By English Professor Shannon L. Reed

Looked at horizontally—from day one to day 18—the block plan course doesn’t seem like a lot of time. But looked at vertically—from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.—each day on the block plan offers incredible flexibility and thus opportunity.

I  look at the expansive possibilities of each day and sometimes use them for projects or activities that take a lot of time: we go on field trips; we show entire movies and discuss them; we perform plays; we spend an entire day doing a marathon reading of “Paradise Lost” on the Orange Carpet.

But when it is best for the students, I also break the day into multiple short sessions. This allows me to schedule individual or small group tutorials and meet with the whole class on the same day. I use these tutorials most in  two classes that are especially challenging for students: first-year writing seminar and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” The classes are very different. The former is a course designed to help first-year students learn college-level writing. The latter is an advanced English course designed to explore John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem. In both classes, students benefit tremendously from working through papers or poetic passages slowly, in small groups.

I’m teaching a first-year writing seminar this year on the topic Exiles, Immigrants, and Nationalists. Every day, in full class, we discuss essays and novels that describe or analyze some aspect of immigration. We talk about the American dream and our history of welcoming immigrants. We analyze demographic data. We read a novel written by a Ugandan immigrant. We also discuss writing process, revision, citation—the usual writing course topics.

Once or twice a week, however, we meet in small workshops (usually four or five students) where we read and discuss the students’ rough drafts. Each workshop meets for at least an hour. We talk about what is and is not working in their drafts, and we make revision plans for each paper. In these workshops, students gain a much clearer, more concrete understanding of their own writing process and choices. They also become much more analytical readers.

This schedule also allows me to plan in lots of time to meet with students individually. I see students make far more progress in a one-block writing course here than I ever saw on the semester system.

In the advanced course on “Paradise Lost,” I use the tutorials quite differently. Students meet concurrently in small reading groups every morning to discuss the day’s reading assignment. Together, they use study questions and their own notes to help them work through the poem slowly, spending time on unpacking the dense rhetoric of Milton’s poem. I go from one group to the next, sometimes spending just a few minutes, other times spending a full hour with one group, depending on the needs of the students. In afternoon class, then, the students are prepared to take ownership of their interpretations and share those with the class.

The tutorials allow us to focus intensely on each student’s learning. No one gets lost in a group of four students. And the extra time, to slow down and really focus, makes it possible for students to take ownership and responsibility for their own education.