How 5 Lost Minutes Altered Our Class Culture
A MiddleWeb Blog
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.
That 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.
What 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.
If 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.