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  • Writer's pictureBrian Karsten

Focus Period: How to Give Students and Teachers the Time They Need

Updated: 7 days ago

Read this blogpost at The Christian Educator's Journal

Sitting down to grade outlines for my Science Fiction Literature class, I am not entirely sure of what to expect. Earlier this week, we reviewed the outline format—highlighting the importance of including an argumentative thesis statement that not only states the paper’s goal, but also outlines the paper’s organizational structure. I walked through the process methodically, trying to ensure that all students were clear on what was expected and gave them time to work while I bounced around answering questions. I felt like I nailed it. But…a handful of students missed that day for college visits, a few others looked exhausted as the school play is ramping toward opening night, and it’s already a mixed 11th/12th grade class of varying skill levels.  

Canvas, our learning management system, lets me know that five of my twenty-four students didn’t submit the assignment. Ugh. Undismayed, I start at the beginning of the alphabet and work my way down:

Ray Bradbury uses the character of Faber to represent protagonist Montag’s moral conscience.  

There’s no outline to the essay’s argument, but that’s an easy fix for this student. I comment accordingly, offer a few more suggestions on what is otherwise a solid outline, and move on to the next: 

Bradbury in his book Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of Guy Montag and how he learns about the problems in his society. 

Yikes. No argument—just a plot summary. Skimming through the rest of the outline, it appears that the student seems to know the text, but this isn’t close to ready to write because she hasn’t done any literary analysis. I’m not sure comments alone will help here. 

The rest of the outlines show very similar issues. Some are outstanding and ready for drafting. Some are close, but are missing key elements in the thesis or outline. Some are incomplete. And some need significant intervention before moving on. The problem, however, is that I need to move on to Brave New World next week and the next three class periods are earmarked for drafting, peer revision, and submission. I can quickly review what we did earlier in the week, which will bore some but help others; however, there are a handful of students that clearly need some in-depth intervention, and these are the same students who can't afford to miss any of the upcoming steps in the process. What I need is an extra block of time with only a handful of students—some that need to complete the assignment, and some that need help revising. Thankfully, our school has Focus Periods. 

Focus Periods or Flex Periods or W.I.N (What I Need) periods are an increasingly popular addition to school bell schedules. Our school instituted them seven years ago, and it’s hard to imagine going back to a time before we had them. Four days a week, for twenty-five minutes after lunch, every student in our building attends a Focus Period where they can get necessary intervention, can pursue interesting and helpful enrichment opportunities, or can spend time studying or working on homework midday, saving them time afterschool for work, family, friends, or extra-curricular activities. Staff in the building plan these times and use them to reteach or re-assess students that struggle, offer opportunities for things that time might not allow for in their units, or create a quiet learning space where they oversee students working on homework.

And it’s been a massive help. All students need help at times—some more than others. The educational consultants at Solution Tree explain it this way: “Just as a group of boys won’t develop the need to shave at the same speed or on the same day, secondary school students will not acquire the ability to solve abstract equations or display empathy at the same speed” (Introduction 2). We had to acknowledge this and do something about it. We had to recognize that “no matter how well a teacher teaches a concept, we know some students won’t get it the first time, because the best way to teach a concept to one student might fail miserably with another in the same class” (Introduction 2). We also believe that mistakes are opportunities. A system where we don't dive into mistakes as learning opportunities produces a fixed mindset in students. When we celebrate mistakes as opportunities, we develop a growth mindset where students know that their ongoing hard work will pay off. And so, collectively, our school has shifted from a world where time was the constant and learning was the variable to a school where learning is the constant and time is the variable.  

This started for us with the idea that we’d offer “Office Hours” daily for our students. Colleges and universities have allotted times where professors are available to help students that seek them out. We hoped (naively) that our students would do the same. We were wrong. The students that needed help the most saw their friends hanging out, enjoying an extra twenty-five minutes of free time at lunch, and they were not about to forfeit that time by visiting their teachers. Instead, the students choosing to come to office hours were the ones with 98% and were wondering what they could do to get themselves to 100%. Not ideal.  

Our primary goal was still to help those that were struggling—some temporarily, some chronically—in our classes. And trusting that these students would seek out help wasn’t working. In Pyramid Response to Intervention: RTI, Professional Learning Communities, and How to Respond When Kids Don't Learn, the authors explain why. They argue that it is imperative that students “receive timely interventions at the first indication that they need more time and support. This process should be directive rather than invitational, so that students get the extra help they need, consistently and without interruption until they are successful” (Buffum et al. 8). Needless to say, office hours weren’t cutting it. We shifted our focus to Focus Periods.  

During Focus Periods, ALL students are assigned a space for learning. Students that need intervention in a class are selected by their teachers for reteaching, re-assessment or small group study. Students without any current struggles have the opportunity to take advantage of enrichment opportunities—from college representative visits to unit extensions to guest speakers and more. And students—many of whom have really busy lives—that might simply need an extra twenty-five minutes to work on the assignments they have due can sign up for study sessions and work in a quiet, teacher-supported environment. 

We completely changed our daily schedule and felt like we had a solid plan; however, our solution still had one major issue: attendance. We knew we wanted all students accounted for during this time, but Google Sheets and paper hall passes were a mess. There was no good way to be sure every student in the building was where they needed to be. So we worked with a software developer to solve this final hurdle and created

Since the shift, our students are getting far more support than our old schedule allowed. Students, staff, and parents have made Focus Periods a significant part of how they do school. And we’re not alone. Our Focus Period software is now being used by over a dozen schools nationwide. Some schools have added daily Focus Periods to their schedule, others have the blocks twice a week, but they all benefit from not only offering intervention and enrichment with regularity, but having an easy way to facilitate it. One example is Chicago Christian High School. Principal Michael Drury explains: 

"We love Focus Period simply for the fact that it helps add structure to our school day. Students can receive extra support without needing to come in early or stay after school. It also allows us to provide more student programming that we may not have had in the past simply due to after-school time restraints. All around, this software has revamped our school life!"

Krista Wright, the principal at South Christian High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, adds the following:

"Good teachers want to meet the diverse learning needs of all of their students. They are dedicated professionals who are eager to provide the support and resources for their struggling and/or underchallenged students so they can succeed in their learning. What holds them back is available time and a simple structure to manage the ebb and flow of student needs." 

The Focus Time app is the perfect tool to make the most of those precious intervention and enrichment minutes. It is simple to use for administrators, educators, paraprofessionals, and students. No time is wasted writing passes or checking shared documents or lists. The app provides for students choice and self-advocacy when appropriate, but also limits options when students aren't quite ready for that level of responsibility. The app can be used to manage class size so targeted intervention can be provided successfully, reducing stress for teachers and students. I have used the Focus Time app in two high schools already and I am moving toward implementing its use in a third. There really isn't another tool out there that can so seamlessly manage the movement of students to get them the support or enrichment they need to thrive.

As Christian educators, we know that all of our students are unique and have God-given gifts and talents as well as individual hurdles and challenges. Focus Period gives our students and staff time and space to celebrate and develop the gifts and talents they’ve been gifted. It also creates places for students to get the help they need to learn at a high level. 1 Corinthians offers the all-too-familiar metaphor of the body of Christ: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body… there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” And as a Christian school, we acknowledge and embrace this within our student body as well. Time cannot be the excuse for why students aren’t given the opportunity to grow to their full potential. 

Works Cited

Buffum, Austin G., et al. Pyramid Response to Intervention: RTI, Professional Learning Communities, and how to Respond when Students Don't Learn. Solution Tree, 2009.

“Introduction: Harnessing the Power of Time.” It's about Time: Planning Interventions and Extension in Secondary School, by Mike William Mattos and Austin G. Buffum, edited by Mike William Mattos and Austin G. Buffum, Solution Tree Press, 2015.

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