Though high school at RLS was an academically life-enriching and fun experience for a lot of students over the last four decades, it was so in spite of the unrelenting quality of the school’s daily schedule. Chances are alumni remember eight 40- to 45-minute periods a day, beginning at 8 a.m., with five minutes in between each period. All classes met every day, which meant homework five nights a week for all six academic subjects. Hustling from classroom to classroom during the day could make for a blur. As Andrew Mansour ’21, currently a junior at Stevenson, put it recently: “Last year, if I was running from Spanish to science, I felt like I was going to walk into my classroom being like, ‘Hola! Como estas chemistry!’”
This year, though, Stevenson revised the old schedule (adopted in 1981) and introduced what head of the upper division Dr. Dan Griffiths calls “one of the most significant changes at the school in 40 years.” Now, 70-minute classes meet every other day on an eight-day rotating schedule. There are substantive breaks between classes—which make for a calmer, less stressful day—and no more than four class meetings a day, which generally means less homework every night.
“Schools’ daily schedules are expressions of what they value,” says Dr. Kevin Hicks ’85, the school’s president. “We value meaningful work and authentic human engagement in and out of school, and a joyful learning environment. Our new ‘block’ schedule serves us better in this regard than does our old one.”
Not only are there fewer classes each day, but there are substantial breaks between them. One of those breaks is always devoted to a 30-minute lunch. Another is reserved for community time—50 minutes of assemblies, advisory, club meetings. Yet another provides 25-minutes of daily extra help from all teachers, who are available to any student who might drop by. The extra-help block has been placed in the period before student-athletes are dismissed for away games, so that they can check in with teachers before they have to get on the bus.
“The extra help block that’s built into the schedule is huge,” says, Addy, a sophomore from San Francisco. “I use it once, sometimes twice, a week.” She adds, “When I think back to having shorter classes and every class meeting every day and having to do six classes worth of homework in two hours after water polo, I remember being more stressed than I am now.”
And that’s a central point of the new schedule: to reduce students’ stress levels.
And that’s a central point of the new schedule: to reduce students’ stress levels. The other part is academic: longer classes provide students the time they need to delve deeply into their subjects and retain what they learn.
This all began back in 2018, when Stevenson partnered with Challenge Success—a non-profit organization that works with school communities to mitigate teenagers’ stress. When Challenge Success polled Stevenson’s students about their experiences, they discovered that, though students described their school as “caring,” “welcoming,” and “fun,” they also felt “exhausted.” Homework could take some students as much as five or six hours a night, and students reported feeling unduly worried about doing well.
This came as no surprise to Dr. Griffiths and Dr. Hicks: it had been clear for a while that students and faculty were feeling worn down by the lifestyle engendered by what choral music director Willow Manspeaker called “Stevenson’s frenetic schedule.” Teachers had to prepare for class every day, and grade papers every night. There was really not a lot of time left to have a life.
English teacher Karen Hiles ’95 was happy to get a job at her alma mater in 2013. She loved that things hadn’t changed much from when she was a student. “When I first got here,” she says, “it was comforting that so much was the same. The nostalgic part of me felt really welcomed back by familiar faces and familiar things—there was still the same food in the dining hall, it was the same people. The buildings smelled the same. But I think after a couple of years, especially as a teacher in that grueling schedule, it was like, ‘Yeah, maybe it’s time to explore new things.’”
Manspeaker concurs: “This year, I don’t have the same sense of heightened tension that I did last year with the 40-minute classes, where I felt pressurized. I had to dig into my reserves to find patience and empathy last year. And this year we have time to breathe deep. With 70-minute classes, I can allow students a little transition time, which feels humane.”
Part of that schedule was a change from trimesters to semesters, allowing students to finish the first half of their courses before Christmas—which meant no homework over the break—and giving them more time in the second semester to gain greater mastery of the skills and content presented in each of their classes.
Research shows that when adolescents rush from one class to the next, it takes them an average of 13 minutes to become cognitively engaged in their new environment. If you add to that the number of minutes lost when students are getting distracted at the end of class, you’re left, out of a 40-minute class, with about 20 minutes of quality class time. “If you think of ceramics,” Griffiths says, “you had 40 minutes to get there, get your apron on, get your stuff out, and by the time you’ve done that, it’s time to put it all away and go.”
“Last year, with a 40-minute class, we had five minutes of transitioning, right?” says Manspeaker, who also teaches AP music. “But if I didn’t want to take that five minutes of settling in, it was just like, ‘Get in your seats!! Get your homework out!!’ I’d be talking as fast as I could and nobody was absorbing anything. Now I can actually look at my students and ask, ‘How are you guys today?’”
Dale Hinckley, who’s been teaching history at the school since 1978, says, “The whole secret of this is that we get to complete things in class rather than just lay the groundwork and toss students the ball to do it as homework.” He adds, “I’ve always said it’s so stupid to ask students to do the hardest things at home at night alone. You know, we ask people to do the heavy-lifting of essay writing or assembling things creatively, but it’s really useful to do that for 10 minutes and then get a little more direction or ask for feedback in class.”
DAILY SCHEDULE AT STEVENSON
The daily schedule followed by students at Stevenson was redesigned for the 2019-2020 school year for the first time in the school's history to benefit student engagement and provide more time in subject-specific explorations.
There were still two unknowns, however, at the beginning of this school year. For one, students worried about their ability to sit still and focus for that period of time. They were afraid, too, that having 70-minute classes meet every other day was going to produce twice as much homework.
Romi, a buoyant sophomore from Mexico, says, “We were all worried about classes being too long. You could sense that the day Dr. Griffiths announced 70-minute classes: everyone was like ‘WHAT?!’” She laughs and says, “I feel we’re really adapting to it, though, and it’s helping us. I thought I was going to be sleepy at the end of each class, or just out of it, but I feel the longer classes really allow teachers to listen to the students and their questions instead of rushing through lectures.”
And this was the other unknown—and it was a big one: when you’ve been teaching 40 minute classes for years, how do you begin teaching in a brand new way?
Aimee Bates, English department head and associate head of the upper division, tells a story about interviewing a headmaster who had already implemented a schedule change very much like the one Stevenson was embarking on. “We said, ‘So how has the teaching changed?’ and he said, ‘That’s a terrific question. I hadn’t considered that. We did it for the students’ wellness.’” Bates falls back and her chair and says, “I was shocked by that! I mean, we’re doing it for the student wellness, too, but then the teaching’s got to change. You can’t teach the same way. But that school was a couple of years in, and they’d never talked about it.”
The faculty at Stevenson, in contrast, have been talking about this schedule change for so long, so deeply, and so collaboratively that they finally asked Dr. Griffiths to stop asking them their opinion about the minutiae of new schedule, and just implement the changes already.
“A lot of teaching, when you have 40-minute blocks, becomes very instructor-centered,” Griffiths says. This means, often, that students memorize what they’re hearing, retain it until they take the test, and then, within a matter of weeks or months, forget it. There’s no time allowed for them to reflect on what they’re learning, discuss it, ask questions about, and apply it in some way so that it becomes their own—so that it sticks. There’s no chance for them to dig deep into the material and understand how it applies to their own lives.”
“I’m someone who loves to learn just with hands-on visual experiments,” says Addy. “which last year, having a 40-minute science period, you couldn’t really set up a lab, or you couldn’t really go very deep into the material.”
Griffiths says, “So we’ve been asking, what does a 70-minute class look like? How do you start it? How do you end it? How do you use that middle instructional time with various activities to make it engaging and ‘learner-centered’? We had to be really clear: ‘You can’t take two lessons and cram them into one block. You can’t lecture for 70 minutes. You can’t have a single class with a single activity unless it’s a lab. You can’t have a test that lasts 70 minutes.’”
“I was very excited about the 70 minutes,” says Dr. Amy Jacobs, the head of the history department. “But I think that was because I was scared! I thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do with this?!’” Jacobs is part of a national online discussion group comprised of fellow AP art history teachers. “I call it my ‘art history support group,’” she says, laughing. They regularly share strategies for teaching their subject using the more hands-on, learner-based methods that are ideal for longer classes.
Stevenson's upper division teachers have also found a great source of support even closer to home: their colleagues on the Carmel Campus. “What we know,” Griffiths says, “is that elementary- and lower-division teachers tend to be more trained in teaching learning. They have great expertise about how to deliver content and concepts—so upper division teachers can learn a lot from how a first-grade teacher scaffolds learning, and applies educational theory.”
When Griffiths sent out a note saying that he’d give a $10 gift certificate to the local, alumni-owned coffee joint, Carmel Belle, to teachers who would agree to observe one another’s classes across divisions and then meet for a coffee afterwards, more than two-thirds of the faculty responded affirmatively. Griffiths was pleasantly surprised that so many people were interested, and had to find more money to cover his offer as a result.
When a visitor enters Dr. Jacobs’ AP art history class one day to observe, she finds Jacobs draped in a chair laughing with her students. Dr. Jacobs starts in on a lesson about African art—among other things, how traditional figures feature disproportionately large heads that symbolize the mind being the seat of wisdom. After about 15 minutes, she asks the group to split into pairs to discuss the art they’ve just viewed. She then goes around the room, crouching in front of each pair, listening to their discussion. The class feels relaxed. The students answer each other’s questions, and ask Dr. Jacobs for help when they’re stumped.
“We keep reminding ourselves,” says Dr. Griffiths, “‘Be prepared to slow down, so that the foundations are really strong. Less is more.”
Later Dr. Jacobs says, “If the reason to have longer classes is, in part, to slow down, then I want to teach this as art history—I don’t want to teach this as ‘the College Board’s race through art-history curriculum,’ which is not art history.”
Dale Hinckley agrees: “I think we’re getting more done in the sense of what will stick,” he says. “If you meet every day, you can go over a lot of stuff, but humans cannot absorb much at that pace, every day, all day long. No! For one thing, they shut down at minute 18, and their brain goes on vacation for a couple of minutes, no matter what. Everybody! So if you’re just running them from class to class to class, thinking that because you went over it, they got it? It just doesn’t work that way. This way, they’ll remember much more of what they do. We will make a bigger impression on their lives with this new schedule.”
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