A Change is Gonna Come

A little background info to the story I am about to relay.

Our school has operated for quite some time with a static schedule of 7 classes that meet every day and in the same order. Our class times vary a bit based on assemblies and special events with the primary class times being 40 minutes, 45 minutes, or 50 minutes. There is certainly a comfort level with having a steady rhythm. As a teacher, I am pretty sure what my 8 AM class will be like after a few weeks. I know who is sleepy in the morning, I know who is a bit frisky right after lunch. Unfortunately, I also know who will be late to first period and who plays a sport each season so they will be missing my last class pretty frequently.

A couple of years ago some momentum was (finally) building to look at alternatives to our daily schedule. I was one of the people agitating for this change. My current school is the fourth one where I have taught and each of my last two schools had rotating schedules. Each of them also combined some class drops and one noticeably longer class than others in the day. While the planning for a long class sometimes felt like a bit of a burden, the benefits of minimizing class misses due to sports and tardiness related to time of day were pretty big. I also noticed a benefit that surprised me. Different kids step up as class leaders at different times of day. The personality of my class never seemed as set as it has in the two schools I worked with static schedules. After many meetings and discussions, we hired a consultant to come in and learn about our school, talk to us about our goals, and suggest a working schedule. We settled on a  seven day rotating schedule. Each of our seven periods takes the starting block once during this rotation. Each of our seven periods gets a 90 minute block once during this rotation. Each of our classes meets five times during this seven day rotation. We get a two day back-to-back, a day off, then a three day back-to-back-to-back before another day off. Obviously weekends and school days off work in as well here. When a class does not meet for 90 minutes it meets for 50 minutes. So, what used to be our long class becomes our short class. We get the benefit of a 90 minute block with each of our classes once during a seven day rotation. There are all sorts of things about the schedule that makes me happy. But, there area also quite a few of my colleagues who have not taught in a rotating schedule, they have not planned around class drop days, they have not taught a 90 minute class. This leads to some anxiety, naturally. So, when we adopted the schedule in the spring of 2016 we set the fall of 2017 for the beginning of our life this way. We also announced that we would run a test trial sometime during the academic year that just ended. As a department chair, I started poking around for ways to help my team out in easing their concerns about this transition. I found a nearby school that had made a similar change and I arranged for a team of three teachers to visit that school. I was convinced that seeing this in action and talking directly to people who had lived through such a change would help build enthusiasm. I was right on that front. I also spoke directly to an administrator at that school and asked for advice about how to build support structure in my department for this change. He told me that the best thing his school had done for the math department was to hire a consultant specifically for math who came in and talked about long-term planning for rotating schedules, he talked about utilizing the 90 minute block, and he helped them start some important conversations about curriculum. With fewer contact days, some things we hold dear have to go.  This admin remembered that the consultant came from the Bay area of California and that his first name was Henri. I guessed who he was talking about just from the first clue. After the second clue, I knew I guessed correctly. He was recommending that we seek guidance from Henri Picciotto. My guess is that anyone reading this knows of Henri. If not, fix that quickly. Find him on twitter @hpicciotto. Go to his web home http://www.mathedpage.org  You’ll be happy you did. If your school is considering such a change, or if you simply need motivation and inspiration to really examine your practice as a department and to start serious conversations about curriculum, you should consider reaching out to Henri. I sought approval from my bosses and made arrangements for Henri to spend two days with my department during our final exam week. My Dean of Faculty arranged final exams so that we would have two days with no supervising responsibility so that we could spend two workdays as a team together. Let me tell you a bit about those two days and publicly thank Henri for helping to spur some serious conversations among my team, conversations that have been hard to start otherwise.

I reached out to Henri and shared the praise I had heard. I was excited about arranging this for a number of reasons. I had been reading Henri’s web page for some time and was excited when he dipped his toes into twitter. I had reached out to him for guidance about lagging HW (more on that later) and was happy to have met him in person last summer at twittermathcamp in Minneapolis. I also knew that we had already batted around a number of ideas together as a team here at my school and I felt that we needed to hear a new voice to prompt us to make some tough decisions. We also were looking at a brand new way of living in school that made these decisions feel much more urgent. We ran schedule trials twice in the winter/spring. Once, we ran a seven day cycle one time. The second time, we ran two full cycles. This prompted a combination of optimism about some of the structural advantages of the day under these new circumstances, but it also prompted some real concerns about pacing and curricular pressures. We were primed to have serious conversations and we needed guidance/wisdom/structure for these meetings. Once we agreed that the dates would work, Henri started peppering me with some questions via email and he sent me a set of files to run off for our meeting days. He sent me a broad outline of goals and times and we established that we would spend two days together from 8:15 – 3:15 with a lunch break and a few small breaks built in. I was excited for a number of reasons. First, Henri clearly had a vision for our time together and some rich activities were being sent my way. Second, we never have this much time together focused as a math team. Whenever we are together as a faculty for big pieces of time, we are together as a full faculty or broken into smaller non-departmental groups. I was so excited to spend this kind of time just talking about math and about teaching math. As the days got closer I was increasingly happy about this time together. I was appreciative of my team for being so open minded about this. Normally, during exam week if you do not have proctoring responsibility, your time is your own. I was able to get serious buy-in from six teachers who were trading in time off to grade for two eight hour workshop days. I cannot thank them enough for this.

We met on a Tuesday and a Wednesday in the middle of exam grading week. Within the first 45 minutes of our time together on Tuesday, I was pretty sure that I had made the right decision in inviting Henri to come. We started with a math exploration looking at the relationship between area and perimeter of polyominoes that had us talking in small groups, had someone on the board drawing and explaining a pattern, had me guessing (incorrectly) that some fancy combinatoric idea was hiding in the wings, and just generally energized the minds in the room. When we meet as a department we are usually wrapped up in talking work, in looking at schedules, in discussing policy. It is a shame that we rarely talk math when we are together. This activity immediately engaged everyone in the room and had us thinking out loud and working together. I won’t go through every activity we did together, but I will say that everyone in my department either thanked me for having Henri come to visit or told someone else on our staff about what a great experience that the workshop was for them. I have already heard second hand a number of lunch table stories where my department members were talking about the positive experience that the workshop was. Most importantly, conversations are flowing right now. Conversations that did not seem urgent without a schedule change looming. Conversations that are hard to have in small bursts between classes or through emails. Conversations that are hard to fit in on a crowded agenda for a monthly department meeting. Most importantly, these are conversations that are better started when a coherent, clear agenda for the conversation has been established. This is one of the places where Henri far exceeded my already high expectations and where Henri was just better suited to be a conversation starter than I am. Within fifteen minutes of our meeting on Wednesday ending, I had two teams of teachers discussing the curriculum for their courses. Debating sequencing of curriculum, debating what topics or chapters can be entirely eliminated from a course. Debating how we can offload some responsibility from earlier courses with younger kids to later courses where the students are more sophisticated and see more clearly the need for learning. Remember, my team had already sat through two eight hour workdays on days where they would normally be at home on their own time grading exams. After all of this, they were sitting excitedly debating their courses for the fall. Henri created such an energetic and focused atmosphere to tackle these big questions that my team did not want to leave. I had my children arriving on their bus while my team was still in my room talking. Conversations that I had been trying to have for about five years were happening. The combination of the impending schedule, the valuable structured time together, and Henri’s wisdom and enthusiasm kick started these conversations. I cannot overstate how valuable our time was together and how important these conversations are for our school and our students. After exams, we had another professional development opportunity to look at teaching in a 90 minute block and one of my department colleagues was there as our representative. She talked about how enthusiastic the members of other departments were about this activity, but she remarked that she was spoiled by the two days we spent together with Henri. Pretty nice praise there.

Is your school is looking at structural changes to your schedule? Are you  wrestling with structural conversations about curriculum? Are you looking for high quality, focused professional development time with your math department? If you answered yes to any of these questions, I cannot recommend Henri Picciotto highly enough. I am not his agent, I am not a paid actor here, I am simply a happy happy teacher who has benefited greatly from the time my department spent with Henri two weeks ago. My team seems much less anxious about the changes in our life and they seem clearer on curriculum and instructional goals. I am convinced that our students will benefit greatly from this time we spent together.

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