Spotlight on Teaching: The New JK-8 Schedule

By Robbie Pennoyer, Assistant Head of School & Dean of Studies

If you were a stranger to the new JK–8 schedule and you found yourself walking the Middle School halls just after ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning, you might be surprised to see a huddle of students working through the day’s New York Times crossword puzzle. The lights are off in the next room over, where students are watching a German film. The Chess Team (intense, competitive, mostly boys) plays matches under the watchful gaze of their master coach, while across the hall the Women’s Achievements Club (rapt, cheerful, all girls) listens to a recent graduate speak about her professional challenges and triumphs. Elsewhere in the building, you would encounter other clusters of Middle Schoolers engaged in activities you’re unused to seeing during the school day: a quartet of string players tuning instruments and preparing to rehearse a new piece; dancers mastering the steps to some Ugandan choreography they’ve been studying with a visiting artist; budding composers receiving a tutorial in the new software that, next week, they’ll use to record and produce original songs; students in one room swapping Sudoku strategies while, in the next, others lounge about, reading their way through library books.

Welcome to Flex Time, the half-hour midmorning break during which Middle Schoolers can choose from a vast array of elective classes and clubs. They meet Monday, Tuesday, and Thursdays. None are graded. None assign homework. All have pedagogical merit. This is the sort of program to boast about in admissions propaganda. Where else are students so young empowered so early to shape their own education? It illustrates the school’s values (our commitment to supporting student passions; our belief in the pedagogy of joy). It produces excellence (the chess and Model UN teams have the trophies to prove it). And it can be bait for luring new teachers (“Come to Grace, and you can design the course you’ve always wanted to teach!”). In short, it is the crown jewel of the new schedule. It was also an afterthought, the at-hand answer to a mundane question: When should students eat snack?

The previous iteration of Grace’s schedule served the school well during the addition and expansion of the High School Division. It made classes longer, introduced a calendar of “letter days” that rotated around a fixed Wednesday, and attended to the pacing of the day by balancing academic periods with breaks.

Every schedule involves some measure of compromise. Increase the standard duration of classes from forty minutes to an hour, and you’ll gain what scheduling nerds call “vertical time”—the sort of continuous classroom time helpful for project-based learning or for going deeper into subjects whose surface, given less class time, you’d barely skim. So, let’s say you go ahead and expand the length of classes. Unless you’re cutting program elsewhere in the week, you’ve just committed yourself to decreasing the frequency with which those classes meet. What may be a welcome change to a history teacher (I love that I now have the time to dig deep, debate, and be creative with what we’re learning!) may seem like a travesty to a language teacher (How am I supposed to teach a new language when students can go days without hearing or speaking it?).

Many of the forces behind the old schedule’s compromises were set to peter out at the start of the 2018–19 school year. That was when construction would wrap up at 46 Cooper Square opening the new gym, the woodshop, and the design lab—world class facilities available for the Middle Schoolers to use, if schedules could find a way to accommodate their doing so. Overnight, there would be a way to ease the demand for space in the crowded schedule of the 86 Fourth Avenue gym. As soon as we moved classes out of that gym, there could be cascading benefits throughout the divisions. A committee of faculty and administrators spent the 2017–18 school year surveying faculty and students, drawing up a big wish list for a new schedule and plotting out how best to avoid many painful compromises to achieve them.
Here’s a partial list of what we set out to do: take the JK–8 off of the rotating schedule (to boost consistency for younger students); increase the frequency of class meetings while keeping class duration longer than the 40-minute length that has been the elementary-school standard; find opportunities for seventh and eighth graders to take advantage of new spaces on the high school campus; ensure that there are long blocks of homeroom time for the youngest students; include daily tutorials for fifth and sixth graders at the end of the day.

We’re now wrapping up the first year with the new schedule. It’s not flawless—no schedule is—but it managed to do what we set out for it to do. (When designing a new schedule, as when fishing with dynamite or shaving with a machete, simply doing what you set out to do—no more, no less—qualifies as a triumph.) With a typical class length of fifty minutes, we’ve found a Goldilocks compromise that feels not too short and not too long. Each discipline meets more frequently. Early Childhood classes have long stretches of homeroom time in the morning and the afternoon. The seventh and eighth graders have PE in the new gym and fitness center, and their art, drama, and technology classes also meet in new spaces at 46 Cooper Square. With those classes moved to 46, the busiest rooms at 86 Fourth Ave. are less tightly scheduled, allowing many classes to meet at more sensible times and some to meet in more desirable locations or in smaller sections. Oh, and snack no longer takes place out in the halls, but during Flex Time, that midmorning patch of time cleared for the purpose but that, once on the books, provided space for new electives, clubs, and other offerings of value even greater than the caloric.

The schedulers of any school have the opportunity (perhaps even the obligation) to avoid replicating any features of a schedule that they complained about when they were children. The great bugbear from my student days was that on Tuesdays and Thursdays my elementary school served lunch later than on other days. No matter how captivating the teaching may have been during the 12:30–1:10 class on those days, my stomach would protest: You should be eating now, not learning! The new JK–8 schedule fixes lunch periods at the same time every day of the week. Somewhere in the foggy past, a younger me is smiling into the future, nodding with approval.

What’s the right way to measure the success of a new schedule? If pleasing folks is the goal, then this schedule seems to have succeeded. We surveyed students about their new schedule, and they report: “It’s easier to plan ahead”; “not having more than two academic classes in a row helps me refocus before my next classes”; “having set times for lunch, recess, and Flex Times works well because it helps me feel like I’m leading a more organized day, and that helps me feel less stressed”; “I like how Monday is always a Monday instead of the A, B, C, D, etc. days that were always changing.”

The student feedback has generally been positive; the faculty response has been overwhelmingly so. When asked whether this year’s schedule was an improvement for their students compared to last year’s, 86% of the surveyed faculty agreed or strongly agreed and only 5% disagreed (the slim remainder were neutral). They note: “It’s much more developmentally appropriate”; “the greater frequency of math meetings allows for more consistent instruction and more opportunities for students to engage with a concept”; “having the seventh and eighth graders take some of their non-academic classes at the high school has been brilliant, freeing up much needed space”; “the consistency and routine of this year’s schedule was better for the students (things were more predictable) and for the teachers (days were less lopsided)”; “this year students seem noticeably less anxious about being able to complete their assignments.”

The real measure of any new schedule’s success is not its popularity, but how well it allows a school to serve the aspirations of its mission. No survey can spit out an unambiguous judgment on a new schedule’s relative success. A power of any school’s schedule lies in its cumulative effects, and no single year can provide a perfect snapshot of its benefits or handicaps. So we’re left with subjective measures, attending to what we see and hear for ourselves as we live through this new schedule, sussing out how effectively it helps Grace realize its values and goals. Does the pacing of the day seem to control for student stress? Does the student work hanging from the walls display the sort of mastery that only comes when courses meet frequently enough for significant learning to take place? Do individual classes meet long enough to leverage student curiosity and to allow for the productive tangents that are the hallmark of authentic learning? Do students seem motivated by joy?

With no precise way to answer these questions, your best bet for evaluating the new schedule is to walk the halls and see it in action. Here’s a recommendation: Stop by just after ten o’clock on a Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday, and see Flex Time in action. You will encounter students up to amazing things. Plus, there’s sure to be snack.