The thoughtful classroom is a place where students are able to study topics in depth and to develop critical thinking talents. The idea of extended class periods has recently been suggested as a means of improving the atmosphere for developing these important social studies goals (Carroll 1994; Kruse 1995). Longer periods allow the students to spend time in specific content areas in order to develop communication and critical thinking skills. Teachers enjoy a twofold benefit by having additional time with each student and reducing the total number of students in class each day (Schoenstein 1994).
Extended classes must be approached and planned in a completely different manner from shorter class periods. A ninety-minute period is a unique educational opportunity. The extended class is not two shorter classes put together; it must be planned as a coordinated unit, and such planning requires a very high level of teaching ability. The professional level of teacher preparation in extended classes is much higher than in shorter classes, and the full advantage of extended periods will be obtained if the planned enriched daily activities are incorporated into the weekly and monthly teaching plans.1
The lesson plan for an extended period must be driven by the content material, with the topic for the daily lesson dictating the activities. The planning process for extended classes should be approached in the spirit of a fresh beginning rather than with the intention of adjusting old lesson plans. The critical thinking goals of the extended classes are attainable only if they are the primary objective. Some experienced teachers resist the idea that the older methods such as date memorization should be dropped completely in favor of the development of the abilities of students, and it is important for the teacher of extended periods to carefully balance content material and the development of skills and abilities.
An example of the kind of activity for which the extended classroom period is perfectly suited is the analysis and evaluation of the historical impact of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Student groups can research other important speeches, investigate the impact of the speech during the Civil War, or evaluate Lincoln's ideas in the speech. Each group can in turn report back to the class on its findings.
Most experienced teachers are prepared to handle the new difficulties of grading group work and monitoring less structured activities that are characteristic of extended periods. The problem of allocating classroom time is the dilemma most often mentioned as the obstacle to implementing a new agenda. It is vital for the teacher to explain to the students the goals of the course. The students should be included as full partners in the drive for improvement of their skills and abilities along with the coordinated requirements of the content learning process. Each classroom lesson should be introduced with an explanation of the planned process for the development of skills and abilities expected of each student.
This student partnership role also extends to out-of-class work. It is critical that students complete homework assignments so that class time can be dedicated to the development of skills and abilities. (To increase student awareness of the importance of this goal, a local businessman might be invited to address the class on the importance of evaluation skills as a characteristic of successful employees.) If the students can be convinced that the new educational process is for their long-range benefit, then the course agenda can be approached effectively as a partnership.
If the classroom is to be used for less structured enrichment activities, then homework might best be more structured and presented in weekly assignments. This is especially true in social studies, where additional reading is normally required. With the pressure on classroom time growing, the text material is perfect for home assignments. The students can be tested on this material both separately and in combination with class work. The use of texts is also going through a reconsideration as part of efforts to develop a new social studies curriculum. Much of the material of texts can be used for purposes of reference rather than as an intensive reading requirement.
A Few Problems
Although the extended class might double the time students and teachers have with each other every day, the course moves at double speed through the semester. This presents a major problem for the slower student who might fall behind. Illness and personal or family problems can also play havoc with the ability to keep up with the class. Parental contact must be made as soon as a problem is discovered. The fast pace of a single semester course does not allow for a week's delay to see if the situation will improve.
Student absenteeism is also a problem. A student who has missed two days of an extended class has missed three hours of participation (Schoenstein 1994). It is necessary for the teacher to keep the absent student in mind and to prepare for his or her return. Most likely, the student will approach the teacher two minutes before class and inquire what she or he has missed in two days. The teacher might have catch-up sessions before school or prepare packages to help students cover missed work. Some missed assignments will simply have to be excused.
An individual school's programs may also conflict with an extended class schedule. Each day in an extended class is precious and cannot be made up. If a school has an active extracurricular program, there may be many days in which special bell schedules will shorten the class. Individual students will be out of class for sports, club activities, or special school projects. These interruptions are serious intrusions on the extended class time. The teacher must continually press for a commitment from the school to this program. The decision to go to the extended class must include the realization that this educational approach results in new requirements for support.
Student classroom behavior is the most serious threat to the extended classroom schedule. Group work, student presentations, and a thoughtful classroom atmosphere can be destroyed by a single disruptive student. Teachers must have clearly defined behavior guidelines. The social studies department and the school administration should develop a plan of action to support the teacher.
The Attitude of the Teacher
Having observed two different schools go through the process of adapting to extended classes, it has become apparent to me that a successful program depends on the attitude of the teacher. A constructive atmosphere can be created by providing each teacher with the theoretical background and goals of the extended classes (Carroll 1994; Huff 1995).
Teacher development workshops are crucial for all teachers regardless of the number of years they have spent in the classroom. For a school to attain the objectives of the extended classes, an entire support system is needed for both teachers and students.
Teacher support could take the form of successful lesson plans and videos of extended classes (NEC 1994). Teachers can also benefit from training in cooperative learning and other strategies that support the goals of the extended classes. A major concern of teachers is the difference in reaction to extended classes by students of various ability levels. Discussions in department meetings, after school meetings of teachers in related subjects, or a simple buddy system could provide each teacher with the necessary support for new situations (Buckman 1995).
The role of substitute teachers becomes much more important in extended periods. Many extended class teachers report that they hesitate to miss days in class because of the time pressure of the semester course. In a forty-five-minute class, there are several types of lesson plans that can be easily executed by a substitute teacher. This same substitute teacher must be prepared to teach a substantially more difficult and significant lesson to an extended class. The training and coordination of substitute teachers should prepare them for the demands of extended classes.
Student support begins in the classroom. Very few students know how the traditional school schedule was developed, and resistance to the change to extended classes can be reduced by discussions of the theories that underpin different kinds of schedules. A review of the history of American schools focusing on how the present scheduling system was created is a good starting point, and could conclude with a discussion of the improvement desired as a result of the change to extended periods. Relating the contemporary goals and abilities of both social studies and extended classes to the modern work place will help to connect the classroom to each student's future in the working world. Support for students in the form of access to the school's facilities is essential for longer classes. Lesson plans that call for cooperative learning groups using library, computer, or other technical equipment are of little use without that equipment. Television and video equipment in each room are a necessity for extended classes.
Before teaching extended classes, I was apprehensive about the actual teaching, students' reactions, and the value of longer classes. The results of the teaching contained a number of surprises, which are outlined in the chart. My original questions, and the subsequent answers to them, were as follows:
1. Will I be able to productively sustain ninety minutes each day? I found that, just as in shorter periods, there is never enough time in class. The ninety minutes pass, and it seems that I am left with more to do than time permits.
2. Will the longer classes really allow me to get to know students' strengths and weaknesses (Carroll 1994; Schoenstein 1994)? The importance of the improved student-teacher relationship is far greater than I had expected. My ability to understand each student increased by a factor greater than just the doubling of the classroom time.
3. Will planning for an extended class period be more difficult than for other classes? Planning for extended classes is far more difficult than for other classes. Cooperative and team group projects take longer to plan. The implementation of other new teaching techniques also demands additional preparation.
4. Will the students be able to perform effectively in longer classes (Carroll 1994)? I found that, with the proper planning, my students functioned very well in the longer classes. As we got to know each other and the students became aware of the goals for the course, they performed very effectively. The students did more writing, studied topics in depth, and worked in groups to take an active part in their own education.
5. Will lower level students find the longer classes too difficult (Carroll 1994)? My experience is just the opposite. The increased student-teacher relationship actually helped many lower level students. Although the extended classes are not an answer to all problems, surly lower level students can benefit from the increased time with an individual teacher rather than having to move to a new situation every forty-five to fifty-five minutes.
6. How will student or teacher absenteeism affect the course? Both student and teacher absenteeism have a negative effect on the class that is greater than might be expected. I and my teaching colleagues find it almost impossible to miss class. Anything longer than a one-day absence by a student is a major problem (Schoenstein 1994).
The extended class period is a unique educational opportunity. The teacher's approach to planning, content material, class assignments, and homework assignments needs to be completely distinct from the shorter classes. The relationship between the teacher and school administration must also reflect the school's commitment to the program.
The extended class can help to meet the new challenges demanded by our modern society. The new scheduling has its problems, and these longer periods will, of course, not answer all the questions directed at our educational system. Nevertheless, major benefits can be achieved in the extended class that improve students' future chances of success in higher education and career goals (Carroll 1994; Schoenstein 1994). The improvement of skills and abilities can be significant if the teacher is prepared to accept the new challenges of the social studies classroom.
1It should be noted that an interesting, thoughtful, and well-planned lesson does not necessarily need continual changes in student activities. Changing activities just to provide for student movement will not make up for a dull, poorly planned lesson.
Bradley Commission on History in Schools. Building A History Curriculum. Westlake, Ohio: Bradley Commission on History, 1988.
Buckman, Daniel, Bonnie King, and Sheila Ryan. Block Scheduling: Means To Improve School Climate. Bulletin. Reston, Va.: National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1995.
Carroll, Joseph M. The Copernican Plan Evaluated. Bloomington, Ind.: Phi Delta Kappan, 1994.
Huff, A. Leroy. Flexible Block Scheduling: It Works For Us! Bulletin. Reston, Va.: National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1995.
Kruse, Carol A., and Gary D. Kruse. The Master Schedule and Learning: Improving The Quality Of Education. Bulletin. Reston, Va.: National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1995.
National Education Commission on Time and Learning. Prisoners Of Time. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994.
Parker, Walter. Renewing Social Studies Curriculum. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1991.
Schoenstein, Roger. "Building The High Schools Of The Future." Virginia Journal of Education (December 1994).
Monroe Brett teaches social studies at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Greenbelt, Maryland.