Octoblocks: Trustees hear pros, cons of 22 days of only one class

By Kirk Winter

Octoblocks: Trustees hear pros and cons of 22 days of only one class

Trillium Lakelands District School Board staff and trustees spent much of their recent board meeting looking at statistical and anecdotal evidence about the first high school octoblock that ended Oct. 16.

For readers unfamiliar with an octoblock, the board decided as a public health measure to limit student contacts to one class and have students take one subject only for five hours a day for 22 straight days.

While the decision appears to be a smashing success as a public health measure with very few positive COVID cases across the board, trustees, teachers, and students were interested in knowing if the one-class-a-day system was a good decision educationally.

Superintendent of Learning Katherine MacIver began the session by presenting data that spoke to students’ total credit count accumulations and final marks.

She notes that “98 per cent of all high school students achieved their credit,” MacIver said, “and of the 4,313 credits to be granted only 86 were not awarded.”

She said that “58 percent of students achieved marks between 80-100 per cent and 20 per cent of students achieved marks between 70-79 per cent, placing 78 per cent of students at or above the provincial standard.”

When the Advocate inquired further of board communications officer Sinead Fegan if the marks seemed higher than normal, Fegan did not address the question directly, instead choosing to focus on pass/fail rates rather than mark distribution.

“TLDSB pass rates in secondary schools have been over 90 per cent for the past several years,” Fegan said. 

Andrew Galbraith and Mark Flynn, heads of mathematics and technological studies from Bracebridge Muskoka Lakes Secondary School, and Jasmine Sadler and Michelle Ash, heads of science and English from LCVI, made reports to trustees about their experiences teaching the first octoblock.

“We spent a lot of time reviewing curriculum documents trying to figure out what we had time for and what we had to trim out,” Galbraith said.

“Challenges of the octoblock included lack of time, student attention spans being limited and any student absence created a large gap in their learning,” Galbraith said.

Flynn told trustees that the octoblock was ideal for technological studies students.

“We have more time on projects,” Flynn said. “There is less start-up and clean-up time. The kids can really see their projects taking form in the three to four hours a day they had in the shop.”

Challenges pointed out by Flynn included ensuring that there was enough material for all the shops available in a timely manner, making sure that hospitality students had meaningful hands on experiences with no cafeterias open or catering to do, and finding enough cars for the students to work on with vehicles from the school community no longer available because of COVID regulations.

Sadler found it initially difficult to plan for the longer days, sometimes planning too much or too little for an instructional block.

“I tried to have consistency in my day plan so kids would be ready for what was coming up. For example I had a quiz every day at the same time,” Sadler said.

“All my assessments were submitted electronically to reduce the threat of COVID contamination,” Sadler said, “and particularly when students were away from school we discovered that all students don’t have access to the same technology while at home.”

Ash completed the teacher presentations admitting that she herself was “apprehensive” at the beginning of the octoblock.

“I realized very quickly,” Ash said, “that I needed to create a framework for students that had to be flexible. We were able to get through multiple tasks and cover a lot of the curriculum.”

“Student behaviour was exceptional,” Ash added. “I think the kids were just happy to be back at school and experiencing a new, novel system.”

LCVI interviewed a number of their students regarding their experiences with the first octoblock. That video was shared with the trustees by LCVI Principal Mark Cossarin.

A number of students praised the octoblock suggesting it was better to only focus on one subject.

Other students were impressed with how seriously most of their peers were taking the health and sanitation rules during the first 22 days of the new school year.

Other comments suggested that some students were struggling with their return to school, listing the following concerns either in person or in writing – that the octoblocks put too much pressure on students and there was “no time for mistakes;” students were “exhausted” of the subject by the end of the day; there were not enough opportunities for students to socialize; there needed to be more mask breaks during the school day; there was no opportunity to change classes once you were in your cohort; lunch was too short.

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