always leave 5 minutes at the end to make sure there is time to clean up the classroom and to do a quick summary or conclusion. 

This next sample block plan is something you might use if you have work you want students to continue from the previous day. Notice, there is still the warm-up and a brain break. Plus there are a few moments for discussion and a conclusion at the end. Again, it's not so important that you would have to do this exactly as I proposed, but rather to be inspired as to how a block can be chunked.

My next idea is how you might do stations in the middle school classroom. I would recommend 5 stations. Typically I would have:
1. Teacher-station where students are working on white boards
2. Individual practice- maybe on technology using something like Desmos or DreamBox
4. Game station- some type of strategy game like Blokus, Set, or 3-D Tic Tac Toe
5. Working on an ongoing creative project or individual practice

I would recommend previewing the stations the day before the station day. Go through what each station is and your expectations for accountability. Then when students come in on station day, you review those expectations for 5 minutes and they are on their way. If you like using a timer to time your stations (I do), think about setting it for 12 minutes. That way you have a little transition time built into the schedule above that gives you 15 minutes for each station. Finally, don't forget to leave yourself a few minutes at the end to clean up and summarize the day's learning.

I also wanted to give a sample of what it might look like if you want to work on something for the majority of the block. There are those days that you might be working on a creative project and you want plenty of in-class work time. Notice that there are 55 minutes of work time, but there are scheduled mini-breaks in between. It's important to intentionally plan the breaks so you don't forget to do them. It might seem like it's not worth it to interrupt work time, however I will suggest that giving some planned breaks to stretch, reflect, and refocus is important for making sure students stay engaged.

Finally, I wanted to share a sample block of what you might do if you are giving an assessment. 

I hope these samples help planning your block easier. Sometimes just seeing things in a graphic like this helps visualize how the timing might work. Keep in mind that students really appreciate knowing how their time will be spent as well. While you don't need to create a slick graphic for each day, but simply writing up the agenda on the board helps students know where they are going and how they know when they got there.

If you have any other types of lessons you like to include in your blocks, leave a comment and I would be happy to think through some other ways to chunk a block!


  1. Annie, this post is great! I love the graphics you used to show the time in the class period and with so many various options! I actually just wrote a post like this, but only told the one way that I deliver instruction, but I agree, chunking is way better!

  2. It's really helpful to think about using the block for various types of days with different instructional goals. Love the graphics. Thanks!