Block Schedule Image

Block Scheduling Done Right

Recently I was asked why we do block scheduling the way we do.  Much effort has gone into the study systems that will help SCS meet its goals of academic excellence and its extensive impact on student learning. As with any choice, there are both pros and cons. At Salem Christian School, we had to move towards a format which enables the school to provide more dynamic instruction, broader choices, and more nimble scheduling that this change enables. Some of the major advantages researchers have noted are the following:

Improved Teaching and Learning

With longer blocks, teachers have more time to complete lesson plans. More class time is available to develop key concepts, incorporate creativity into instruction, and try a variety of classroom activities that address different learning styles. Longer time blocks allow for deeper instruction instead of wider coverage.(O’Neil, 1995; Eineder & Bishop, 1997).

Ability to Focus Attention

Using active learning methods helps the students better understand and retain material.(Rettig & Canady, 1996). With block scheduling, students have fewer subjects during a semester, enabling the learners to explore deeper and allow the teachers to focus efforts.

Fragmentation Reduced

With block scheduling, instructional time is not fragmented by frequent transitions between classes. Fewer distinct classes means less time spent on classroom management activities, such as calling attendance and organizing and focusing the class. In addition, there are fewer opportunities for students to arrive late to class (Rettig & Canady, 1996).

Individualized Pace

The schedule allows advanced students to move through material at a more rapid rate, and they are able to finish sequential language classes within one academic year. (Woronowicz, 1996).

More Course Offerings

Students actually take more courses in a standard plan because they enroll in at least eight classes per year instead of six or seven (Rettig & Canady, 1996).

Stronger Inter-Personal Relationship

A hallmark of SCS is the family atmosphere. Anything to promote this is always welcome. The number of daily classes for which students and teachers must adjust and prepare is decreased, allowing students to develop the deeper interpersonal relationships that are integral to academic success (Rettig & Canady, 1996; Eineder & Bishop, 1997). Teachers get to know students more personally which enables them to adapt lessons to the interests of their students.

Attitudes and Comprehension Improve

Research indicates that teachers’ and students’ attitudes about their school improve. Both teachers and students state that they get more done in class and learn more because they are better able to focus their attention. Classes address material in more depth, and teachers feel students are better able to comprehend and retain concepts learned in a block period (O’Neil, 1995; Eineder & Bishop, 1997).


College Preparatory

Almost all of our students move onto a four-year college degree at some point.  The transition from eight 40-minute classes to four 83-minute classes is difficult.  The skill to handle this is learned in an environment that is more personally supportive and has more accountability for the student in high school than in college.  Thus, this model prepares the students for the expectations that they will face.  The second preparatory element of block scheduling is the use of college credit and dual enrollment at SCS instead of Advanced Placement courses.  This better aligns the schedule to accommodate these courses.

These were the reasons that we moved to this model and continue to stay within this model.  Of course, there are always areas to improve.  We could better use the model.  But, it has significantly made a difference in the academic prowess of our school.  In fact we have been used as a model for other schools in the northeast.

We had the same concern about gaps in the learning that seems like it would occur due to the space of time between courses.  There are two aspects to this that would need to  explore.  The first is whether the gaps do indeed pose a challenge.  The second is what does the school and students do to overcome the  challenges if they do indeed exist.

Theoretically, we are teaching towards mastery and automaticity.  This means, that the student has adopted the skills, concepts, or outcomes to a degree that he or she can confidently and automatically rely on them.   Of course there are skills and concepts that need multi-courses and years to develop.  But, these skills are scaled so that we can teach mastery of each step so that they can use them automatically as they move onto the next level of skills or concepts.  We see this most often in mathematics and reading.  We teach the same skills in reading instruction from grade one all the way through twelfth grade.  However, at every step the skills are expanded and become more complex.  The gap between the school years often allow us to catch the gaps that have occurred in students who haven’t truly mastered something and allows us to provide remediation and review.

We recognize that some courses are more vulnerable to this gap than others.  For example, we read in every class and incorporate writing in every class.  Thus, there is no specific gap in this, because we expand the vocabulary and writing skills each time we confront new material in other classes.   However, math is sequential in skills and may be more vulnerable to the skills.   Granted, geometry and algebra are very different maths.  Thus, the skills are different.  But, because we want to ensure mathematics ability is strong and continue to build on strong SAT scores, we require a math lab in the semester that students are not in a leveled math class.  At SCS, our students received significant more time in math each year than any other program because we have this system.  The math labs allow for remediation, enrichment, and SAT prep.  The teachers have developed this course (which is unique to SCS) in order to have outcomes that are tailored in order to ensure our students’ scores on college boards are strong.

All of this seems to be working well.  However, we want to measure it and have hard data that supports this.  Thus, we have instituted a few things.  We have entrance exams in every math course every semester.  It provides feedback to the students, parents, and teacher about retention and specific instructional needs for that semester’s students.  Additionally, we have instituted that every student in grade 8-10 takes the PSAT.  This will provide valuable data that we can track and use to measure the efficacy of our program.

Thank you very much for submitting your question.  I hope that I have answered it.  If it prompts more, then I can continue on this topic or move onto the next question when it comes.

Head of School Blog


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Singapore Math Picture

Singapore Math in the Lehigh Valley

This week I would like to talk about math, because I like it.  In fact, it is one of my favorite subjects.  I am very proud of the efforts our school has made in math.  I look forward to analyzing the data we will be collecting over the next few years.  Great commendations should go to the teachers, recognizing their ability to deliver such a promising program.  Specifically, I would like to share about our Elementary math program.

Covers fewer topics in greater depth

Compared to a traditional and Common Core math curriculum, our program, Singapore math, Math in Focus,  focuses on fewer topics but covers them in greater detail. Each math textbook builds upon prior knowledge and skills, moving the students towards mastery and automaticity. We work hard so that the students are ready for their next level. By the end of sixth grade, Singapore math students have mastered multiplication and division of fractions and can solve difficult multi-step word problems, including basic algebraic understandings.

Our Math was found to emphasize the essential math skills recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).  They do this by focusing in on the essentials that build strong number sense and mathematical reasoning skills.

Three-step learning process

The younger grades spend a significant time building number sense through their work in part-part-whole.  This is the mathematical equivalent to phonics in reading.   The students learn that numbers, quantities, and algorithms are representative of something.  They learn how to take numbers apart and put them back together in a way that gives meaning.

They learn practical steps to solving word problems.  I loved math but loathed story problems.  No one taught me how to approach them or gave me the tools and confidence necessary to attack them.  Our students are taught the bar model beginning in grade two.  Our second grade teacher helps her young pupils see that 100 is comprised of other things.  We can find whole parts and missing parts, just by using the bar model.  Later in the intermediate grades, the teachers and students work through more challenging and complex uses of the bar model.  Just a bit of secret, I used the bar model to quickly solve ratios on the GRE (Graduate Records Exam) that I took for entrance into graduate school.

A bar model used to solve an addition problem. This pictorial approach is typically used as a problem-solving tool in Singapore math.

Three Step Process: Like We Learn

SCS math program teaches students mathematical concepts in a three-step learning process: concrete, pictorial, and abstract. This learning process was based on the work of an American psychologist, Jerome Bruner (1960). In the 1960s, Bruner found that people learn in three stages by first handling real objects before transitioning to pictures and then to symbols. That is why we teach the students in this matter.

The first of the three steps is concrete, wherein students learn while handling objects such as chips, dice, or paper clips. They use something that teachers call manipulatives, anything that the student can move around, touch, or manipulate in order to learn the concept or skill.  Students would learn to count these objects (e.g., blocks) by physically lining them up in a row counting them or grouping them. They would then learn basic math operations like addition or subtraction by physically adding or removing the objects from each row.

Students then transition to the pictorial step by drawing diagrams called “bar-models” to represent specific quantities of an object.  This involves drawing a rectangular bar to represent a specific quantity. For instance, if a short bar represents six books, a bar that is twice as long would represent a collection of twelve. By conceptualizing the difference between the two bars, students could learn to solve problems of addition by adding one bar to the other, which would, in this instance, produce an answer of eighteen books. Multiplication, division and subtraction can be solved by this model.  Additionally, they can use this model to begin to conceptualize algebra with missing parts to a math algorithm (problem).

Bar Modeling allows the student to model the thought process used to solve the math problem.  And, the teacher can provide strong feedback in order to help prevent errant thinking.   The student can move onto more complex mathematical problems with exclusively abstract tools such as symbols and numbers.  
The third part, abstract is simply writing the algorithm with symbols.  3 +4 = ?   or   3 + x = 7.

We don’t spend much time on math facts like the addition facts and multiplication facts.  But, that doesn’t mean that they are not important.  The teachers review them in the morning meeting.  However, this is something parents can do at home with their children to ensure they are prepared by playing a game, flashcard etc…

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Shifting Sand

IMG_0288If you are interested in learning about the efficacy of learning, you probably have heard of Scott McLeod.  Although he uses the provocative title, Shift Happens, he asks some powerful questions and provides some interesting assertions.  A few years ago I was introduced to him through a video in an in-service.  I was gobsmacked with what he had to say.  For some reason, he has reentered my sphere and it what he has to say is even more relevant today that it was just a few years ago.

A few years ago, I was listening to his TED talk and he piqued my interest when he said, “if a job is able to be moved somewhere else, it probably will.”  WOW!  What does this mean to an educational system that is preparing students to be economically viable and masters of information?  As an educational leader and as a school, we need to answer these questions.  Dr. Mcleod asserts that the world is shifting into new directions.  And, I assert that the souls in the seats of our classroom deserve a solid and viable answer.  Furthermore, I would conclude that we need to have this and every generation duly educated so that the Gospel is those who carry the Gospel must be able to do by being relevant to the continues to spread in earnest.

McLeod posited that, in summary, there are currently two big shifts and a problem.  The first shift is economic.  He asserted that as a society, “We are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist.”  This small idea was planted in me and among many other things has driven me to push for better, stronger, and more nimble instruction in the schools I lead.   I have to ask, “If this is true, then what we are preparing our students for?”  I would be a billionaire and a noble prize winner if I knew this answer for certainty.  For clarity, I am neither of these.

I was fortunate to see an interview with Dr. McLeod where he claimed that he rarely is an early adapter to new technology.  However, he saw wearable tech and immediately asked, “How can this be used for teaching and learning?”  How can this or any other technology or methodology enhance classroom instruction, observations, walkthroughs and instructional rounds?

To address this economical shift, we have to think about every little thing as an opportunity and how we can capitalize on change. We need to be sure that our curriculum should emphasize this.   It seems apparent that being nimble and visionary is imperative.  It’s not an abandonment of the traditional values of education, but of an emphasis on process as well as product.

Think about it, as soon as the gadget or app is invented it is nearly a dinosaur.   As educators, parents and students we need to be innovative, risk taking, student centered, and grounded in 21st century instruction. This is the only way we are going to be sure our students a prepared what is coming ahead, not what has already happened.  We need our students to have the ability to ask questions and leverage the tools of today so that they can be the entrepreneurs, innovators, and inventors of tomorrow.  To do be prepared for the unknown they need to have the basics and the creative skills and thinking that are used to shape tomorrow.

The second shift is about our information landscape.  This has shifted since the printing press.  At that time information and knowledge was available for the masses.  We are now seeing something similar.  Instead of the dispersion of information, these days anyone can create and publish any bit of information with little cost and great ease.  We are hyper-connected across the globe, finding content and each other with little effort.  This expansive information landscape requires questions.

As a school we need to adapt to the informational and economic landscape of our time with eyes on the future.  This adaptation needs to occur in the youngest grades throughout the schools.  No longer is the “right” answer good enough.  These factual recall and basic skills work of years past are just that basic.   Yet, we cannot forget that the basics are still necessary.  However, the structure of our curriculum and the delivery of the teaching must require our students go beyond the basic factual recall.  Google can answer what the Intolerable Acts are and when they occurred.  But, what our students need to do in the  forward learning environment is to educate our students in how to ask questions and use the tools to connect these Dr. McLeod believes that educators increasingly will realize that learning doesn’t have to tied to the school day…, but rather a more open and flexible structure. Who knows if he is right?  As a private Christian school, we have great opportunities.  But, we still need to realize that humans learn the same way.  It’s the cultural and societal shifts that require the school to approach the ever changing student.

One thing that I appreciate about Salem Christian School is that we understand that each student is different.  (Albeit, we will always have room to grow.)  We do know that each student is a unique part of God’s creation.  And, God has provided this student with a specific and personal set of strengths.  Each person has a particular place in the universe that only he or she can fill.


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Faith of Dissent

I may be somewhat out of step with my fellow Evangelical Christians in acknowledging a certain affinity for St. Benedict and the way of life he represents. Mind you, I am not advocating his theological beliefs.  There are vast differences between our theological mountains.  But, I admire some things about the dedication.

In my time in Europe during my high school years, I made the chance discovery, via the evangelical Lutheran church my host family attended regularly, of the ancient Daily Office.  This Daily Office was associated with the early monasteries and prescribed in St. Benedict’s Rule. These folks immersed themselves in the Psalms and the rest of Holy Scripture as they prayed in addition to hymns and chants.  Daily prayer structures the entire day and the whole of their life in the Benedictine community. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if our school community of Christians were to take up this practice. If our parents, faculty, administration, staff, student and I did so, it might just change the course of history.

We often must stand against the assumptions of the prevailing culture. Given my strong Christian roots and world travels, I recognize the perils of Christians ascribing to their ethnic nationalisms near canonical status.  We see God in view of our culture rather than seeing our culture in view of God.  Advancing our national pride can deflect so many from their primary allegiance to God’s kingdom. Indeed, we need to bring our faith into a commitment that grows deeper each day. God’s Word and common sense dictate that this depth can only be reached by reaching to God first.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture (1951) may offer a key to grasping this ideal. Niebuhr’s posits “Christ against culture” is generally associated with the Evangelical Christians who are generally based on the fidelity to the Gospel, not on ethnic distinctives. In my own experience as a follower of Christ and a Christian educator, I find that many of my fellow Christians, especially students, too easily speak of “engaging the culture”without having a strong sense of why they are doing so or of its associated perils. But I get this. Any effort to transform culture may do nothing of the sort if the Christian community does not first recognize the ways in which it is distinct from the culture it aspires to change.

Christianity, by design, is a faith of dissent. We are to be outliers, persons who stand out from the norm.  We are to be counter-culture.We are to provide the victory.  Often,many churches have permitted the various cultural revolutions to redirect the faith away from the hard path of obedience to one that simply affirms everyone without seeking to transform their affections and their lives by God’s word. It seems easier for Christian schools to declare the love of God without emphasizing the need for the disciplined life as a vessel of this love.Nevertheless, proclaiming a boundlessly permissive love is not the gospel. “Jesus did not die to liberate us from norms for living but to save us from the power of sin so that we might live for his glory in his good creation empowered by the Holy Spirit (Dreher, 1957).”

Our students may or may not recognize that there is a great falsehood we are fed by our post-Christian culture.  We are falsely led to believe that we belong to ourselves and that “one’s individual desires [are] the locus of authority and self-definition.” We are indeed not our own but belong to the God who has saved us in Jesus Christ. Just like those Benedictine monks, we as followers of Christ need to embrace order, obedience, and, above all, daily prayer. Where else could one find a community, than in a Christian school, whose very foundational principles and directives contradict our culture of hedonism and egoism and stand in the gap to save the next generation from the perils of a secular life?

Where indeed. Of course,the vast majority of Christians don’t embrace the Christian school.  They are lured by the lights and offerings of a secular setting.  People visiting this Christian community should see how we have in some fashion exemplified the Benedictine way. We need to be intentional.  We need to educate our children, and embody something of a parallel polis—that is, an alternative to the modern political community.  We need to demonstrate the fulfillment of living within and alongside the prevailing culture but not investing too much hope in it. We do not want to have our students eschew politics entirely, but have them recognize that no matter who is in administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries.

I enthusiastically agree with Dreher’s  (distinguished professor and author) counsel here: “For serious Christian parents, education cannot be simply a matter of building their child’s transcript to boost her chance of making it into the Ivy League.” And: “The separation of learning from virtue creates a society that esteems people for their success in manipulating science, law, money, images, words, and so forth.” It is right to understand education as formation of the whole person and not simply as the key to a better job. This is precisely why our school wants to develop students who love God with all their minds, bodies, and hearts.

Head of School Blog


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