Prescott High School’s U.S. Block course, taught by Courtney Check and David Stengel, recently won the 2016 Arizona School Board Association Golden Bell Award for excellence in increasing student achievement. Here is the accompanying video of the innovative program.

‘Block’ and the ‘Bell,’ it’s time for U.S. Block at PHS

It’s 8 a.m. at Prescott High School and sophomore students saunter into room 211, glancing at the baby blue electric guitar at the front of the room.

When the bell rings, their history teacher, David Stengel, stands up and strikes a ringing chord, and the students sing along: “Now it’s time for U.S. BLOCK! We have a good time AND IT ROCKS!”

Thus, the day begins for U.S. Block, a co-curricular history and English class at PHS taught by Stengel and Courtney Check that won the 2016 Arizona School Board Association (ASBA) Golden Bell Award for excellence in increasing student achievement.

Check and Stengel will receive the award at the ASBA State Conference in December. Awarded annually, the Golden Bell Promise Programs Award “recognizes school programs from throughout the state that have shown outstanding successes in student growth and success.”

Additionally, they will present an hour-long session to school board members from around the state to promote the U.S. Block idea, in hopes that educators will understand the benefits, ease of implementation, and sheer fun engendered within the environs of a U.S. Block class.

In this year’s U.S. Block class, Check, an English teacher, utilizes her skills in engagement strategies, literary analysis, and writing to create a community of learning based upon mutual student encouragement and positive energy, while Stengel, a U.S. History teacher, is able draw upon his background in music and the guitar to provide another dimension to the learning experience.

“I like to start each class with a song. I have a cycle of history-themed songs, to which the students sing along,” Stengel said. “It is fun, it ‘breaks the ice,’ but it also establishes focus, and reinforces the idea that this is to be a performance, for student and teacher alike. I find it to be highly effective.”

Perhaps of primary importance is the concept that the students themselves take ownership of their education. Projects such as the Salem Witch Trials Research and Re-creation, as students to research the life of a historical figure and then perform a trial reenactment during class. The project-based nature of the class allows students to create a self-sustaining ecosystem of mutual support, scholarship and fun, resulting in “an atmosphere of such good, positive feedback from everyone that really almost any student could benefit from being in this class,” said Missy Townsend, a former Block teacher.

U.S. Block exemplifies the notion that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. The course was pioneered in 1994 by Kelli Bradstreet and Al Frank. Since its inception, several teachers have had the honor of instructing the course, and the flexibility of the U.S. Block paradigm allows the unique style and skill sets of different teachers to flourish while working in tandem with their partners, to create an engaging and productive environment.

Additionally, the two-hour “back-to-back” nature of the class, combined with the positive reinforcement paradigm established by Check and Stengel, results in a closely-knit group of students. PHS teachers often remark that former Block students tend to stick together in their classes, and continue to help one another out, both inside and outside of school. Check and Stengel are optimistic that as more schools incorporate Block classes, and at more grade levels (Block is currently only offered to sophomores), this positive energy will continue to spread and inspire further innovations along these lines. It is for this purpose that Check and Stengel were so excited to apply for the Golden Bell award.

Check and Stengel consider it a great honor to represent PHS, their students, and all former Block teachers in accepting this award, and are excited to demonstrate why Block is such an innovative and effective class. They hope that it will contribute to creating learning environments everywhere in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.