School schedule praised Howard, Atholton try 4-period days

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A week into this school year, Howard County students and teachers are giving changes in the schedule at two high schools preliminary approval.

Students and teachers at Howard and Atholton high schools say they like the change to four-period days, but are wary of the work that has to be done to adjust to the switch.

"When you've been used to doing things for one way or one pace for a number of years, and you have to change that, it's difficult to know what to cut, what to change," said Mac Green, a social studies teacher at Howard.

This school year, Howard and Atholton became the first in the county to switch to a four-period schedule to allow their students to take more elective courses. Although the two schools run on different models, their students will be able to complete one or two classes more than schools that stay on a regular, six-period track.

Howard senior Debbie McClanahan, 17, finds that fewer classes make the days seem shorter -- something she likes.

But "now you have to do your homework all the time," she said. "You have to be on the ball. The students who are going to [miss] class, they're really going to fall behind."

Howard High follows a schedule that has four 86-minute classes and a 30-minute lunch period. That schedule allows students to take four classes the first half of the school year and four different classes the second half, instead of six yearlong courses under the old schedule. Although students will concentrate on fewer classes at once, they will have to learn a full year of material in half the time.

'The worst thing'

Howard junior Steve Schnaar, 15, hates the change.

"I think it's the worse thing the school system has created," he said. "I can't sit in class for 90 minutes. Teachers move too fast. I don't like eating lunch at 10:30 a.m."

Atholton follows a schedule that has three 90-minute classes and one 55-minute class, with a 45-minute lunch period. Students will alternate three 90-minute classes one day with different ones the next day for the entire year. They will attend the 55-minute class daily.

Atholton Principal Scott Pfeifer reports the school is more calm. There are fewer changes in classes, so students are in the halls less.

Teachers say their classes are larger, but they like the less hectic schedule: They teach four longer classes instead of five shorter ones.

"The time seems to go very quickly," said Sarah Lowndes, an English teacher for about 15 years. "I have more time devoted to students. It's also a marvelous prep for college for students."

Some students at Atholton like the alternating schedule, which allows them to slack off homework an extra night. They say they get more homework, but they have more time to do it.

"You get to change day to day," said Heidi Arnold, a 16-year-old junior. "You get tired of seeing the same teachers."

Atholton senior Paul Smith, 17, says the schedule change will keep him on his toes. He's less likely be absent, because missing even two days means he'll be behind almost a week.

"If you're out for a week because of an illness, you're going to have to come back and read hundreds of pages," he said.

The change in the schedule will also mean substantial changes in teachers' roles. Teachers will be transformed from "sage on the stage to guide on the side," Howard Principal Eugene Streagle said.

"They'll change from being dispenser of information to facilitator of knowledge," he said. "That's a real shift."

Less lecturing

Teachers at both schools expect they will do less lecturing and their students will engage in more group work. Some have already switched desks from rows to U-shaped to allow more student interaction.

The change is radical, and for many, challenging.

"It's going to be a lot of work for the teachers," said Janis O'Neal, a Spanish teacher at Howard. "We're learning ways to reteach."

"It's going to give me an impetus to change things," said Ed Nawrocki, earth science teacher at Howard. "I've gotten confident with the old procedures, and now I'm going to be forced to change."

Teachers at both schools had worked for months on new teaching techniques and ways to spend class time efficiently. They attended a two-day conference in August and they also met with one another to share concerns and strategies.

What resulted was a shared vision in what would take place. English teachers are looking at methods of incorporating more in-class writing assignments, perhaps requiring students to keep journals.

"Starting a discussion and have it going and then have the class end has been frustrating for teachers, especially for English teachers," said Linda Storey, English department chair at Howard.

And rather than having students simply read the five acts of Hamlet, for example, teachers will require them to read the first two for characterization and plot, supplement the next two by watching a movie, and then go in-depth on the last act to wrap up the play.

"It's a whole different way of teaching," Ms. Storey said.

Foreign language teacher are looking at new ways to assess students' oral and written work.

Each of Spanish teacher Janis O'Neal's classes will center on a topic -- animals, for example. Beforehand, she taught vocabulary one day and reading comprehension the next.

"After so many years of teaching 55-minute classes, you know what 55 minutes is," Ms. O'Neal said. "To try 90 minutes, you're going to have a hard time to do."

Science teachers happy

Science teachers are raving about the extended periods, saying students will have more time to perform lab experiments. But the downside is they have a lot of planning ahead -- they have to rewrite curriculum to streamline information and material to teach a year's worth in half the time. All are looking at new ways to keep students awake and interested.

"There's nothing worse than doing the same thing the same 90 minutes," Mr. Nawrocki said. "You just won't be able to do a lab, a follow-up and assign homework. Now you have to do a lab, a follow-up, a review or an introduction to a new concept, and then homework."

While almost all teachers are looking forward to starting anew, they have concerns. Atholton math teacher Janel Pearlman dreads the thought of writing lesson plans for days when substitutes have to take over her 90-minute classes.

"It's hard enough to plan for a class with 50 minutes," she said.

"Usually when you prepare for a substitute, you give work sheets so students can do it by themselves."

But she says the concern is offset by the slower pace of teaching four instead of five periods a day.

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