By Rachel Douglas Swanson
Visit the teacher's lounge of any Chicago Public School and it likely won't be long before someone brings up the issue of extended school day. By next school year, all Chicago Public Schools will be required to add more minutes of instruction to their school day -- taking the district from having one of the shortest school days in the country to one of the longest. Like all change, this reform has been met with both resistance and applause. In an era where teachers feel like reforms are being done to them, and not with them, it is crucial that the fact that something is "mandated" doesn't detract from the importance or necessity of these changes.
As a group of charter school teachers, we are already working in schools with extended days. Some of us have worked in charter schools that have used the extra time to bring enrichment, differentiation, and excitement into the curriculum. Others have worked in charter schools that have made extra time in the school day nothing more than extra time.
Charter schools are laboratories for experimental ideas, allowing new ways of teaching to be explored with autonomy from the typical expectations of the school board. These experiments can pay off, as is highlighted in documentaries such as Waiting for Superman. But they can also fail, as evidenced every year when charters are not renewed. One size never fits all, but from our shared experiences we have some ideas we hope administrators and teachers bear in mind as they move toward making their school day longer.
1. Ask Teachers. In her charter school's transition from a long school day to an even longer one, Vibha Sanghvi and her coworkers at Donoghue Campus felt hesitant. Following the challenges of adjusting to a new administration, lengthening the school day was low on their list of priorities. However, after sending a memo to staff letting them know that the school would be opening its doors for more minutes each day, the principal did something smart: she asked the teachers how they wanted to use the time.
"Each grade level team sat down and decided how they wanted to use the minutes," Sanghvi said. "Some teams wanted to add time to writing. Others added more time at the end of the day for community building. Then we submitted our plans to the administration."
The choice to involve teachers in the process of deciding how to use the instructional minutes transformed teachers from victims of a mandatory policy to advocates for themselves and their students. Each teacher knew how he or she wanted to spend the extra time, and giving them control over the choice assigned value to the work they do in their classrooms.
Of course, it didn't change the fact that the teachers still had to renegotiate daycare schedules or how they got to their evening graduate school classes. But including teacher voice in the process of implementing extra time went a long way toward creating teacher buy-in to the extended day.
2. More Time to Learn. In the end, the debate over whether to extend the school day or not comes down to this: are we doing all we can to meet the needs of the students in front of us? There are teachers who have been "effective" with a five-hour and forty-five minute school day. There are teachers who have been "ineffective" with an eight-hour school day. Some might argue that even with the extended day, we still don't have enough time. How we use our time to meet students' needs is the most important question to ask. We believe that this question should be asked of and answered by teachers.
Some of us have used this additional time to boost our core subjects, such as having a forty-minute writing lesson that ensures students have time to conference with their teacher and with one another. Others have used it for small group time to focus on students with special needs or those who need additional practice with their learning. In other instances, many teachers have used the extra time to teach science and social studies, subjects often left out of instruction as they are tested less frequently. This is also an opportunity for art, music, and physical education to be reintroduced or strengthened in our schools. Who knows how many Monets, Beethovens, and Jordans have traversed the hallways of Chicago Public Schools undiscovered because they didn't have the chance? We can use our extra time to change that for our students.
3. Meeting of the Minds. While the most important part of the extended day is to add instructional minutes, it is also important to use this transition to think about how to improve teacher collaboration time. Emily Schwartz and her colleagues at Galapagos Charter School were able to use their extra collaborative time to do a professional book group.
"We chose the book, and met monthly to talk about what we were learning," Schwartz said. "This was some of the most beneficial professional development in which I have ever participated. We got new ideas from the professional text, and came back to the group with ways we implemented the ideas in our classrooms. Then we discussed how to implement strategies more effectively. This approach to professional development helped us improve our practice and student learning."
Together they pushed one another to become better teachers. Since they had ownership over the topic of conversation, all the teachers were invested in the time spent during these professional development meetings. Although it isn't always possible for teachers to create the agendas for their meetings, increasing the amount of teacher-led collaborative time can ensure that the immediate needs of daily teaching are met, while still addressing the overarching concerns of the school and the administration.
Our experiences have proven that when the extended time is used in the ways we have described, both teachers and students benefit. When teachers are given leadership and voice in how to help one another improve their practice, change can come with harmony and respect. When teachers have time to collaborate, they become better practitioners for their students. And when students have more instructional time in their day to learn a variety of skills, the school's learning environment is enhanced tremendously.
Rachel Douglas Swanson teaches at LEARN Charter School in South Chicago and is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow. This post was written in collaboration with other Teaching Policy Fellows who are also current charter school teachers. The Teaching Policy Fellowship is a highly selective program for current teachers interested in having a voice in decisions that affect their profession.
Are you a current Chicago district or charter school teacher? Apply now for the 2012-13 Teach Plus Chicago Teaching Policy Fellowship.