Organizing Instructional Time


food organization
I don’t know about you, but I feel much better now that the slice-able carrots are in the same bin as the plastic bok choy.

Organization. When we first kicked around the idea of organization being a common thread for our first series of the school year, I had to take a few deep breaths to keep from panicking. As I racked my brain for something I could write about, I was coming up empty. Well, unless you count Organization or Procrastination: You Decide as a worthy topic, in which case I could write all day. Take for instance the deadline for this blog entry. Before finally sitting down to hammer it out, I didn’t just tidy up my kids’ toys, I organized their pretend kitchen by food group.


Aside from this particular habit, anyone who has seen the mountains of file folders on my desk could probably attest that organization is not exactly my area of expertise. In nearly every case of organization I could think of as a possible topic, I found more questions than answers. How we organize our instructional time is no exception, but it is one that I’ve been especially invested in lately.

How we organize our instructional time is a big question in itself, or rather, it is comprised of several smaller questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between reading and writing?
  • What about the speaking and listening standards? Where do those fit?
  • How much time do we devote to reading shared vs. choice texts?
  • What role does independent reading have within the class structure?
  • How do we gradually release responsibility so that students can confidently take on the lessons independently?

These questions have been churning around in our department over the past few years, but this year, they’re mixed in with another big one:

How does lesson planning change between a standard period and a block?

For as long as I’ve been with our district, our secondary ELA classes have worked in a standard 50(ish)-minute block. When we would engage in professional learning that centered around workshop, our conversation always came back around to how we make this work within our time constraints. This year, though, one of the two middle schools that I work with is piloting a 90(ish)-minute block for both ELA and math. For an ELA teacher, it’s a dream come true, but it’s also made us do a lot more questioning.

  • Now that we’ve adapted to 50 minutes, what do we do with more? Do we add more units? Stretch out what we have? Adopt totally different units?
  • Should the daily lesson structure look different? How?
  • Should we separate the blocks for reading and writing?

Some of those questions are ones that I’ve wrestled with in the past. Allison explored the balance between reading and writing in an earlier post, and I tend to agree with the idea that you really can’t separate reading and writing. If your lessons are rooted in purposeful reading and writing, it’s natural that they’re going to feed off of each other. Sometimes you’ll need to spend more time in one than another. For example, when we first launch a genre study unit, we spend a lot more time reading just to explore and immerse ourselves in that genre. As we get more comfortable with its overall purpose, we’ll start drafting our own, returning to read and analyze its nuances, and again return to our drafts. Then, as we hit our drafting and revising stride most of our time spent in class is focused on writing. The balance isn’t  perfectly-organized 50/50, but the organization makes sense to the purpose of the unit.

fractions collageSo, knowing that we wouldn’t totally overhaul the balance, we were left with the question of the instructional minutes that we have each day. My good friend, Samantha Hague, is my math partner in this work with instructional planning for the block. She is wise in many ways and often pushes my thinking about my own instruction. For this particular project, she brainstormed with the building’s principal to develop a concrete way of looking at how we organize our instructional time. She introduced me to fraction tiles, a tactile way of representing the different pieces that make up a whole. We used the pieces to start discussion with the teachers in the building about how they chunk their time throughout a standard 50-minute block, and then to anticipate how this might change with a longer block.

Everyone quickly came to the conclusion that we’ll have a couple of real opportunities:

  • Plan for natural transitions and movement. Sitting still for the majority of a 50 minute block can be difficult, but extend that out to a 96 minute block, and it’s deadly. This opens us up to really dig into the opportunity to practice gradual release of responsibility. We may meet with the whole group for a mini-lesson for a 15 minute chunk of time, then have students move into discussion groups to
    fraction lessons
    Fraction tiles helped us visualize possibilities for flexible, balanced lesson planning.

    practice in a scaffolded environment for another 20 before eventually moving on to independent work. Then,  whereas the ending of class had felt so rushed with students hurrying to pack up and head out the door, we now feel a bit more relaxed in intentionally planning to regroup everyone in collaborative or whole-group instructional time at the end of the block.

  • Longer chunks of time in collaborative instruction and independent practice allow for more opportunities for us as teachers to differentiate and guide. We may be able to more easily pull a small group for an additional mini-lesson or confer with more individual students in a single workshop session.  

What I really liked about this approach to organizing lesson design is that it doesn’t prescribe artificial structures or require that we adhere to stringent schedules; rather, it allows lesson design to be rooted in purpose and focused on transferring instruction over to the students. And it reaffirmed for me something I’ve long suspected (or at least hoped): When it comes to instructional time, what matters most is that we organize our plans around a purpose.

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