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It’s a Pandemic! Blow Up Your Bell Schedule (now & when we come back)

Now that we have moved to distance learning, bell schedules have gone bye bye. Good. We innovated in weeks and the world has evolved since the 1950s. But do you still have a 6 period day? See how you can unlock the hidden power in your bell schedule. See how it created the conditions for success at my school.

Let It Go (the control)

Even though some schools are foolishly asking students to follow the seven-hour-day bell schedule during school closure and remote learning, it is time to let that shit go for everyone. Most of us, have moved to asynchronous learning and built in plenty of breaks for students to be kids and deal with their lives. It is time that we end our obsession with control of students, fixating on Seat time, and ringing bells for our Pavlovian dog/children hybrid.

What about Remote/Distance Learning Schedules?

First things first. There shouldn’t be much of a schedule during this pandemic time. Honestly, we shouldn’t even be calling it distance learning. At our school, we renamed it “Connecting & Learning Through Crisis.” There have been a lot of thoughts about whether learning should be synchronous or asynchronous, as well as whether we should have a full day of learning or a partial day.

Covid19 4 part

I wrote about this in a previous blog post, A Principal Ponders Pandemic Pedagogy – 19 Provocations. In short, less is more, relationships over rigorous learning, and all kids should get an A. We need to be fighting the forces of white supremacy culture in our schools and manifesting anti-racism. It would have been cool to not even assign any work and let everyone breathe, but we still felt the need to have some structure. Our teachers created a plan that was more flexible, responsive, and accessible to students.

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We also wanted to leave plenty of free time for staff. That was important to me as a Principal. We are all at home trying to balance everything. So much of the time is asynchronous and flexible for staff to use the mode of instruction that they see fit.

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I could have written grading, assessment, or calling families in more boxes. But it felt more humanizing to just leave OPEN BOXES. Marie Kondo that shit. And honestly, we are planning this schedule around our most marginalized students. Everything for students is choose your own adventure, work at your own pace, and responsive. A lot of our students might be lacking computers, wifi, or a quiet place to work. Parents might be going through all kinds of things so let’s plan for them.

In true design thinking, we would see how they access the curriculum, if they log in and submit assignments. Then we need to revise and redesign.

Ok what about when we come back to “real school”


I am not about that Status Quo Life

I went into teaching to make changes for students of color and poor kids, and I went into leadership to make changes for a whole school. The truth is things have been designed to maintain the status quo and produce under-skilled underclass. It also has been designed to promote our current racial hierarchy.

It is my job as a leader to see how new structures can create conditions for deeper learning, student engagement, and more opportunity for success; especially for oppressed and marginalized students. In times of crisis, like this coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to place love, care, and compassion at the center of our work.

I wonder how we can create more humanizing structures and conditions for our staff and students.

Let’s start with the bell schedule.

We are no longer preparing students to be factory workers and simply pass the US Citizenship test. It’s inequitable and oftentimes racist to only “offer” interesting and rigorous courses to some students. Culturally Responsive Leadership says it’s time to say goodbye to the boring, robotic 6-period daily schedule.

Buh bye bland bell schedules.

Issues with Traditional Schedules

  1. You can usually only fit 6 classes depending on how long they are.
  2. Students have more than 1 interest, and they deserve more choice.
  3. There are more than 6 competencies to cover.
  4. How do you get in social-emotional learning and intervention classes?
  5. 40-50 minutes aren’t enough for deeper learning, experiments, projects, group work, or individual feedback.
  6. By the time you start and introduce something, there are only 5 minutes left!
  7. Real life doesn’t happen in 45-minute increments, and it’s not isolated.

Neo, think outside the box

Better yet, blow up the box!

Blow it Up – 8 Big Changes You Can Make

  • Look at block scheduling and hybrid blocks
  • Add a 7th or 8th class period but spread it out over a week
  • Create a 10-day rotation
  • Start each day with an intervention period to fill in skill gaps
  • End each day with office hours where students can drop into any teachers classroom for help
  • Coordinate your schedule with a local college or community center to offer more options
  • Add a daily period for community building or social-emotional learning.
  • Think of releasing students early to provide more time for teacher collaboration and planning (here’s what you can do with the time)

skeleton meetings


If you can’t completely overhaul your schedule, try something small.

  • How about a 0 period to allow for additional course offerings?
  • Add a “Week without Walls” like Leadership High School, where staff offer something fun and outdoors and students choose based on their interest.
  • Combine classes to create Integrated Courses and offer more electives.
  • Add an Advisory period once per week to develop social-emotional learning skills.

Boundless Benefits

If you are brave and creative enough to attempt this, the sky is the limit. This is why we need Culturally Responsive Leaders. If you do the hard work, students will have time for more robust science labs and art projects. Students can build bridges, program robots, and design egg drop crates.

Teachers will have time to check in with more students and ensure that students are grasping the content. Project-Based Learning and outdoor education can become more accessible.

Longer periods provide time for students to work together, tapping into a collectivist approach to harness the potential of many students of color. Integrated courses can also provide the brain with more opportunities to elaborate, apply, and connect synapses.

In longer periods, students can develop deeper relationships with teachers through the increased production of oxytocin. This allows for social justice applications and discussion of real-world issues. Block periods can provide more time for the development of cognitive routines and provide students with “chew” time (Hammond, 2015).

It’s Real in the Field

At my school, students are behind and start in the 6th grade with many skill gaps. 75% were not reading on grade level, with the majority students 3-4 grade levels behind.

We realized that we couldn’t offer students reading intervention and English language development class because they also wanted to take an elective. All students deserved access to art classes. And students should get something they consider fun.

It wasn’t fair to force remediation into their only choice class. Also, we wanted to implement project-based learning, which didn’t fit into 38 or 50 minute periods. Finally, we wanted our student to have access to health and computer science, a new school board mandate.

Fire in the hole.

Kaboom. (I should write about the process of changing it sometime)

We added a 7th period for all, added reading intervention, combined lunches, and went to a modified 72-minute block schedule. It got even crazier. On 2 days per week, we decided to release students early at 1:15pm. We moved our start time up 45 minutes earlier. The debris is still settling but we are reaping the benefits. See our bell schedule here.

We actually started the previous year, by hacking, and using a 0 period for our Newcomer English Language Learner students, to take ELD. This gave some students space in their schedule to take an art class. This became a bright spot (learn more about leveraging bright spots here) to build towards a larger redesign process.

We used a 7 month process of design thinking to redesign our bell schedule and master schedule.

Where are we Now? 3 years After the Explosion

  • Our reading scores are accelerating at triple the pace. We started with 3 levels of reading intervention, but that has blossomed into an additional course for students with disabilities, leveled English Language Development courses, and small 1:1 pullouts for students who are still working on phonics and letter blends.
  • Students in our Project Based Learning classes reported more engagement and interest in their classes, according to annual surveys and just by seeing how interested they are in their classes. Teachers reported that they felt more prepared for their classes and were able to catch up on grading. Teachers are grading less work on the weekends.
  • During our early release time, we added PLCs for teachers, open collaboration time for teachers to connect with any teacher they don’t normally have shared prep time with. We have the flexibility to have a 2 hour meetings, 30-minute meeting or anything in-between. Now groups form organically, and teachers are even offering Office Hours for students to come in and makeup work.
  • Students were able to take both an elective course and an intervention course. Since some students were proficient in reading, they ended up getting access to a second Elective course. We have added Spanish, Computer Science, Health, and African American Manhood Development.
  • We have 2 Homeroom periods and use them for circles, community building, assemblies, SEL lessons, exploring patriarchy, presentations, and more.
  • We are seeing more exhibitions, presentations, and displays of learning, some of which are cross-curricular or shown to other grade level teams.
  • Teachers are saying, “I really hate the days when we see all classes for 44 minutes. We don’t get anything done. I like blocks better.”
  • Students are in class and spend less time in the hallways between classes. And it’s calmer.


Final Words

The big question here is, if we can redesign for our most marginalized students now, why can’t we/you do this all the time? What will you do when you return to the real, and you can go back to status quo? Will you? Or will you hack it? Will you blow it up? What is holding you back?

Culturally Responsive Leaders signed up to work with students, teachers, and the systems at large. Sometimes you have to patch up a wall, and other times you have to knock it down and rebuild it. You’ll know when it’s time! Btw, it’s now. Kaboom.

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