As an expression, “saved by the bell” may have gotten its start in the boxing ring, but it has found a permanent home in the modern high school, where bells ringing at set intervals continue to serve as the organizing force for the rhythms of the day. Even in schools that no longer actually ring anything, official school documents designating when daily activities begin and end are still known as “bell schedules.”
The traditional bell schedule of six 40-minute classes per day every day of the week has been under intense scrutiny by education researchers for decades, but with the recent arrival of the Common Core State Standards, which emphasize deep learning for practical application over rote memorization of specific content, interest in this research among practicing teachers has spiked. If there’s one observation that’s common to schools confronting the Core, it’s this — time has defined learning for too long. In the new bell schedules, the goal is to turn this around and have learning define the use of time. Recently I visited the Dos Pueblos (DP) High School campus to see how these 2014-15 school year changes are working in real time.
Time for a Change
At Dos Pueblos High School, they call the new bell schedule Seminar and Extended Learning. It’s only on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with Monday, Tuesday, and Friday remaining traditional six-period days. This schedule allows DP to roll out three new research-based programs at once. The Seminar program meets for 41 minutes (10:29-11:10am) on Wednesdays and Thursdays and is intended to allow students to do some of their homework, to receive individual support from both teachers and students, or to pursue other school activities. The rest of the academic day is devoted to three extended learning periods that are similar to what are known as block periods. Over the course of these two days, each of a student’s six classes meet for 92 minutes, allowing teachers to provide uninterrupted, in-depth instruction or to initiate group projects once a week. Finally, both Wednesday’s and Thursday’s classes begin at 8:45 a.m. so that teachers can use the first 40 minutes to meet and collaborate with each other.
For Bill Woodard, the assistant principal who oversees curriculum development at Dos Pueblos, the new Wednesday-Thursday schedule comes as a direct response to the state-mandated implementation of Common Core. “The six-period day just did not have the flexibility that we needed to delve more deeply into the material,” he said, explaining the new Extended Learning periods. “It was created for a different curriculum, and to do what we are being asked to do now, we had to move on.”
The roots of Dos Pueblos’ innovative Seminar program, however, lie in an attempt to solve another major challenge. A recent WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) evaluation revealed that despite DP’s otherwise very high achievement record, a surprisingly high percentage of D and F grades were being recorded, almost one-third of the student body. Seminar is the radical answer to this challenge: a new “anti-class” common period. Under similar pressure to supply more individual learning support during school hours, San Marcos High also adopted this innovation this year. There they call it “Royal Time.”
A Little Help from Your Friends
I asked Robin Selzler, the English faculty member supervising the Seminar program at Dos Pueblos, how important the new schedule is to Seminar, and her eyes widened as she said, “We could never have done this without the schedule change — it would simply not be possible.” A critical part of Seminar is the student-teacher initiative that matches top students with those who need some tutoring. This is where Selzler is particularly enthusiastic: “My favorite unexpected thing about Seminar is watching what it’s doing for the students who are teaching. They are getting invested in the school, in the curriculum, and in their own learning in a whole new way.”
For Heather Magner, the librarian who provides the student teaching program with the space it calls home, the new tutorial component is at the heart of the school’s collective drive toward deep and meaningful change. “I was crying on the first day — all of us teachers were. Seeing the way that these students who are struggling with Ds and Fs reacted to the attention and generosity of their peers was stunning. They respond completely differently to help when it is offered by a fellow student.”
Observing the action in the library during Seminar for myself on a recent Thursday morning proved that it’s a revolutionary concept for school libraries, as well, as they are transformed by the influx of student teachers and their pupils into bustling learning carnivals. Every table in the Dos Pueblos library was full, and at every table there was a smiling student standing by with a big notepad on an easel, nodding in recognition, and teaching his or her heart out to help others who are less academically inclined get going on the way to success in school. Not once did I see anyone in the all-too-familiar posture of staring at the clock on the wall, and when the time for Seminar to end finally came, it felt like that bell rang too soon.