When the concept of the block day was introduced to the Mamaroneck High School community two years ago, it represented a significant departure from the traditional schedule and was hailed as a transformational conduit of deeper enrichment in the classroom.
Yet the results of the administration’s fall surveys of both students and faculty about X/Y days amount to a collective “meh.”
All the questions were structured to garner responses on a scale of one to five for different prompts about the schedule, and, speaking generally, most people opted for three on most questions. This may be a natural instinct, but the data do tell a story. The ambiguous feedback echoes the ambiguity of the school community’s understanding of the purpose of block days and how they ought to be used.
If block days are intended to create unique educational opportunities, the data hardly demonstrate any success in this respect; only 27.3 percent of students expressed that they agree or strongly agree that classes on block days are more engaging than those on typical school days, a decline when compared to earlier polling conducted by The Globe in October 2014. In the 2014-2015 school year, teachers were required to submit lesson plans for the longer periods to Principal Elizabeth Clain to have their activities approved and banned from administering tests. These regulations were scrapped this year, loosening the pressure on teachers to create innovative or unusual lesson plans. This could very well explain the drop in engagement compared to last year. (The Globe reports that multiple teachers have given exams on X/Y days, including in upper-level math and science
The inconsistency in students’ and teachers’ views on whether teachers teach differently on block day classes is also troubling. (Students sensed a shift in teaching style more than faculty did.) If the administration implemented block days to promote nontraditional activities in the classroom, then it should better articulate to teachers how exactly it wants teachers to teach differently. If it doesn’t want teachers to teach differently–to experiment with different modes of learning and applications of material–then why have block days at all?
The ambiguity may also reflect a lack of uniformity in how different subjects and teachers have adapted to the block day system. Humanities classes are more naturally suited for alternative activities like Socratic Seminars and debates. Speaking foreign language every day is more important than devoting 80 minutes to one topic, however, and math teachers are often limited in their ability to create hands-on labs to enhance instruction.
This incompatibility, combined with the discarding of the lesson review requirement, has caused many X/Y day classes to regress back to conventional lessons of lectures and note-taking. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that a similarly structured survey on the traditional schedule would net similar findings. This complacency is exactly the opposite of what block days should promote.
The survey also asks about the burden block days place on students, indicating that another purpose is to reduce student stress (which is a large concern of the administration, as shown by its newly created Social-Emotional Committee). Nearly 45 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that X/Y days reduce stress. Indeed, the days decrease the chaos of the school day and shrink the amount of homework one must complete at night. And let’s face it: longer frees, fewer classes and less homework are generally well received by the student body.
However, the administration could meet this goal far better if it reinstated the ban on exams on X/Y days. Moreover, teachers tended to agree that the current schedule makes it more difficult to complete curricula, which could make the last few weeks of the semester more crammed and induce more anxiety–50 percent of teachers expressed concerns about covering all the material, while 33 were indifferent and 27 felt X/Y days provided enough time.
Engagement and stress reduction are not dueling premises: more intriguing activities combined with a change of pace and less homework could combine to enhance the academic, social and emotional aspects of one’s education. But the administration’s incoherent policies undermine the chances of this approach registering in a clear and decisive way.
With results such as these, one can read the data in any way one likes, and students and faculty are certainly not vehemently opposed to X/Y days. But the administration can shoot higher than “meh.” For a school so devoted to enhancing the educational experience that it experimented with block days in the first place, it can do much better in first articulating the impact it desires from the schedule and then altering its policies to maximize this impact.
By Steven Rome