Julia Steiny: Time, the Most Valuable Currency in the School Day


Last week we marveled over what the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI could do by investing one minute of class time here and there with “energizers.”  But while a one-minute pick-me-up freshens kids’ ability to learn, what on earth would a whole hour of downtime yield?

Unlike most schools, ICS students take a giant break from academics in the middle of their day.  Though it’s a charter school, ICS has the same relatively short day as local district schools, 6.5 hours.  Carved from that limited time are 20 minutes for recess followed by a full 30 minutes for lunch, then a 10-minute quiet time — one hour.

Yes, ICS is a dual language school.  They switch languages mid-day, from Spanish or Portuguese in the morning, say, to English in the afternoon.  While the mid-day break helps with making the language switch, that’s not why they do it.  Instead, the seeming downtime is set aside to nurture skills that help kids be successful as people.

Time is finite, whether it’s a class period, a school day or a lifetime.  What teachers say they have enough time in the day to accomplish all they are expected to do?  Over the summer, administrators work for days on schedules as complex and convoluted as M.C. Escher drawings, shaving minutes off here to make room for new requirements there.  Time is the coin of a school’s realm.  How schools spend it reveals their values and priorities.

Charter schools generally have longer days than district schools.  The so-called “no excuses” schools — Achievement First here, and more famously Success Academies and KIPP elsewhere — have super long days, often 8:00 to 4:00 or more.  And so-called “progressive” charters use longer day to relax the schedule so both students and teachers can breathe, plan, catch up, and do time-consuming projects.  ICS sticks with the relatively short day of local district schools.

No one teaches or learns well when emotions or behavior are out of control.  

Darlene Pugnali, Assistant Director, emphasizes that ICS sets a high value on social-and-emotional-learning (SEL).  An SEL team — social worker, occupational therapist and others — meet weekly to case-manage kids and to balance their academics with adjusting conditions to help them manage their own emotions and behavior.  Self-management is far more critical to success, in all aspects of life, than advanced academics.  ICS spends much of the first six weeks of every school year establishing all manner of expectations about students controlling their bodies, understanding personal space, understanding others, using words to express emotion.  “It’s in every little thing we do.”

Kids learn social skills during social time like recess.

Many schools have eliminated recess outright, especially in urban areas.  As one superintendent says in a white paper, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”  The gross misuse of testing results has perverted schools’ interest in what used to be called “the whole child.”  Social time is sacrificed for instructional time, even though no evidence shows test-prep increases test scores.

Furthermore, kids have become harder to handle.  Fewer families teach and practice traditional essentials like politeness, manners and courtesy.  Rude behavior has risen at every socio-economic level — just ask teachers.  Aggressive video games and Facebook don’t help.  Sadly, recess is vulnerable to bullying and anti-social behavior.

So ICS teachers mill around the play areas with the students supervising, but at a distance.  The kids are free to make friends, create their own games, get into scrapes with one another, and figure out how to resolve them themselves.

ICS never withholds recess as punishment.  Kids need a break.  Rule-breakers have to face consequences, but losing recess is not one of them.

Many other school lunchtimes are run like drive-by troughs.

Some schools’ cafeterias are so small that students are batch-processed in separate shifts in tiny allotments of time.  Move ‘em out, take a quick swipe at the place, and it’s onto the next group.  Sure, adults sometimes eat lunch at their desks, but even then they’re not speed-scarfing food so they can fill up before getting kicked out.

ICS students eat at a leisurely, social pace.  Having recess first, though — a research-backed practice — means they’re hungry and get down to business.  But they can linger and talk if they like.  Once done, they’re still on downtime and can read color, draw, and fool around.

The last 10 minutes are truly meditative.  

Quiet time helps them transition back to learning and to their second language.  Teachers play music or read aloud.  No talking.  Maybe heads down on desk.  Just stop, breathe, collect yourself.

Darlene Pugnali says, “The other day I was in Portuguese class and the teacher had the kids stretching while a calm, taped voice took the kids through guided imagery designed for relaxing.”  It’s like Star Wars’ C-3PO shutting himself down before going back into the fray.

Schools can’t presume that kids will come with social skills or good self-management.  But schools can provide the time and supervision that allow kids to learn these things themselves.  ICS’s results, enumerated in last week’s column, speak for themselves.  These people are scholars of the value of time.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny