“My goal is to eliminate the schedule and for your team to sit down together and decide how you want to use the instructional day.”
When our administrator made this statement, we laughed, but we were intrigued. It was a radical proposal to lose the “box” of time, to share time as needed, to let go of structure as we knew it. Could teachers share time, deciding weekly or even daily how minutes they would share? The concept screamed chaos.
Yet as the members of our grade-level team began a dialogue, the concept seemed more appealing. We wondered, “What if we could control the time?” We could decide what to teach, when to teach it, and for how long. What an innovative approach: the people who use the time actually control it. After a collective “Why not?” collaborative scheduling was born.
Our middle school had been running a typical junior high school schedule model for decades. Students in grades 5–8 traveled through eight-period days with 40-minute classes. Many teachers considered this schedule to be restrictive and developmentally inappropriate, but the faculty could not come to a consensus on a new approach.
As our team began discussing the administrator’s suggestion, we focused our efforts on creating a developmentally appropriate schedule that would allow the faculty to control time. We dispensed with convention and abandoned the idea of “schedule.” Instead, we considered flexible blocks of time and creative teachers. We were able to get beyond the idea that a schedule must be made up of distinct and separate time slots and classes. Time became a fluid entity rather than pieces of a puzzle.
Because several faculty members wanted to maintain the constancy of their current scheduling model of math, foreign language, physical education, computers, and the arts, we developed a new model that maintained those consistencies while allowing the remaining classes to share the rest of the time within the day.
We mapped out the unrestricted minutes of the day and realized the morning offered a block of 85 minutes and the afternoon offered a 125-minute block. We decided to create two 85-minute academic blocks and use the remaining 40 minutes for a flexible project time. (Figure 1)
As in block scheduling, we divided the number of students equally into two groups. Group A attended two separate 40-minute classes of math and either foreign language or reading. (Foreign language and reading rotated on a daily basis.) Group B attended 85 minutes for the combined subjects of English, social studies, and science. (Figure 2)
We initially intended to share the 85 minutes as a traditional block and divide time equally among the three subjects. However, we realized that with complete control over this time, we held the freedom to manipulate it any way that we wanted.
For example, at one time, we divided the 85-minute time frame into one 40-minute block and two 20-minute blocks. Students were divided into three groups and traveled in a rotation through the classes. English was 40 minutes and social studies and science were 20 minutes each. Other manipulations include 25 minutes each of science, social studies, and English; 85 minutes of team instruction, or one subject for the full time.
In addition, we realized that the subjects could rotate through the slots, allowing for even more opportunities and flexibility. Reading, for example, did not need to constantly balance the math course. Within several units, we chose English or science to balance the math course while reading joined the “timeshare” block. This rotation of classes is possible at any time—daily, weekly, or monthly—giving participating teachers the opportunity to control their time.
After experimenting with various time options, we began designing quality lessons and then negotiating the time to complete them. We were no longer designing lessons to fill a specific block of time; instead, we were able to question our methods, think creatively, and not discount ideas due to logistics or lack of time.
Eliminating the constraints of time lifted the veil on our creativity as teachers. If the science teacher needs to spend half of a day building solar powered race cars, we can do it. Without “minutes” defining curriculum and our lesson plans, students explore the topic in depth rather than its shallow breadth.
The afternoon timeframe was the same as the morning, but also included one 40-minute flex period. During these 40 minutes, every student in the grade was scheduled for an assembly, tutoring, or projects. It was time for exploration, research, and connected learning experiences.
With three teachers holding complete control of 36 students and their 85-minute time frame, a plethora of grouping opportunities presented themselves. The flexibility in grouping lets teachers form small groups of students for specific instruction as needed.
For example, when a group of five students needs intensive writing tutoring, the teacher can devote 85 minutes to their needs. If the science teacher wants to lead an exploration science lab with only eight students to provide a more engaging atmosphere, rotations of eight students through that classroom are possible.
Collaborative scheduling requires teamwork and constant communication among faculty members to manipulate and negotiate time. Teachers must discuss their lesson plans and ideas so they can adjust time to meet daily or weekly requirements. This interaction naturally spurs dialogue and creates true teams of teachers. Teachers are no longer isolated in classrooms; through conversation, they strengthen bonds and concentrate on best practices, curriculum, and students.
The collaborative scheduling model also requires flexibility, and flexibility nurtures creativity. We are able to teach a lesson or work on a project and adjust the next day’s schedule to allow for more time or less time in a given area. Without external demands of a determined schedule, we can negotiate among ourselves at any time. We have complete ownership of the minutes.
We cannot always finish our laundry in 50 minutes, and the time it takes to cook dinner varies with the menu. Imagine restricting those activities and others to limited blocks of time! Time is not the only factor in learning; varied methods of instruction lead to learning: individualization, differentiation, and integration.
The radical proposal that initially screamed chaos became the best possible choice. Two other teams in our building have replicated this model and have greeted the results with the same enthusiasm. The possibilities for new curriculum design and scheduling are endless. Through the continued use of collaborative scheduling, we have a program that defines the schedule; the schedule no longer dictates the program.
Originally published in Middle Groundmagazine, August 2011.