How 5 Lost Minutes Altered Our Class Culture

A MiddleWeb Blog

Working_Draft-final-logoFive minutes doesn’t seem like much, does it? Five minutes flies by in the blink of an eye. Open a book for reading and by the time you find the page you left off, time is almost up.

Start a math problem, and in five minutes you might still only be scratching the surface. Or, perhaps still scratching your head.

At my school, though, a measly five minutes has meant a lot. This school year, we added five minutes to each of our content area classes, causing a negative ripple effect in our cultivation of classroom community.

It turns out, five minutes is a lot more valuable than it seems.

Let me back up . . .

Our school district has had legitimate concerns about Math and ELA “time on learning” instruction over the past few years. A new mandate from the top directed that every student should now be getting at least an hour a day of ELA and Math.

squ time to learnThat one-hour mandate seems quite reasonable until you run up against the scheduling matrix. It’s a particular problem for our sixth grade level which uses a middle school model in a K-6 elementary school.

Our sixth grade schedule had to go from 55 minutes per class to 60 minutes, not just for ELA and Math, but also for Science and Social Studies. This overall change is due to the way our schedule is built on content-area blocks, with students moving through the four classrooms. Again, that hour mandate makes sense from the outside, top-down viewpoint.

More time is more instruction is more learning.

But the question became, where would we find those five minutes (or really, 20 minutes altogether) in a day already jammed full with instruction? It’s not like we had a lot of down time, where students are just hanging around. Even snack was always a working snack.

So the decision was made to push our morning “special” classes (art, music, gym and library) back so they started right at the very beginning of the school day. This shift provided some wiggle room for making the content-area classes longer and achieving the 60 minute mandate.

Sounds good, right? An easy fix. But . . .

Here’s what we lost when we did that: a block of time at the start of each day with our homeroom class.

This short homeroom period used to be the time we allocated for our Responsive Classroom activities and our daily Circle of Power and Respect (i.e., Morning Meeting). It was a time when we could “check in” with each other and share our lives outside of the school. We would do collaborative, community-building activities. We would come together and forge an identity as a group of learners.

This year, that time has nearly disappeared, and I’ve missed it terribly.

All year, my sixth grade colleagues and I have been lamenting the loss of that little bit of connection. We have not necessarily seen any great leaps forward in learning to show for an extra five minutes in the content-area classes, either.

isolated-tween-girl-2What we have lost is a cohesive identity as a class. While that does not necessarily have an impact on state testing results or learning activities in the content classes, it is a huge deal for middle school teachers, particularly as we experience some of the social aspects of what it means to be sixth graders.

This has been one of those cases where you don’t quite know what you have until it’s gone. The other afternoon, during a day when our schedule was already out of whack, I carved out a 20-minute block with my homeroom to have a Circle of Power and Respect. It reminded me how wonderful such connections can be.

I learned about upcoming plans, about events that had just happened, about family stories, and I shared about myself, too. We did a collaborative activity together as a class, laughing together and working together. It was a brief, powerful echo of the gatherings we used to be able to do just about every morning.

Middle school teachers have special work to do . . .

The chance to have that Circle reminded me yet again that teaching young people is more than teaching content. The power of teaching is connecting with the lives of young people, as individuals, all of whom are living their own stories and weaving their own narratives.

boys-reading 300If we don’t nurture a safe place for adolescents to feel not just connected, but part of something larger, we run the danger of losing them, particularly the most fragile of them.

For some students, the “greeting” activity in Circle of Power and Respect/Morning Meeting might be one of the few times they are looked in the eye, and told, “Good Morning,” even if we sometimes do it in other languages, or in a funny voice, or speaking the words backwards.

That greeting might be the only time they are purposely brought into a collaborative activity with some classmates. It might be the only time they have the floor to speak about what’s on their mind. It’s about building empathy and listening and talking, and positive social interactions.

More changes are afoot for our schedule for next school year, and it seems like we might get our five minutes back (plus a small pocket of minutes in the morning). If so, I will celebrate the return of community building in my classroom, instead of jamming those activities and meetings in when we have a minute or two in an already hectic schedule.

The pay-off might not be visible and immediate, but the impact will be there just the same.

Kevin Hodgson

Kevin Hodgson is a sixth grade teacher in Southampton MA and outreach coordinator for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. An aspiring writer and former newspaper journalist, Kevin believes that all students are writers and that writing is one of the most fundamental means of understanding the world. His views around literacy include interaction within the digital world, meeting students on common ground, and helping them make the shift from passive consumers to active creators and collaborators. He is a co-editor of Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change and Assessment in the 21st Century and blogs regularly at Kevin’s Meandering Mind. He can also be found on Twitter as @dogtrax.

7 Responses

  1. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    Thank you for calling attention to the complexity of schools, and how one small change can impact something else that is crucial–building relationships with students.

  2. Theresa Doerfler says:

    Kevin, you have made such an important point! I can’t imagine starting my day without a morning meeting, where we can connect and discuss our goals for the day. It is such an important part of our day as those connections are reignited and everyone feels acknowledged. I teach third grade and we are looking at the possibility of departmentalizing. I am going to work hard to be sure our morning and closing meetings don’t disappear because of that kind of schedule change. They are just too valuable to our success!

    • dogtrax says:

      I wonder if there is a trend to departmentalize in earlier grades, Theresa, and what we gain (expertise, movement in the day) and what we lose (content connections, flexibility of instruction). Our sixth grade teams finds it valuable, except for when we run up against scheduling issues.

      • Theresa Doerfler says:

        I have noticed that departmentalization is happening in the younger grades. Our school just started in 4th and 5th grade last year. But, from what I read, it is being implemented in kindergarten through 5th grade in some schools in the country. I do believe it is a growing trend but I worry about variables like connections (relationships), integration of subjects, and flexibility as you mentioned. While it is appealing to plan intensely for only a few subjects, I’m not ready to say that it is worth the variables I mentioned being affected. But even without departmentalization, the things that develop community in a classroom need protected from disappearing due to of a lack of time/schedules!

  3. Sally Schaller says:

    Time and again, the powers that be forget that we are working with human beings. The problem is, you can’t measure those crucial and necessary components (connections, relationships) as data in computer programs that have to satisfy somebody. And as a specials teacher, I’ve found that the classes who have a positive community atmosphere are the happiest most motivated individuals. So obvious.

  4. Karen Kraeger says:

    So many important points made here! The socio-emotional factors are perhaps most significant for middle school students, so anything we can do to honor that will help in all other areas. Even if it doesn’t show up immediately in test scores. It will show later in reduced drop out rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, less risky behavior in high school, and finally better achievement in high school and beyond. Not just achievement on standardized tests, but achievement in real life.

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