There's Never a Snow Day in Cyberspace by Bob Sprankle

What a winter it has been! My own district is up to 3 "snow days" (school being closed) as well as a handful of "delayed" school openings or "early releases" due to weather. Some school districts have had it worse, and there's talk of cutting vacation or attending school on Saturdays in order to make up days, if this winter continues lobbing storms our way. Some schools have already made that decision: goodbye February vacation!

This makes complete sense of course, because we have to commit to the 180 or so days required. Clearly, if the buses can't get the students to school then we CAN NOT HAVE SCHOOL!

Or can we?

I'm sure you know where I'm heading with this: school being contingent on the fact that students are sitting in a shared space after being "trucked in" is just so "20th Century thinking." We have so many technological tools to continue learning outside of the classroom, and the options grow larger on a daily basis; when and how will these start being used to help tackle the snow day conundrum?

First: there's no way the changes can happen overnight. There are many things that have to be addressed before we even put in the technology to support "cyber-snow-day-learning."

First and foremost, we have to change the expectation of what a "snow day" is. Currently (and certainly it was this way when I was a student), when school is canceled, the entire plan and expectation of what the day was supposed to be gets tossed right out the window. In other words, students ---and some adults--- (full disclosure: I've been one of those adults at times) are overjoyed to take a day such as a "Wednesday" and let it be completely transformed into a "weekend" day. Without a doubt, some of this is necessary: the day has to open up to allow for all the shoveling required and the cookies that need to be baked. Snow days often feel like winning the lottery as most of us pull the covers back up over our heads and catch up on much needed sleep.

However... if we tweaked this "lottery" perception ---even just a bit--- perhaps we can still get some learnin' done. After all, that was the original plan for these days currently demolished by bad weather.

Even without adding technology to the "wintry" mix, we could always have had expectations that students would still do "schoolwork" when home on a snow day. Perhaps, this could have taken the form of "snow day packets," prepared ahead of time for when weather hits hard. Unfortunately, I imagine that these packets would be filled mostly with "busy work" and wouldn't hold a candle to a "true" school day's engaging activities (er... unless some of the normal school day is already filled up with "busy work").

Okay... at this point in the post I must acknowledge that I've probably lost most of my readers. The group of you who are still here reading are probably starting to craft strongly worded retorts for the "comments" section, with accusations of me being a "killer of winter-wonderland magic" and that it is every child's right to feel the rare thrill and shout out a giant "whoo!" into the collective joy when his/her own school is read on the radio or scrolls on the bottom of the TV list: CANCELED!

Those of you have completely stopped reading this post are probably outside by now, busily pounding snow into small but well compacted balls to pitch at me.

So, let me take pause here and be clear: I loved snow days as a kid and I still (mostly) love them now. I want kids outside in their 3 pairs of corduroy pants, building snow-forts, creating snowmen, eating ice off their mittens. However, I don't love snow days enough to give up my vacation days (especially when I have family or professional plans), and I also begrudge the interruption to learning that snow days can have.

For instance, teaching 500 students, there are some classes that are WAY behind the other students in their grade due to snow days or delays or early releases consistently (coincidentally?) falling again and again on the day that I'm supposed to have them. Even when we do finally make up the work, these students' skills have become rusty over the missed time, and they never quite catch up to where the other classes are.

So... perhaps a compromise? Perhaps... we start small and, more importantly, we do it in a way that continues the joyous feeling one finds on a traditional snow day. (This is undoubtedly, a much larger topic than this post allows, but in short, why can't school be as exciting and as coveted as a snow day?).

What would "starting small" look like? Well, one approach could be to first build the necessary online tools at the elementary grade level. In doing so, we are chipping away at changing that "snow-day-off-entitlement" issue I talked about above. In other words, you start with the elementary students with the expectation that part of the snow day will be spent online, and by the time they get to middle and high school, the shock will long have worn off and there won't be an uprising.

Another approach would be to start with the higher grades, who might already have a lot of the infrastructure in place (i.e., these may be the grades where "blended learning" is already being implemented).

Let's say, for simplicity's sake, that teachers and adults are with me on the idea of spending a partial day online (and having it count towards days that need to be made up). Let me address the argument that students have no interest whatsoever in doing so.

I took a very informal survey at my own school with one of the days of classes (grades 1-4) who have missed 2 days already with me due to snow (and remember: since I see over 500 students, I only see these classes every six days... which means an entire month can go by if I miss 2 days with them... don't forget to add in the missed time with February vacation). I asked them to raise their hands if they "liked snow days." In all classes that was a unanimous "Yes!"

Then, I asked students if they'd be interested in the idea of spending 2 hours online during a snow day. They could still have time outside playing in the snow, but would have to commit to spending some time (with their teacher) online. In each class, the hands dropped to about half. Ok, fair enough.

But then I asked them, what if they were learning in a virtual environment much like Webkinz or Club Penguin and once again, most classes gave a unanimous and emphatic "Yes!"

I also asked if they would be open to spending time online with a teacher, reading books together and having literary discussions. Again, most students were up for the idea.

It seemed the more specific I painted the experience that would happen online, the more votes I got for putting it into practice.

Again: this is a very unscientific survey, but it is fodder for further examination and discussion.

Let me explain another scenario. I've been working with 8 students in an after school Technology Club. The students meet weekly for an hour without me, and then with me for an hour every other week. The students are creating the agenda for the club and making all decisions. One thing they've decided to work on is researching ways to help educate others about the Gulf Oil Spill and how to help the ecosystem there. This has brought us to setting up a Skype call with (the now famous) Olivia Bouler (who is a strong advocate for saving birds in the Gulf). The Tech Club students have been incredibly excited for the Skype call to happen, however, have suffered through several disappointments due to having to cancel because of "early release" days from bad weather. It has been frustrating for all involved. The thing is, though, the Skype conferences could have taken place whether school was canceled or not. All students (and myself) could have just as easily connected with Olivia from our own home computers in Skype and the conversation could have happened weeks ago. The only thing that has stopped that from happening is the time needed to set each student up with a Skype account (which is definitely a tiered procedure: getting parent permission, training them how to use Skype, making sure they had the necessary hardware, etc.). Hopefully we'll get there soon because one of the most important parts of the Tech Group's plan is to start working virtually in Reaction Grid (much like a Second Life world, but safe). Myself and about a dozen other educators have been working to get that set up, and as I mentioned before, it doesn't happen overnight. We're getting close, however!

There are plenty of pros and cons that have to be worked out with making up snow days in a virtual space. Many details will need to be ironed out (what about students that don't have access? how many students need to show up online for it to count as a school day? what type of learning environments need to be in place?), but just like the three inch layer of ice on my car, we've got to start chipping away at the discussion.

Whether you like the idea or not, I believe its day is coming. Just read through the list of links below to see what's already being done and see what The National Education Technology Plan calls for (regardless of snow days):

Develop[ing] a teaching force skilled in online instruction. As online learning becomes an increasingly important part of our education system, we need to provide online and blended learning experiences that are more participatory and personalized and that embody best practices for engaging all students.

We may love our snow days, but we've got to make up the time no matter what. We could use winter cancellations as ways to strengthen our Online (Blended) Instruction plans. Or... we could just make up those days in... July?


Further Reading: