Archives For snow days

Graphic 2It’s snowing again in Connecticut.
It’s February.
No surprise.

In fact, snow days are not a surprise for thousands of school districts across the US.
Snow days interrupt instruction.
Again, no surprise.

It’s a fact that schools have requirements for school instruction days and for instruction hours or seat time. So if snow days and interruptions to instruction time requirements are not a surprise, what can educators do to be ready for the inevitable snow day?

There are some districts that prepare for snow days in advance by organizing assignments before the school day.

In New Hampshire, some districts have used ‘‘Blizzard Bag Days.” On these days, students complete assignments at home, either online or on paper. If 80% of students complete assignments, then the snow day is not added to the end of the school year. Some districts have reported that the number of students who participate in Blizzard Bag Days has risen to 90%.

As technology expands in the classroom, the use of different learning platforms can halt the disruption of learning by allowing students to participate in activities that allow them to practice skills they have been taught in the classroom. For districts that are concerned about the amount of technology in homes, many platforms are easily accessed by digital phones through mobile apps. Phone message apps that deliver assignments do not chew up the data time if the materials have already been sent home in anticipation of a snow day.

One possible argument in designing the use of technology to facilitate learning on a snow day is how to determine the percentage of students who must participate in order for the day to “count” in the school calendar. Previous attendance figures by school could be used to choose such a percentage for credit, and student work turned in or digital work submitted could be used to validate these percentages.

Another argument is choosing a method to determine how many hours or how much seat time is necessary to complete an assignment  in order to “count” for credit. The seat time argument may be less of a concern given that there are districts with students, particularly in the upper grades, who are receiving credit for core coursework on platforms with flexible seat time requirements. For example, instead of using Carnegie units (120 hours per unit) for course credit, some online platforms, such as platforms like Odysseyware, provide fewer coursework hours in grade level subject areas. Many of these online course platforms require the use of seat time waivers, with sometimes as little as 70-80 hours, to complete coursework.

Another concern may be raised by teachers who might initially interpret snow day assignments as “extra work” to prepare, review, or grade. As a former teacher, I would argue that while snow days gave me an opportunity to catch up on grading or lesson plans, I was in effect, working twice. I would work during the snow day, and then work again on the date tacked onto the school year. How many times in June, in a particularly warm and steamy classroom, did I wish that we could have kept to the original school closing date?

The Common Core’s focus on increasing non-fiction materials into all grade level curriculum means that every subject area, including “specials” or electives (art, music, physical education, computer technology, etc.) could contribute in preparing materials for snow days; core subject areas need not be the only requirements for snow day lesson preparation. Rotating responsibilities for assigning work (Snow Day #1: English, Art, Science; Snow Day #2: Math, Social Studies, Music) might be a way to ensure that students do not lose practice in the same subject area with each cancellation.

Finally, in support of snow day assignments, is the argument that practice for standardized testing, now required by the Common Core in the form of SBAC or PARCC, needs to happen before early spring test dates. Any interruption in skills practice caused by snow days, particularly in the later winter months, could have an adverse impact on student and school test results. Even at the upper grade levels, snow day interruptions pose problems for delivering Advanced Placement content, already in overstuffed syllabi, in order to prepare students for annual AP exams held in early May.

graphic 1The result is that days added in late June to meet state requirements become educationally superfluous and may place students into another meteorological challenging situation: overheated classrooms when outside temperatures climb into the 90s.

When school calendars are decided a year in advance in any of the Snow Belt States, Mid-Atlantic States, or New England, it is common practice  to add snow days to the school year. The same practice could be extended by having teachers prepare materials for snow cancellations either at the beginning of the school year or soon after the first quarter.

It’s no surprise that it will snow again next year.

Here in New England, when that first snow day comes next year, there should no surprises.

Damage to neighborhood trees and power lines

By now, most of the US knows about the damage caused in the Northeast by Winter Storm Albert. On October 29th, the entire state of Connecticut was WWF’d by a heavy wet snow. That night tree limbs snapped with M80 sound effects. By morning, residents were powerless-literally and figuratively.

Teachers, like their students, generally love a snow day. A sudden snowstorm can provide an opportunity to grade a stack of papers, plan lessons, or catch up on reading. A snow day grants a leisurely reading of the morning paper and an extra cup of coffee. A snow day permits the wearing pajamas and and the testing of a new soup recipe. A snow day is a collective opportunity to “catch one’s breath.”

Unless the power goes out. Winter Storm Albert knocked out the power in our area for five…six…seven…eight days, depending on the local street address.

Of course, when the power goes out, the sudden separation from all modern conveniences seems to put the 21st Century brain on hold. Habits of convenience, the flicking of on/off switches or pushing reheat on microwaves, are hard to break. But I have discovered that the disconnect from the Internet, however, is almost intolerable…particularly if one lives in an area without cell towers for 3G, and the power, phone and cable lines are down.

Our school has a 1:1 initiative for English classrooms. We have netbooks in our classes. Students are also encouraged to bring their digital devices to class in order to participate. Responses to prompts are uploaded to one open source software program (we use Edmodo.com), essays and vocabulary sentences are uploaded to a subscription software program (we use turnitin.com), and information is delivered to students by way of a wiki, another software program (we use PBWorks.com). When the power went out, I was unable to access student work or lessons….for five whole days!

Map of Connecticut's Winter Storm Albert power outages

The storm came at the end of a marking period, a time when there is always too much to do, and I had no access to any student work. I found myself driving many, many miles out of town to set up in areas of the state, and out of state, that had power and free wi-fi. I scouted and found seats in malls, Panera’s restaurants, Starbucks, and 24-hour diners. Once I found the free wi-fi, I would set up my computer and read student work. I was not alone. I met many teachers who have also moved student work into a digital format who were in search of a signal in order to stay on track with student work. Several woefully admitted that they actually longed for a pile of actual papers to correct. The expression “digital divide” took on new meaning; we were divided from our students’ work in cyberspace.

When school reopened this past week (11/7), I was already behind. I had lost precious classroom time, but that time will be recovered by adding more five school days to the calendar, the harsh retribution for the aforementioned pleasures of a snow day. I mourn instead grading and planning time that was lost due to a growing dependance on the Internet.

The use of technology in the classroom is required in education; all students should be engaged in 21st Century skills. There are standards developed by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) that must be met in districts throughout the state. My lessons almost always require some form of technology, from word-processing to Internet research. The assignments that can be create with technology are engaging, and the use of technology to post assignments can promote student independence and responsibility. Technology in the classroom is necessary if teachers are to prepare students for the future…unless the power goes out, and the Internet is not accessible.

The use of technology in the classroom will certainly increase as the amount of technology adults and students use in the real world is on the rise. These trends will not change, but some consideration should be given to the perplexing problem of what happens when the power goes down for an extended time. How can the business of educating students continue without the hiccups caused by Mother Nature?

Winter Storm Albert may be the harbinger of winter in the 2011-2012 school year and for those school years yet to come. There will be snowstorms, hurricanes, and other natural disasters in our state’s future that will separate students and teachers from the technology that joins them in 21st Century education.

And when that happens, when the power goes out for an extended time, I find myself parodying Shakespeare’s interpretation of the 15th Century Richard III. There I am, struggling along on my snow-covered Bosworth Field crying out, “A signal! A signal! My kingdom for a wi-fi signal!”