At 10:35 a.m. on a Wednesday, six seniors at the Calhoun School, a progressive private school on the Upper West Side, were discussing the role of social class in “Year of Wonders,” a historical novel about an English village hit by the plague in the 17th century.
At noon, the students were still at it. They had moved on from deconstructing the novel, by Geraldine Brooks, to hashing out topics for research papers in the science and social studies class, called Disease and Society: one wanted to tackle 17th-century grave digging in London; another would explore the obligation midwives had to report illegitimate children. Throughout, they had staged only one mutiny, asking to work elsewhere because the classroom was first too cold, then too intellectually stifling (requests denied).
If the subject matter was a bit unusual for high school students, the amount of time they had to grapple with it was more so — 2 hours 10 minutes, in what is called a class block. Long blocks became standard this year at Calhoun, as part of a radical attempt to alter the structure of the school day and school year.
Instead of the traditional schedule of eight 45-minute classes each day, with courses broken into two semesters, high school students at Calhoun intensively study three to five subjects in each of five terms, or modules, that are 32 to 36 days long. Classes are in blocks of 65 or 130 minutes each day. Every day, students have 45 minutes of “community time,” an intentionally unstructured period for the students.
What started five years ago as an effort to accommodate maddeningly complex schedules in a relatively small space quickly became a sort of evangelical mission to make progressive education more, well, progressive: embracing depth over breadth, allowing for more experiential learning in Central Park and at nearby museums, and, administrators said they hoped, reducing stress. Steven J. Nelson, Calhoun’s head of school, said the new schedule fostered teaching in the ways children learn best.
“Most of the activities that create the neuron connections in brains which lead to higher-level academic research and achievement are things that require time and space and experiential education,” he said. “These are things that are privileged by a block system.”
Block scheduling became popular among public schools about a decade ago, but it ran smack into an increasing emphasis on standards and testing. “We’ve seen lots of schools back away from block schedule,” said Dick Flanary of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Looking at that structure and the impact it had on student performance, it hasn’t been a silver bullet.”
At private schools, though, the longer classes are becoming more common, said Patrick F. Bassett, head of the National Association of Independent Schools. “I’ve never heard of anyone going back to a traditional schedule, not once,” he added.
For all their freedom to experiment, private schools in New York tend to offer fairly traditional, rigorous academic programs. Change, particularly to something as fundamental as the daily schedule, is often viewed with skepticism and caution. “Everyone went to a school in that model,” said Jennifer de Forest, director of Calhoun’s Upper School, which has 180 students in grades 9 through 12. “We need to blow that apart to embrace the pedagogical progressivism.”
Calhoun, founded in 1896, is considered one of the most progressive private schools in the city. It is one of the few private schools that do not require the E.R.B., an assessment test for 5-year-olds, for admission. Students call teachers by first names. And classes are always held around tables — not at desks — to foster more discussion and less lecturing.
To Mr. Nelson, a vociferous and outspoken opponent of the testing culture that has pervaded public and private schools, the new schedule helps Calhoun continue in its progressive vein — and stand out among its peers.
While Mr. Nelson tries not to engage in the private-school parlor game of counting how many graduates are accepted at Ivy League schools, he cannot help but point out that since fewer of his students apply to Harvard or Yale than those at, say, Dalton, they might just have a better chance of getting in. The new schedule, he said, should make for more interested — and interesting — students, a quality colleges should care about.
“The collateral qualities our kids carry out with their diplomas,” Mr. Nelson said, “are qualities colleges want — kids that are actively interested in things and not just doing things to put it on their transcript.”
Nearly a year into the experiment, teachers interviewed said they enjoyed the flexibility of longer classes, which allowed them to take students out of the classroom and collaborate more, both with other teachers and students. Advanced biology students, for example, trekked to the Black Rock Forest, in Orange County, N.Y., to measure snow depth, and frequented the Museum of Natural History. Spring Workshop, led by English and theater teachers, adapted Edwidge Danticat’s short story “Children of the Sea,” with students writing the script, designing the costumes and building the set. Woodworking and astronomy teachers worked together on a class that built a telescope.
Students and parents also had mostly positive reviews, though some said the new schedule fell short of at least one of Mr. Nelson’s key goals: reducing stress. For many students, the year had an uneven nature: one easy module, with two art classes, followed by a hard one with multivariable calculus and chemistry.
A bad bout of flu could result in missing almost 20 percent of classes that last no more than 36 teaching days. The blocks meant much less daily transition time, with students no longer racing from one 45-minute class to the next, but the modules brought big transitions five times in the year instead of twice — including five sets of exams or final papers.
“They have five ends of semesters, which can be hell,” said Claudia Brown, a parent with two children in the school. “I don’t think it lessens the stress.”
Another complaint: boring 45-minute classes became boring two-hour classes. Robert Ronan, a senior, said, “There are some classes that lend themselves more easily to 2-hour-and-15-minute classes and teachers that can do that, but I sort of feel like a lot of the classes are the same, just stretched.” Mr. Nelson deemed the experiment a success, though he acknowledged there were areas to work out. The dislikes are often the result of poor teaching, he said. “It’s our job to make them interested,” he added.
The change came after five years of discussion with teachers, parents and others. “Our tradition is change,” said Ms. Brown, the parent.
Daniel Isquith, who has taught math at Calhoun for eight years, said he was initially “worried the kids would burn out” during the long classes. But he reorganized his lessons into 15-minute chunks, with a little breathing room in case things ran over: a 15-minute lecture, 15 minutes of problem solving, then 15 minutes of group work, capped by a final 15 minutes in which the students have to summarize what they did in class — a gem, he said, that the old schedule did not permit.
During two-hour classes he changes things up just as often, to keep the students engaged.
“Once you live in this and get a sense of pacing,” Mr. Isquith said, “it’s incredible what you can accomplish in terms of real actual understanding versus proficiency.”