How one middle school Principal is changing the way we think about childhood stress and creative learning—changing kids’ lives along the way.
By David Todd McCarty | Friday, December 13, 2019
Remember when you were a kid, and someone new would visit your school? A strange adult would show up as a guest speaker, there would be an assembly, or even a new kid. When you live in a world of routine and structure, anything out of the ordinary is somewhat exciting, even if it’s only on a small scale. Sometimes, anything different is good. Now imagine you get to start school every day like that.
That’s the innovative idea behind Panther Block, a pilot program designed by Middle Township Middle School Principal Jeff Ortman.
“It began as an exercise to find ways to expand the band program and line up our schedule with the high school in terms of timing, so the kids would be more likely to make a smooth transition,” Ortman explains. “I’m a pretty abstract thinker—seeing the scheduling blocks and envisioning how it can all sort of puzzle together, so I went to a Middle School Scheduling Conference at the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, that was put on by this world-renowned scheduling guru named Michael D. Rettig.”
Dr. Rettig is considered a leading expert on the subject of school scheduling and has served as a consultant on school scheduling issues in 43 states with over 1000 schools nationally and internationally in Bermuda, Canada, Dubai, Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. He also has conducted hundreds of workshops and has authored or co-authored numerous articles and books on school scheduling and related topics. In addition to his work in higher education, he taught public school in Syracuse, NY for 10 years and served as a school principal in Virginia for six years.
“I’m a pretty abstract thinker.”Principal Jeff Ortman
“At this conference, he introduced us to this thing called Spartan Block, which was taking place at Springfield Middle School just over in Pennsylvania,” says Ortman. “The idea was to get kids to come in and start the day doing something they were really interested in.
Ortman explained that a lot of what is being written about in academic education circles right now is surrounding social and emotional learning, as well as something he called stress brain. Basically, that if kids’ brains are stressed, they aren’t able to learn. There are all kinds of factors that can lead to kids being stressed, from poverty and lack of financial security, to normal everyday things such as social interaction with peers, to really traumatic events such as the loss of a family member.
“Stress cuts off students’ access to higher-order thinking like logic, creative problem solving, and analytical judgment,” says Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed. “When there is loss of higher brain control, the lower, reactive brain’s involuntary outputs kick in. The resulting behaviors are limited to the equivalent of fight/flight/freeze reactions. The student cannot use the resources of executive functions to understand, evaluate, or apply new learning.”
The idea behind this new program Dr. Rettig explained, was to start the day with a period of time for students to get involved in activities that interested them.
Ortman was intrigued and wanted to give it a try. The school had 88 minute blocks of time for Literacy and Math and they were finding that the last 20 minutes were just inefficient. Eighty-eight minutes for students to sit at this age is a long time, so rather than waste the last twenty minutes having the students do homework or catch up on things, they decided to take the blocks and really drive instruction for those 60 minutes, and then offer them more opportunities throughout the day, and Panther Block was born.
“The way that I approached this,” says Ortman, “was that I first asked the teachers, ‘If you could teach anything you wanted, what would it be?’ They came back to me with their ideas, and I immediately had buy-in from them, because they were also going to be starting their days doing something they were passionate about. If hadn’t gotten buy-in from them, it never would have worked.”
Ortman developed a committee, got input from teachers, then set about creating the different blocks based on the teacher’s passions and input. In the first week of school, the students got to choose the block they would get to do.
“Each block lasts for two marking periods, which is about 90 days,” says Ortman. “Each student was given the opportunity to give us their top four choices, so each student was guaranteed to get at least one of their top four choices.”
Ortman says one of the most amazing outcomes of the Panther Block program is that to date, they have not received a single disciplinary referral during that period of time in the morning; not a single disciplinary action during those forty minutes since the beginning of the year. In addition, scholastic failure had fallen since instituting the program, with the number of failing grades overall having dropped significantly.
“We know that student engagement with learning often correlates with better mental and physical health,” explains Dr. Denise Clark Pope, an expert on curriculum studies from Stanford University. “If a morning program is done well, students will be fully engaged in their learning, including the ABC’s of engagement: Affective Engagement (enjoyment), Behavioral Engagement (completing the task), and Cognitive Engagement (finding purpose and value in the learning).”
“You can just see kids decompressing,” says Ortman. “I can watch a kid get off the bus and then see them after Panther Block and it’s transformative.”
The blocks are as varied as the teachers and their students. One teacher plays guitar and has a side gig in a local band. Another teacher studied drama at Yale as a Fine Arts Graduate, so she gets to do drama with the kids for forty minutes, even though she’s the Spanish teacher. One of the social studies teachers is heading up a Debate Team.
But there are also blocks on Survival Training where the kids learn to make lean-to’s in the woods behind the school, how to splint a leg, and make a stretcher. There is Garden block that tends the courtyard garden. There is Computer Gaming and Chess, Boat Life and Mediation. The Sign Language block was a particular enthusiastic group. They were learning songs in sign language but the kids were also excited about learning a second language that might aid them in the future.
Throughout nearly 20 blocks in all, teachers have new opportunities to forge connections with students they might never have ever gotten a chance to know, and that helps in terms of monitoring students on school grounds, and even out in the world.
“We make a million different decisions on how we’re going to approach different situations with students,” says Ortman, “and having a personal connection with a student can completely change how you might approach a situation.”
One of the other fascinating things about this program is that the students are grouped by interest, not by grade or scholastic aptitude, so that both students and teachers have a unique opportunity to interact with other students they might not otherwise interact with.
“We had a student come in here this year—transferred in from another school district—and he was having trouble making connections,” says Ortman. “He told us, ‘Well, I really like to sew.’ So we put him into the Sewing and Knitting block and he was like a totally new kid afterwards. He is the only boy in there, but he’s got really advanced skills. Any opportunity we have to make connections with the kids and helping them to find their niche—it’s going to make school life and learning more positive.”
Also built into this first period was the opportunity to have what they call Intervention Time—a time set aside for teachers to provide extra help to students who might be struggling in a subject, or possibly even simply needed extra time to get homework done in the morning. Ortman explained there might be cases, where there was a family emergency and weren’t able to do it the night before, or they had to care for a younger sibling in the morning.
Because Ortman was shortening up the academic periods, he was able to free up the time. Each Panther block was assigned two teachers, so that one teacher could run the block and the other could leave and give students the extra help they needed.
“Having an extra teacher per class to allow for intervention seems like a great use of resources for the morning period as well,” explained Dr. Pope.
The other big advantage they found was with their ESL students (English As A Second Language). The school has a full-time Spanish teacher, but they also have a teacher who comes over from the high school to teach half the day at the middle school. Before regular classes begin, she gets to go around to the various blocks and check in on the ESL students and see if they need any extra help.
In one of the classes, a student explained how different it was to have the morning begin the way it does now, “I feel like I just get a chance to relax for a bit before we start school,” she said. “It makes everyone feel better about the morning.”
“Who knows how their morning went before they got here,” says Ortman. “We believe this program can help them prepare for their day and they will be better students for it.”
The students and teachers just completed their first Panther Block of the year before Christmas Break. They are now moving onto a new block. Students were given the choice to stay in the block they were in, and in many cases, the students chose to stick with the block they were in. But with all the variety of options, it seems like there is something for everyone and plenty of opportunity to discover new things.
“This is an opportunity to come in and do something that interests them, rather jump off the bus and take a math test at 7:50 in the morning,” says Ortman.
The important thing is everyone, students and teachers alike, get to start their day stress-free and prepare their minds to teach and learn, and that is bigger than any syllabus or curriculum.
In addition to being a journalist, David Todd McCarty is a Board Member of the Middle Township School Board, which is how he found out about the program.