November 16, 1996 in Washington Voices

Longer Lessons Freeman High’s Switch To A Four-Period Day, With 90-Minute Class Periods, Has Imposed Significant Changes In How The School Operates, And Has Earned Generally Favorable Reviews

By The Spokesman-Review
 

History teacher Mike Thacker brings today’s educational beliefs to life. He’s high-tech. He’s hands-on. He’s not the sage on the stage.

He also is teaching longer classes: 90 minutes, in Freeman High School’s first year under the controversial four-period day.

Students gather in clusters of three around Room 2 at Freeman High. Thacker groups them that way for cooperative projects.

He chases short attention spans, going from student presentations, to discussion, to short research projects. One class of juniors hits the library, the better to glean facts from Encarta ‘95 and Comptons Encyclopedia. All quite contemporary.

But the dressing-down he delivers to students who fizzled on a recent essay is an old-fashioned classic.

“When I ask for sentences and paragraphs-s-ss, plural, one paragraph will not do. Five or six lines is not going to cut it, ladies and gentlemen,” Thacker declares.

Sound familiar, anyone?

Some things never change. But much is evolving this year at Freeman High School. Along with the 90-minute classes, these changes are in effect:

Grades come out every three weeks, along with detailed progress reports. That’s one of the best pieces of the new program, say Thacker and Freeman principal Dennis Schuerman. Everyone knows the score; fewer kids fall through the cracks.

At-risk kids get extra attention in a mentoring program.

Teachers coach each other, meeting weekly to share what works and what doesn’t. They also observe each other teaching.

Freeman is not the only school involved with four-period day. Central Valley School District is moving through a final year of planning and training before a likely move to the block schedule at Central Valley and University high schools.

The advantages of the longer classes are emerging, Thacker says, even while teachers cope with immense differences.

Thacker likens the shift to rewriting a textbook and teaching the course at the same time.

“It requires some serious change among teachers. Next term, they will be under much less stress,” he says.

Advantages include the chance to explore topics more deeply, and a calmer school. Detentions are down by one-third this year.

Also, there’s more time. Enough time that teachers get to know their students better - and how to reach them. Thacker has about 90 students this fall, as opposed to the 160 he taught last fall.

There are some glitches under the four-period schedule.

“Some lesson plans bomb,” Thacker says. “That can happen in a six-period day as well as in a four-period day.

“Some lesson plans may bomb for 25 kids, but help one kid.”

Scheduling problems occur, just as they did under the seven-period day Freeman used last year. Sometimes those are as much a function of the high school’s small size, 308 students, as anything.

Students seem to see more advantages than disadvantages.

“Personally, I like it a lot better. Instead of having seven subjects to worry about every night and seven finals to study for, I just have four,” says Elizabeth Talley, a Freeman High senior.

“Science classes are a lot of fun,” says Jared Freeman, a junior. “We have more time to do experiments and labs.”

What’s boring under the new schedule?

Math, said Nikki Zuber, a junior. “We just work. There are no breaks.”

Thacker is one of the few teachers at Freeman who has experience with the block schedule. He taught the longer classes two years ago at Moses Lake High School.

He began as a skeptic, thinking the longer classes were just a fad.

“By the end of the year I was an advocate.”

Last year, teaching a seven-period day at Freeman “about drove me crazy,” Thacker says.

“It seemed to me I was jumping from one thing to the next thing. I didn’t have time to even breathe.”

With his extra year of experience, Thacker agreed to be a guinea pig for a Valley Voice reporter, in what may be one of the few chances for an outsider to watch Freeman adapt this year. Principal Dennis Schuerman is cautious about pressuring his staff with observers.

But Thacker is confident in his vision - confident enough to tonguelash his students in front of a reporter, and confident enough ride out a certain amount of chaos in his room.

“Are you having a good day, Mr. Thacker?” asked one girl, amid grousing about the essays. “You should have told us. We can’t read your mind,” grumbled another, as Thacker reiterated his standards for future essays.

The flack doesn’t faze him.

Thacker emphasizes interaction and negotiation in his classes. If he can give his students room to behave as the individuals they are, he believes they’ll put more of their attention into learning. If he stomps on them hard, they’ll spend their energy fighting back, he says.

Plus, he’s responding to what business leaders say they miss in current graduates, he says: employees who can solve problems together.

“Sometimes they interract a little too much. Sometimes they interract just right.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

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