Planning Lessons for a Block Schedule

By Jennifer Wilson and Vanessa Cerrahoglu

Update 2021 – August: IM has created block schedule guidance for IM 6-8 Math v.III and IM 9-12 Math v.I. Get unit guidance on how to customize the curriculum to fit your block schedule in the IM Community Hub. 

Having an extended period of time to teach a lesson can be an advantage in a problem-based classroom. Students and teachers can savor the questions that are asked. Activities can breathe in a way that they can’t in a shorter period of time. But questions about planning inevitably arise. We find ourselves asking questions like: Do I simply merge two lessons? What stays? What goes? How do we ensure that we engage our students in the right conversations that will prepare them for the next leg of the journey?

At Illustrative Mathematics, our problem-based lesson structure is designed with a 45-50 minute time frame in mind.

So, what happens when when you get 70, 90, or even 110 minutes with your students? Decisions must be made — decisions that take into consideration your context, your students’ current level of understanding, and additional constraints on your time that are too numerous to name. What follows are suggested guidelines geared to support teacher teams in making decisions they feel confident about.

On the overarching design structure

The overarching design structure of our curriculum begins with an invitation to the mathematics, followed by a deep study of targeted concepts and procedures, and culminates with an opportunity for students to consolidate and apply their learning. For example, each unit begins with a lesson to elicit prior understandings and invite students into the new mathematics of the unit. The lessons that follow are a deep study of the concepts and procedures, and the final lesson in each unit is a culminating activity where students consolidate and apply understandings. This overarching design happens on the course level, the unit level, the lesson level, and the activity level.

As much as possible, even when block scheduling requires combining and leaving out activities, keep this flow in mind for each block of time together: begin with an invitation to the mathematics, follow with a deep study of targeted concepts and procedures, and culminate with an opportunity for students to consolidate and apply their learning.

On merging lessons: determining goals and the “story”

  • What are the learning goals and the key understandings we want students to land on over the span of lessons you’re trying to merge? Tracking the learning goals can help you prioritize certain activities. Maybe it is possible to use the same activity to address additional learning goals — by adding more to the synthesis, for example.
  • What is the learning trajectory over the course of those lessons? What story are you trying to tell? It can be tempting to prioritize the activities where students extend and apply their learning, but it’s important that students have the conceptual foundation to do so first. The unit and lesson narratives help us see where the big aha moments come from, and ensure we leave enough time for students to experience these moments.

On selecting activities

  • Which activities are central to developing the key understandings identified above?
    • What is the role of each component of the lesson?
    • Is it meant to invite students to an idea or concept or to activate prior knowledge?
    • Is it part of the deep study of a concept?
    • Is it an opportunity to apply and synthesize the learning?
  • Where does it make sense to bring the lesson to a close?
    • Finding a natural stopping point can aid in adapting an activity or lesson synthesis to synthesize the day’s learning.
    • What is the role of practice?
  • How might you use practice problems during class? outside of class?  
  • How might practice problems re-engage students before they transition to another lesson?
    • If you’re unable to do an activity in class, how might that activity be used outside of class to give students additional opportunities to engage in a deep study of the concepts and skills presented in the lesson?

On structuring a lesson synthesis

Once you have restructured the lessons for your block, and determined the key understandings for this new learning experience:

  • What pieces of the lesson syntheses are relevant to your restructured lesson?
  • What modifications, if any, need to be made?

At the heart of planning

While being mindful of your scheduling constraints, the most important things to keep in mind when planning are universal: who are your students, and what is the mathematical story you are trying to tell? Taking time to reflect on student work and listening to student thinking can be instrumental in determining where to go next. The challenge of block scheduling can feel overwhelming and leave us feeling a little unsettled. With a deliberately crafted plan of action, we can rest assured that students are afforded the opportunity to take up the invitation to the mathematics we envision!

Next Step

Do you have ideas to share around planning for a block schedule? We would love to hear about your experience. You can share your reflections and blog post links in the comments section below, or on Twitter using our #LearnWithIM hashtag and tagging @IllustrateMath!