50 Minute Periods Are Killing Teacher Creativity

“I’d love to do [fill in the blank with some creative idea or activity], but I just don’t have time. My classes are only 50 minutes.” I hear this lament frequently when I lead professional development. Teachers get super excited about integrating technology or want details about a project, assignment, or routine I do with my own kids. When they find out that my school is on a 90-minute block schedule, they sigh and tell me that they just don’t have that kind of time with kids. Ironically, I see my students for about the same total amount of time because we are on an A/B schedule and our class meets every other day. However, the length of a class period has a huge impact on the way teachers plan their lessons.

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When teachers plan for a 50 minute period, the scope of their lesson is extremely narrow. They know they have limited time to get through x, y, and z. Too often the default in this scenario is to lecture or verbally present information because it is faster. Allowing students to research, discuss, and share their findings takes time. Yet, if we want students to develop these crucial life skills–finding and evaluating information, communicating and collaborating with peers–they need time. They cannot feel they are being hurried through the process of learning. In fact, the more relaxed a student is in a learning environment, the more open the brain is to taking in information.

If teachers had more time, the scope of their lessons would naturally expand. They would be challenged to design a variety of learning experiences for a single class because we all know that students cannot and should not be asked to sit quietly and listen to a teacher talk for long stretches of time. Instead, classrooms on a block schedule provide the luxury of allowing students to engage with information and with one another in a variety of ways.

As an advocate for using technology to create student-centered classrooms, I believe longer classes would also make using technology a lot less scary. Teachers would not need to worry that a single tech hiccup would derail an entire class. Teachers sharing carts of devices would have time to allow students check out their devices without feeling that they’ve sacrificed a significant chunk of their class period.

I cannot understand why so many secondary schools have students running from class to class every day without giving them the time needed to form meaningful relationships or engage with complex tasks. So many teachers trapped in a 50-minute schedule report feeling like they cannot embrace project-based learning, explore the value of makerspaces, or experiment with blended learning models. The big hurdle is time.

If schools want their teachers to be innovative and teach outside of the box, then they need to take a closer look at their schedules and talk to their teachers and students about how their schedule is either encouraging or stifling creativity. Administrative teams need to evaluate how the length of classes is impacting they way teachers teach and, ultimately, how students are expected to learn.

If you are a teacher who has taught in both a traditional 50-minute schedule and a block schedule, I’d love to have you share your experience in each scenario. How did having more time impact your lesson planning? Were you able to incorporate projects, creative assignments, technology, etc. into your shorter periods? If so, do you have tips for other teachers who are struggling to be creative or innovative in a 50 minute period? As always, I welcome and appreciate teacher insights and comments!

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A New Program and a New Approach to Homework

Homework has been getting a lot of attention in the media. My Twitter feed is full of articles and blogs discussing the research on homework, particularly at the elementary level, and how counterproductive it can actually be. As a parent and teacher, I find this conversation is particularly interesting.

Untitled drawing (1)As a parent, I marvel at the amount of work my own children–2nd and 4th grade–bring home on a weekly basis. Selfishly, I feel homework at the elementary level is an intrusion into the limited time I get with my kids in the evenings and weekends. My children spend 6+ hours in a classroom with their teachers each day. I want the 4+ hours they have after school to be dedicated to exploring other interests–sports, instruments, playing in the backyard, building random art projects out of old boxes, and reading. In the long run, I think this break from academic tasks beyond the classroom will actually keep students more engaged at school.

Because I clearly saw the value of not assigning homework elementary level, I had to take a closer look at why I was assigning homework at the high school level. Wasn’t the argument for needing a brain break after a long day at school just as valid for teenagers? Don’t teenagers also need time to pursue other interests and spend time with their families?

If I’m honest, there are three clear reasons that initially motivated my decision to assign homework every night: 1) I never had enough time to cover everything in class, 2) I believed students needed to learn to manage their time outside of class and develop important study habits, and 3) I was assigned homework in high school. Despite having clear motivations for assigning homework, I always worried I gave students too much homework. Too many students entered my class blurry eyed and exhausted after late nights spent doing work. It was even worse for those students juggling sports, debate, student government, or afternoon jobs.

Then in 2013, Stanford University released research that “found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance in their lives, and alienation from society.” As I read this, I felt guilty. I knew I was contributing to my students’ stress and lack of balance. I knew I had to do something different, but I felt trapped. How was I going to get through everything without assigning homework?

That’s was one of many factors that led me to design N.E.W. School, a pilot program at my high school where I co-teach English, science, and technology with another teacher. We share 60 students in two adjoining rooms for 4.5 hours every other day. Instead of teaching the three classes in isolation, we teach them in concert focusing on a central topic for each unit that ties their readings, labs, and online work together.

As I planned the program, I realized that if we had students for 4.5 hours every other day, it didn’t make sense to then send them home with additional work like a traditional class. Instead, we plan our lessons with clear daily, weekly and unit tasks/goals. Students have time to work on specific tasks and projects in class and revisit them throughout the day, week, and unit if they need additional time to complete them.

The only work students do for N.E.W. outside of class is additional practice if they feel they need it or work on a project if they were unable to finish that work in class. For example, if we are working on a vocabulary list, I’ll create a Vocabulary.com review they can access throughout the unit to continue practicing the words both in and outside of class if they choose. If students are working on a project, they may need to invest additional time beyond class to complete their finished product before presenting their work to their peers, parents, and community.

As I reflect on the three reasons I used to assign homework, I realize none of them hold water now that I’ve developed N.E.W. School. I no longer feel like I’m in a race against the bell; I’ve got plenty of time to work with students. Students must still learn to manage their time and develop healthy study habits in the classroom because they have more time and autonomy in N.E.W. School. Finally, just because I had homework in high school doesn’t mean I should be assigning it. In fact, I feel like I’ve spent the better half of the last decade unlearning everything I was taught about teaching and learning.

For those teachers who read this and think, “Well, I don’t teach in a program like that. I can’t just get rid of homework.” I want to encourage you to start having conversations with your administration and fellow teachers now about how you can rethink your schedule and the way classes are taught at your school. I’m just a teacher who had an idea inspired the reading and research I have done on education and school design. I approached my principal and said I wanted to try something new. I’m not going to pretend that bringing this new program to fruition wasn’t challenging, it was. But it was also worth it.

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DIY Furniture Project

In spring, I wrote a blog titled “Classroom Furniture: Does it impede or improve learning?” to explore how the design of a classroom impacts learning. I’ve been frustrated by my own bulky furniture, which stifles movement and makes collaboration challenging.

Determined to redesign my own classroom, I researched furniture options, toured a retailer in Oakland, visited classrooms with alternative furniture, and presented a proposal to my school board. Unfortunately, my district did not opt to fund new furniture for my space. So, I was left with two options: keep my existing furniture or get creative.

While perusing Pinterest, my teaching partner found a cute project idea for transforming milk crates into ottomans. We modified it, so I wanted to share it with other educators looking for inexpensive ways to add some moveable pieces to their classrooms.

Crate Supplies --pic 1

Materials for a single ottoman:

  • 1 milk crate
  • 1 square piece of fabric
  • 1 pillow or high density foam
  • 2 pieces plywood – 14” and 12”
  • white board paper
  • Gorilla glue
  • 4 nails
  • hammer
  • scissors
  • ruler or fabric measuring tape

Preparation: Cut plywood with skill saw; cut fabric with fabric scissors

Step 1: Lay the fabric square pattern side down, put the pillow in the center of the fabric square, and place the large piece of plywood (14 inches) on top of the pillow.

Putting Crate Seat Together --pic 4

Step 2: One person should hold the wood down, while the other person covers one end of the wood board with Gorilla glue.

Glue fabric on one side -- pic 5

Step 3: After you’ve put glue on one end of the wood, fold the fabric over the glue and hold for 1 minute.

Fold fabric down--pic 6

Step 4: Complete Steps 2 and 3 on the opposite side.

Hold down glue sides as dries -- pic 7

Step 5: Once you have fabric glued on 2 sides, fold the the other sides like you would fold the paper on a present (folding the edges in) and glue them down.

Glue sides like a present

Step 6: When all 4 sides of the fabric are glued down, cover edges of fabric and wood center with Gorilla glue. Then place the smaller piece of plywood (12″ inches) on top of the glued section.

glue bottomStep 7: Carefully hammer one small nail (3/4 inch) into each of the four corners of the wood effectively anchoring the small piece of wood on top to the larger piece of wood on the bottom.

Hammer second piece of wood in place -- pic 8

Step 8: Measure the exact size of the small piece of wood on top. It’s crucial that your measurements are correct, or your whiteboard paper will not cover the entire surface area of the wood.

Measure wood for whiteboard material -- pic 10Step 9: Turn the whiteboard paper with the white side down and the checkered side up. Cut your paper to fit the exact measurements from Step 8.

Cut whiteboard paper -- pic 11Step 10: Do NOT peel entire back off at once. Instead, peel one side of the whiteboard paper and place the sticky edge on the edge of the wood. Once you have one edge down on the wood piece, slowly unpeel and adhere the rest of the whiteboard paper. Smooth out any air bubbles as you go!

Stick on wood -- pic 12Voilà!

Fit seat on top of crate -- pic 13

Not only is this an easy to move piece, it also has storage space. Students can sit on the cushion side or flip the crate upside down, sit on the bottom and put the cushion in their laps to use the whiteboard (as my son was kind enough to demonstrate).

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I bought materials for 12 ottomans. I built one, but I’m going to let my students do the other 11 in a makerstation 😉

Share your favorite “do it yourself” classroom projects in preparation for the new school year!

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