Remote/Virtual Learning Days


First of all, let me say this at the outset – I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THE FOLLOWING SUGGESTIONS ARE BETTER THAN BEING IN SCHOOL ON A WINTER DAY.  I’ll probably have to say that over and over again because people challenge me over and over again on the topic.

We’ve had so many snow days this year that I’ve actually lost count and need to ask the district office for the current projected last day of school.  To make matters worse, the last two snow cancellations have been 2-day stretches; one was a Thursday-Friday combo so students were out of school for four days in a row.  Then, they came back for Monday and were out Tuesday-Wednesday.

If you’re a teacher in the middle of a unit or a book, you already understand the problem here.  That topic you started two or three weeks ago will need to be restarted.  Students have forgotten the math algorithm you were teaching because they haven’t practiced and turned it into muscle memory.  YOU probably can’t remember where you left off in that book and your students have certainly lost the plot.  And, you are thinking about the so-called “end of year” tests which are rapidly approaching.  (I say “so-called” because they test the standards to be taught by the end of the year but are given one to three months before the end of the year.)

Nothing beats the interaction between students and their teachers and peers for learning.  After all, we know that learning is a social activity and that educators create the best environments for learning.  But sometimes it simply isn’t possible or safe to be in school due to severe weather, a leaking roof, or a failed heating system.  What then?  The traditional answer has been to add missed days to the end of the year.  This does nothing to address the interruption in learning that occurs over snow days.  It doesn’t push back the state-mandated testing so that it aligns with the change in where students are in the curriculum.  It doesn’t take into consideration that most elementary schools and many middle and high schools do not have air conditioning and have miserable ventilation so that late June brings sweltering classrooms that endanger student health, not to mention learning.

A few years ago, our district attempted to take the lead in making a change.  Sadly, of the three options that were put forward, the School Committee chose the worst of the three.  Every student in grades 1-12 was given a “blizzard bag” project to be done later in the year, not during the snow days, that was meant to replace the lost time on learning from the missed days.  While the topic of the project, Bees/Pollination, was noble, the additional work was not connected to what students had been learning and was overwhelming, having been assigned on top of what students were already doing.  It resulted in a near-universal verdict that this was not how we wanted to do things.  Unfortunately, the public now equates any attempt to be innovative about school cancelations with this model.

There is a better way, which was the one recommended by teachers, and for which I continue to advocate.  Thanks to advances in meteorology, school cancelations are rarely unanticipated, so with a little preparation, teachers can make sure students have an opportunity to make progress on days when they cannot make it to school without snowshoes or an inflatable boat.

Here are some simple examples from my own experience as a fifth-grade teacher:

  • read the next chapter in our core book and answer questions about the reading;
  • write a reflection on a topic from our master list;
  • revise your current writing project for (insert focus area here);
  • practice math equations/problems (I always had extra practice sheets);
  • watch one or more of the science or social studies videos I’ve assigned through Discovery Education and be prepared to discuss when we return to school (assuming you have power);
  • Read this Cobblestone (history) or National Geographic (science) article and highlight the portions you would like to discuss or learn more about (no electricity needed);
  • Depending upon the special (Art/Music/PE) we would have on that day, do the activity assigned by that teacher;

Of course, there are always people who think this is a gambit by teachers to get out of working.  Let’s just put aside the fact that I don’t know an educator who doesn’t use snow days to catch up on lesson planning, grading, IEPs, professional development, or parent communication.  Teachers wouldn’t get the time off on a remote/virtual learning day.  Depending upon the situation (grade level, subject, available resources) teachers would provide support for students and families.  A few options could be responding to questions via email, conversation threads on Google Classroom, Google Hangouts, checking in on student work through Docs.  Obviously, if everyone loses power, then there would have to be alternatives but it wouldn’t be that difficult to work something out so that districts would feel that they were getting their money’s worth out of the teacher day.

Again, there is no question that being in school would provide a richer, more supportive, learning experience for most students.  But if we are willing to let go of the “snow day” of the past, we can not only keep students immersed in their learning, but they may even discover that learning can happen outside of the classroom.

#IMMOOC OER as Innovative Practice

oerThis is one of a series of responses to Discussion Questions in The Innovator’s Mindset MOOC and BPS Book Group.

Discussion Question: What is an example of a practice that you consider to be innovative?  How is it new or better than what you had before?

Without a doubt, the integration of digital and internet resources into teaching and learning has spurred innovation in education.  Within this broad arena, the sharing of Open Education Resources (OER) has the ability to be incredibly impactful and accelerate innovative efforts.

There is no universally accepted definition of OER, but generally they are unlicensed or have a creative commons license that allows for use, reuse, repurposing, and modification and are free for use by educators and students.  These can come in all shapes, sizes, and formats.  I’ve integrated online videos, readings, simulations, and assignments into lesson plans – all of which came from different sources and were blended into my own teaching.

The simple act of collaborating, sharing, remixing, and resharing is a huge shift from when I started my career.  I remember colleagues who would only share their lesson plans or worksheets after placing a © in the footer with their name and the date and then would hand you a hard copy so you couldn’t change anything.  (Depending upon my relationship, I may or may not have let them know that if it was created for use in their classroom, it wasn’t their intellectual property, it belonged to the school district.)

OER has started to dismantle those boundaries.  The assumption is that we will share. No one believes that the lesson they share will be perfect for anyone else, but it is a great start for someone to launch from in creating something that works for their students. We start with the understanding that by reaching out beyond our classrooms, our schools, and our districts and contributing to the greater good, we can build something stronger. There are states that are creating curriculum materials and posting them on their websites so that anyone can access them.  Unlike in the days when you had a single program in your classroom, you can pull a wide variety of OER from all over the internet to inspire your lessons and teaching and to give your students more ways to access content.

There are a number of organizations trying to curate all of this work in order to give educators a one-stop-shopping experience.  So far, none have emerged as the perfect solution. I would like a GitHub for educators.  GitHub is an online version management space where programmers can find pieces of code (APIs) that they can download and use, either as-is or after modification.  The only rule is that if you make a change and improve the code in some way, that you load that modified version back up to GitHub for others to use.  What if we had that for educators?  I might upload my unit on graphing and someone else takes it and makes changes so that it better serves their students.  They then upload that modified version and educators now have two versions to choose from.  I might even start using the modified version because that educator saw something I didn’t.

When first talking with many teachers about accessing ideas and lessons online, many express concern that online lesson plans are often not of high quality.  In a GitHub-like environment, these would quickly sink to the bottom because they would rarely be downloaded or remixed.  Alternatively, you may see mediocre lesson ideas greatly improved by other users.  Either way, expanding our concept of collaboration beyond our current PLNs to include OER is an innovation that needs to take hold.

OER fits the definition of “new and better.”  The question is, how do we change the culture so that all educators become part of the process?