BRATTLEBORO — This year, the daily schedule at Brattleboro Union High School was changed to give students about 40 minutes to work with teachers outside of their time in class. During ACE (Academic Challenge and Excellence) Block, students — alone or in small groups — can sign up for extra help, catch up with work they missed when they were absent, prepare for tests, or work independently beyond the basic curriculum. Teachers can sign up students they need to see individually.

Four teachers — Teri Appel, who teaches English; Erin Hilow, a math teacher; Angie Dodd, who teaches Spanish; and Ben Lord, who teaches science — talked about how they use ACE Block at BUHS.

"I give students opportunities for revision and retake," Lord said. "I do reteaching, usually in small groups. I allow small groups of students to work together if they need more time to work on projects than they have in class time."

This semester, Lord is also piloting a special seminar on brain research for any student who's interested. Fifteen students have signed up.

"On Fridays I teach a seminar called 'A User's guide to Your Brain," he explained. "They come every Friday for a 10-week course. It's based on my readings in cognitive science about effective learning strategies that are frankly surprising, and they're different from the way people usually study. So the objective off the course is to give students tools to study more effectively by understanding what we know about how we learn."


As an example, Lord mentioned that to study for an upcoming text, students typically review their notes or sections in a text.

"It's a terribly ineffective way to study," he said. "What's much more efficient is to quiz oneself rather than review, because it forces you to retrieve information from long-term memory rather than encode information you've already encoded. Understanding how our brain works can help us choose a more effective study-strategy."

Dodd uses ACE Block both to help students make up work they missed when they were absent, and to meet with students one-on-one.

"When I'm meeting individually with students, we have conversations in Spanish, we read together, and sometimes they retell stories in Spanish that we've worked on in class," she said.

Stories — based on video-clips, props, students' experience, or fantasy — are at the core of Dodd's teaching.

Erin Hilow works with Kory Choque-Stenn and Amelia Graff, while Malick Mane works in the background
Erin Hilow works with Kory Choque-Stenn and Amelia Graff, while Malick Mane works in the background (Maggie B. Cassidy — Special to the Reformer)

"I'm using stories as a way to teach high-frequency Spanish verbs, primarily, but also sentence structure and grammar," she said. "Some I write, and some come from short video-clips, and some we co-create with students in the classroom. It's a process called story-asking, where I as the teacher am telling the story in Spanish and gathering details from the group as the story goes along, so that together we create the characters and activities that compose a class story. During the co-creation process, I am speaking entirely in Spanish, but even beginning students can understand because of the way the process is structured."

Students can sign themselves up to come to Dodd's classroom during ACE Block, and Dodd can also sign up students she wants to see.

"I have a running count of who I have seen , so I can make sure I touch base with most if not all of the students during a semester," she said.

Hilow uses ACE Block to work with individual students who may need extra support.

"I schedule them to make sure they come and see me," she explained. "I also use it as a review too. If I know that a student is struggling in one area, I'll make sure to call them back to work on that. I hope that students will ask me to schedule them for things like that, but sometimes they don't self-advocate as well as they should."

Hilow sees a lot of potential in ACE Block.

"I like that it gives students the opportunity to get help, get enrichment — to do whatever they need to do to improve themselves and their grades," she commented. "I also like that they have the chance to be one-on-one with teachers. She especially values the fact that students can choose where they want sign up for ACE each week.

"It's a good way for them to practice responsibility and self-advocacy," she said. Teri Appel encourages students who take the same course to meet during ACE Block.

"For example, I have two freshman classes — they come in Tuesday and Thursday, sophomores on Wednesday, and anybody on Friday, because I want to encourage them to form study groups to work together," she explained. "It's good practice if they're going on to college.

"If they need an appointment for math, they can be elsewhere, but I have 10 to 12 kids scheduled for every day that their class is meeting, so they really have formed study groups," Appel continued. "They might be working on a specific text, reviewing for a test, doing draft work for essays, talking to each other — whatever they need to do. Two of my students said that they formed a chat group at night where they kick around ideas."

Appel and Lord pointed out that allotting 40 minutes for ACE Block every day has meant that class times are shorter.

"You have to sacrifice instructional time, which means we don't finish the lab in a block sometimes," Lord commented. "Labs just don't fit anymore because there isn't enough time. There has to be a shortening of the curriculum. That's a drawback."

Appel quantified the loss for her curriculum.

"We've lost about two weeks of instructional time each semester," she observed. "We used to have roughly 85-minute block, and we now have 75-minute blocks, so we've lost 10 minutes every day, or 800 minutes of instructional time over a semester, and that breaks down into a unit.

"It's a tradeoff," she continued. "What we may lose in terms of content, we're probably picking up in terms of work-habits and skills development with ACE."

"ACE is a full-school culture change that has not been completed yet," Hilow commented. "The system is there; online scheduling is a change for teachers to get used to.

"Teachers and students need to team up together to get that mindset that ACE will help them," she went on. "I think the students that already have the motivation benefit from ACE more than the students who might not know when to ask for ACE, or how. But again that's part of the shift, helping students become more responsible for what they need."

Teachers continue to develop new ways to engage students in ACE Block. Lord has recruited what he calls "an army of student tutors."

"I am drawing on mostly juniors and seniors who have done advanced work in the sciences to come back and do a lot of the stuff that I might do in the class," he explained. "Sometimes a tutor will sit with another student for the whole time and help them to understand one idea.

Sometimes those tutors are sitting down with a small group and leading a productive discussion.

Sometimes those tutors are looking over students' shoulders at their work and asking them

provocative questions. It takes a little training to help the tutors do those things well, but it's really effective, I think, to have students teaching each other."

Maggie Brown Cassidy, a former French teacher at Brattleboro Union High School, can be contacted at