The Community Speaks: Class Time at SHP

  • Axel de Vernou ’21, Will Briger ’21

Class Time As It Stands:

To ensure that its mission, goals, and values are being executed with the wellbeing and growth of its students in mind, SHP is actively reconsidering the way it uses time. The community is reflecting on how the current schedule and the time allocated to classes supports these goals while benefiting students academically. As of today, and until the end of the 2020-21, Sacred Heart Prep maintains an industrial schedule where a regular school day composed of five class periods, X/Y periods designed for specific interests, and usually Office Hours for direct teacher assistance.

In our last issue of the paper, we introduced the time series, which will be a sequence of four articles that inspire communal discussion about the potential for growth at SHP. This first article will garner the opinions of many members of our community, from students to faculty, based primarily on the five core class periods. In doing so, we will work as a school to harness a diverse set of perspectives that will ultimately provide crucial feedback to administrators who are considering how to reshape the academic schedule in the years to come.

Before looking at what our community has to say, we have to understand where we currently stand. Legislation has been approved by California governor Gavin Newson that will require public high schools to delay the start time of public high schools. Despite the fact that this will have no direct impact on SHP, administration has opened up the possibility to the rest of the school to reconsider our schedule in light of the changes that neighboring public schools might be implementing. “Right now what we want to do is really be open and listen to what people’s experience is with regards to time,” says Principal Dr. Jennie Whitcomb in introducing the issue. 

It is important to note that the school has not made any decisions yet, since we are far from the time where the changes will be implemented. Echoing her previous point, Dr. Whitcomb says that the administration is listening “to lots of different constituencies and communities… in our ecosystem to make sure that we are as thoughtful as possible in understanding what we think are the most important problems to solve.”

To begin addressing the issue, we sought the opinion of administrators who answered the question of how time should be spent in the classroom in different manners.

The administration presents their views

While decisive measures may not yet been taken to alter the school schedule, the administration is seeking feedback and communicating more actively with students than in previous years. “As a department head and a member of the decision making body of the school, we have already begun this journey and process at looking at time by starting with the student voice… we look specifically at student voice and understand some of the needs and concerns that we need to empathize with,” explains Fine Arts Department Head Ms. Lauren Benjamin. 

With this in mind, there are two methods that we as a community can start to use in order to effectively analyze productivity within the classroom: time and student engagement. Advisor Ms. Laura Stoll, in addressing the former, says that there is room for growth. For example, she says that it is “difficult to prep, set up and do a lab in sixty minutes” and that we need to look at “Less traditional models” of the student schedule. “Whether it’s a sixty minute class or a ninety minute class or a forty-five minute class, how we structure that time” is the essential dilemma. 

Dr. James Everitt, Director of the Office of Mission Initiatives & Institutional Planning cites examples from a more humanities focused classes with regards to how time is structured throughout the year. He explains that we should be “providing enough time for kids to learn the important skills of deep thinking, how to write persuasively, how to think critically by using texts and having the time to practice in class.” He adds that we should “not always [be] rushing from assignment to assignment… putting students in the position to crank something out without approaching a topic, writing something… and keep developing a piece.”

Unfortunately, many administrators currently feel as if students are pressed for time and that they only care about the grade, Dr. Everitt included. He explains that we “just run students through a series” and that “The first question students ask us [is]: What was my grade?” This has led us to “set up the expectation that all you care about in the end is your grade” Though the schedule may not be the full cause of the student culture that pervades SHP, where grades are the defining factor in our scholarly journeys, there are certainly some aspects of the current schedule that are exacerbating the problem. Dr. Everitt explains that the schedule “requires more [time]. If students are going to work on something as a group… you need time to actually dig into seeing what is happening, having hypotheses, to test them, and have a teacher guide you through that process.”

The constraints that our current one hour schedule provides for reaching the maximum potential of a student are not only related to the literal amount of time that we have to accomplish certain tasks, but also the lack of breathing room that has been integrated into academic periods. Speaking from her experience as an english teacher, Dr. Whitcomb says that “Everybody is taking their personal break somewhere along the way in class” and Ms. Stoll says “Everybody is engaged in different ways… [it is] not a level playing field to begin with.” Though this may be an inevitable part of teaching a class, it can certainly be minimized with reforms to the potentially cyclical schedule that we have today.

Ms. Benjamin proposes some ideas to how we can increase engagement and attention in extended challenging classes. “When we establish more integrated learning and more models for what interdisciplinary classrooms look like, that is a way to share time and therefore a way to use it more meaningfully.” This process of interdisciplinary learning can be laborious for a student if their schedule is composed of too many quick classes as opposed to inquiry-based lessons. 

“I don’t think an hour is not enough time, that it is an old model,” says Ms. Benjamin. When asked what her solution would be, Ms. Benjamin proposes one that SHP students will encounter in college and in more professional settings: “A block scheduling model— that’s how a lot of college institutions and great high schools operate. It is more meaningful to have more focused time as [opposed] to a time when you can’t finish the task at hand and you have to come back a whole day later [to] finish the process.” As will be seen in the student section of this exploration, there is a general feeling that classes are rushed, especially when a laboratory or project is incorporated in the lesson.

In other words, “There’s not enough time to get through the reflection or the debrief, or enough time to clean up. If we extended things for fifteen minutes [or] thirty minutes, it would give us time to have a beginning, a middle, and an end to things. It would give us time to get into the zone and have the liberty to stay there.” With more of this in-class freedom, students do not need to compartmentalize social learning from academic learning, since it would be happening at the same time.

“From a counseling perspective, social emotional learning has to do with how [we] support the growth of individuals and how they interact with others and regulate their own emotions,” explains Ms. Stoll. What often happens is that students find themselves with too much work being assigned from the classroom, which makes it impossible for them to properly engage in extracurriculars and athletics because they have so many commitments coming from their academic subjects. “Some students find their sweet spot and are busy but can manage it…some go a bit overboard and over commit which puts them in a position [of] needing to make tough choices that sometimes impact others as a result,” says Mr. Frank Rodriguez, Assistant Principal of Athletics.

As is visible, the schedule that will emerge in the 2021-22 school year will need to integrate a call for balance and mental health procedures into the student experience. But how do we add more time if we already work nonstop from 7:50 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. everyday? While some administrators and faculty have mentioned that this would require the removal of certain current periods or communal gatherings, Ms. Benjamin has a potential answer. 

“We have to make thoughtful and purposeful sacrifices and compromises… This might be controversial, but our finals schedule [needs work]. It takes about four weeks [since] we choose to do a special schedule to prepare for finals week. So we use those two weeks each semester, which is a month of school essentially, dedicated to this one outcome,” she says. Instead of these exams that encourage students to be motivated only for the grade, Ms. Benjamin believes that we should move to “project based learning… how can you apply your new understanding into new ideas? I don’t think it’s as valuable for students to cram a bunch of information.” 

The questions that we should be asking in the classroom, according to Ms. Benjamin, are “what should we do with the information [that we learn]? What can we create with the information? What do we change with the information? How do we take the information and evolve it and act to it?… Wouldn’t it be more exciting and useful to take what you learn in a semester and learn something new and ask new questions?”

In order to gain more insight into how this might be possible, we asked faculty to have an input in this examination, since they are ultimately the ones responsible for what happens in the classroom.

The Faculty Weighs In

A common trend that we found in faculty interviews has to do with the differences in disciplines, and how we can account for certain time requirements in one field without affecting another subject that might not require the same duration of student learning. “I don’t want to say that every discipline would have the same requirements in terms of time,” says Math Department Head and Teacher Mr. Jorge Reyes.

While some humanities and writing based classes might benefit from longer periods that meet less during the week, this would not necessarily be the case for math. “For a math classroom, it is most ideal when you see your students everyday because you get a chance to reinforce concepts over a longer period of time… it is a delicate balance between frequency and time,” says Mr. Reyes. With this in mind, however, he adds that “some of the math teachers would be willing to make their periods even a little bit [shorter]… so that you would have the same contact minutes spread out over more time.”

To explain how shorter classes that meet more frequently would work through a math lens, Mr Reyes says that “the students need time to process ideas. If you have a ninety minute period, the math teachers will jam more ideas into their lesson… In a fifty minute period, there will be fewer ideas but you will process it over time.” However, the math department seems content with a sixty minute period because teachers can introduce new concepts while also “seeing the students practice” and “coach students in their presence.”

How do we account for engagement in a schedule where the math department might meet everyday of the week? As Ms. Stoll says, “when we are agitated, upset, or bored about something, we are not in the space to learn well.” Mr. Reyes believes that there “has to be more diversity of activities related to the learning process, not just a lecture every single day, but a combination of having students present their work and having students do independent work where the teacher walks around.”

Another crucial aspect to the debate over how to change the schedule is the impact that it will have on varying grade levels. “Freshmen are different developmentally than seniors,” Dr. Whitcomb summarizes, which is a valid point in speculating how some parts of the schedule might depend based on the grade of the student. 

Mr. Ben Hunter, who teaches AP World History to upperclassmen and Modern World History for freshmen, is confronted with this difference on a daily basis. In talking about the former class, Mr Hunter says that he would spend the time “Ideally working with stuff that you have already read at home,” but he explains that “with the freshmen we do a lot of in-class reading” since they are grasping high school material for the first time.

In addition, the structure of a class in the history and english department can shift considerably depending on the age of the students. For “the juniors and seniors it is mostly discussion based, and [we] try to change it up so that we do two to three things per class period, rarely doing one thing the entire class,” explains Mr. Hunter, which might be different than a freshman class that focuses on one key concept for the full period.

While teaching the material to the best of one’s ability is a teacher’s priority, making sure that the schedule allows for comprehension comes next, since a class period should also include time for students to ask questions and digest the material that they have just been provided. The term that teachers use is a “check for understanding,” says Mr. Hunter. “In my class, I just ask. They check for understanding verbally, and typically you get a response from the more vocal students. You can also do something where you write at the end of the period.” Indeed, many teachers have built in time for exit tickets, either graded or non-graded, that allow them to see if a student has understood the material from a prior class.

Now that we have touched on material and comprehension, the faculty also has a strong opinion on grades. According to English teacher Dr. Inga Pierson, “if you are interested and engaged in [a] question and you pursue it, at least in part, out of your own motivation to understand, then the product will be more successful… Usually when you are interested and engaged, the grade ends up reflecting that.” While there are a lot of subjects that a student needs to become invested in when they take a rigorous schedule, faculty are making more of an effort than ever to make grades a by-product of the work and interest that a student puts into the class.

One way of performing this is by “changing the way we think about assessment,” says Dr. Everitt, a SHP former teacher. In our current system, students generally move from exam to exam with the letter grade as their sole motivation as opposed to having the option to become interested or passionate about a certain topic. To try to alleviate this problem, Mr. Hunter places more emphasis on writing and critical thinking in his class as opposed to multiple choice, which makes students extremely test oriented. “I try to use category grading, so writing is a much larger part of the grade than multiple choice… and [I] just tell the students to get out of the class being really good at historical essays rather than being masters at multiple choice.”

Ultimately, the main conclusion that can be drawn from our faculty interviews is that students have far too many deadlines and responsibilities in the current schedule, both inside and outside of the classroom, that make it difficult for them to become invested in a subject of their choice. As summarized by Dr. Pierson, “You have to volunteer, learn how to program computers, take seven classes, play sports, do extracurricular activities, and manage student life expectations… a little bit overscheduled and overloaded!”

Now, we will look at what students have to say about their experiences, since changes in class time will have a massive impact on their Sacred Heart education.

The Students Speak

A fundamental truth that a school must keep in mind is that all students have different backgrounds and opinions with regards to how academic material should be presented. Thus, it will be nearly impossible to make a system that will completely satisfy everybody. However, we can analyze trends in current feedback to make improvements that will benefit everybody in some way or another.

To get straight to the problem, John Carter ‘21 says that, “In general, I feel like I could miss class and still be fine. If I miss first period, I go into class for Office Hours and make up everything.” John believes that discussions promote superficial acquisition of knowledge where students pretend to understand the material when it may not really be the case. For him, the most efficient method is when there is a “teacher lecturing, even though that’s not the most enjoyable way.”

As John said, while a lecture may provide the most amount of direct material, it might be tedious for students and it only allows for one activity and perspective to be explored in class at a time. This is why teachers, especially in history and english departments, have turned to discussions. “I didn’t really like discussions and presentations [before], but now I’m starting to see that they’re really useful and that you can learn a lot from other people,” says Matthew Chun ‘20. For math classes, “you can’t really have a discussion — I like that, it makes sense,” Matthew adds. 

The goal that Matthew wants the school to aim for is a “mix of learning material and discussing it.” However, he does admit that the current schedule does not provide enough time for this to be done adequately. “Pretty much as soon as you enter the class room, you’re working and learning the entire time,” says Matthew. He believes that there is very little room for students to process the material and incorporate mental wellness like they should be.

Not all students are in agreement, though. “Time allocated to class is perfect,” says Alan Kagiri ‘20. It is the “perfect amount of time for everybody to delve deeper into topics that require time to think about and discuss.” When asked whether he prefers a lecture style course or one that is heavily reliant on group discussion, Alan explains that he likes “a blend of both – I enjoy having teachers impart their knowledge in a lecture setting. Also, discussions are a good way to incorporate multiple perspectives and pick up on points you didn’t think about.” 

In general, students agree that there needs to be a stimulating mix between discussions and lectures. With regards to start and end time, however, there are a few different ways that students approach the issue. Many believe that the start is “too early, because we have a lot of homework and extracurricular activities… so I like later starts better,” says Bella Choi ‘23, speaking for students who believe that they could profit from the extra sleep.

However, many students do not want school to end later than 3 p.m despite the possible change that might happen to the beginning of the day. “If we did start later, I would not want to end later,” says Lauren Roque ‘20. “I’m used to [being done] after 3 o’clock… My brain is just turned off and I need at least an hour to recuperate before I start homework. I think it’s also hard for sports teams.” Indeed, it would be challenging to maintain athletic performance if the school’s end time would be extended far into the afternoon, so students are calling for administration to brainstorm ways in which the start time could be extended without impacting other aspects of their daily lives that happen after school.

As said by Alan Kagiri ‘20, the “school tries to encourage students to engage themselves in extracurriculars.” With this in mind, there needs to be time that is indirectly built into the student schedule to make this possible. Some measures that might make it possible to shorten the school day, but would come with serious drawbacks, would include shortening the finals schedule, reducing the amount of days for holiday breaks, or making student meetings (including X/Y periods) convene before and after school. 

The more probable solution appears to be extending the amount of days that students go to school, making days shorter with longer periods. To find conclusive results about the community’s approach to this idea, a school-wide survey would need to be sent at a larger scale, pioneered by administration to ensure that the data is taken into account during future consideration.

What We Can Conclude:

When we consider all the opinions collectively, we can see that there are three flagrant adjustments that should be made to SHP’s schedule: shaping the schedule based on different academic disciplines that require varying amounts of time, seeking depth instead of superficiality within the lessons in the classroom, and considering long-term efficiency through a schedule that promotes project and group learning instead of an academic grind that is only focused on grades.

This might mean that students will all be having science classes at the same time, which take ninety minutes and engage in more laboratory and group work. It might also mean that SHP makes certain periods longer than others while trying to build each student’s schedule so that the shorter periods meet more often and center around mathematical disciplines. While there is no concrete answer, since we can debate the question forever, we can easily conclude from our faculty/student interviews that having every single class meet for the same amount of time and follow the same cycle is problematic to student learning.

On the Sacred Heart Schools website, the Overview of Academics states that “[u]nder a curriculum guided by our mission and educational philosophy, students learn to think critically and act compassionately.” Thus, the first step in ensuring that all students at our school are receiving a Sacred Heart education is making sure that they are learning the material in the classroom in a way that simultaneously promotes individual enrichment and profound connections with others.

In the next article of this series, we will see how all of this carries on outside of the classroom. Even if classroom time is well spent, it carries little significance if students are not adequately preparing for class the next day or feel overwhelmed by the amount of material they are being assigned for one night. Are we managing short term and long term projects adequately? Are teachers on par with the quantity of work they are assigning to students? What is the right amount of work that should be assigned for each class, and how do the variety of disciplines that we offer play into this issue?

We will attempt to answer all of these questions in the next article and once again welcome any feedback that readers can offer. Please reach out to any of the authors to be a part of the conversation.

By Axel de Vernou

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