The phone rang at 5:22 this morning, and she would have slept through it. But I answered and handed it to my spouse so that she could receive the news that she could go back to sleep. School was closed.
This has been a common scenario this year all over the country. Extreme cold, wind storms, snow, ice—the weather has been closing a lot of schools. And all over the country, educators are struggling with the obvious implication of all this, which is that students don’t learn much when they’re sleeping in or planted in front of glowing screens instead of being in school. What to do?
Some schools, presumably those with pretty well developed cultures and capacities in the areas of online and blended instruction, simply “flip” their programs and ask students to wire up for Google Hang-outs or Skype chats or asynchronous instruction. It’s like school, only at home. It’s a stop-gap, but it allows teaching and learning to go forward in ways that at least allow the schools not to feel remiss.
A friend’s children attend an independent school in Atlanta (Mount Vernon Presbyterian, in the interest of full disclosure), where they are exploring nature’s extremes in depth this winter (although my Buffalo upbringing makes me secretly scoff at their idea of depth), and their school has a kind of sensible approach to the snow-day problem. Teachers post work assignments on line by the normal start of the school day, and kids check in a couple of times later on.
My friend’s kids are in mostly self-contained elementary classrooms, and I was really excited to learn that one child’s daily assignment was, “Build a snow fort, sit in it for a while, and write about the experience.” (LATER CLARIFICATION: The assignment was simply to build a fort; there was not really enough snow, so my friend’s daughter built her fort of blankets and bedroom furniture.) I know you couldn’t do that in Minnesota this year, what with those sub-Arctic windchills, but I just kind of loved this assignment: embrace the exciting thing that’s happening, experience it, make something, and then reflect on the experience—just what I think I’d have wanted my kids to be doing back when they were home for snow days. (One of ours learned to cross-country ski on a snow day; to date he has only ever skied on snow-covered streets and campus pathways.)
There’s an analogy here to summer reading, I think. It’s all about time out of school, and learning. If you, Gentle Reader, were to send me a nickel for every minute you and your school have spent over the years discussing summer reading and the dreaded Accountability Question, I could comfortably retire. Snow days generate the same issue. I listened yesterday to a radio interview with a school official somewhere who outlined his district’s great plans and snow-day assignments only to hear him mumble toward the end that the kids would actually have a few weeks to get the assignments done.
I offer up this idea to schools hung up on snow days and the Accountability Question. Instead of focusing on driving through The Curriculum, why not come up with a menu of developmentally appropriate general assignments that focus a bit of intellectual or creative exploration and some reflection? I’d even just go with one assignment per grade level; after all, the kids still have the discipline-specific homework they had for the snow day.
How about asking seventh graders to think and write about a hobby they wish they had time to take up, and why? What’s exciting about it? Or asking tenth graders to write a little op-ed on a current events issue, or something relating to healthy or safe living specific relating to teenagers? If your school is quick with technology, you could ask kids to tweet or blog their responses (hey, Tumblr is made for this kind of thing). Ask sixth-graders or seniors to write three haiku on their thoughts and feelings on the day. Make a piece of sculpture from things you find around the house—or a snow sculpture that you photograph. If you must have accountability and an audience, this is what advisors are made for—they don’t have to grade anything, just look, check off, and respond or give feedback if they wish.
(OK, I understand that this idea won’t serve if you’re in a school or district where state testing drives everything; every moment out of the classroom in some places, whether for snow days or recess, puts school and teacher performance—and even retention, god help them—at stake. Until more sensible minds are running the show, I get your need to keep hammering away at test prep. If your school lives and dies by AP scores, if you really believe it does, I guess you’re stuck, too.)
Sometimes the doing of a thing is actually more important than receiving a grade, or even feedback, on it. Instead of turning the dining room table into a mini-classroom for the day (it’s already worn out from doing duty as such every evening), turn the house, the community, the world into a resource or a place of exploration; turn being snow-bound into an opportunity.
John Greenleaf Whittier’s his long poem Snow-bound is an enduring work of art that is also perhaps an overly loquacious meditation on memory. Why not come up with a handful of snow-day “assignments” that give kids an opportunity to think about and perhaps even remember something as new and fresh as the white stuff falling from the sky?