In 2009, DARPA did a study to see how fast social media networks could find the location of ten weather balloons that had been raised around the country. They ran their study as a competition: Teams set up the vastest social networks possible, and knowing the day that the weather balloons were raised, team members looked upwards and reported if they saw a balloon. It took a team from MIT nine hours to locate every balloon using Twitter, Facebook and a homemade webpage. (The study was done in December; social networks in warmer climes had an advantage — and I bet the MIT crew predicted that when setting up their network!)
I was captivated by the study. I shared it with students. That winter, home for several snow days, I had them help me do a PDS version of the DARPA study. On each of three successive snow days, I sent the seventh and eighth graders an email and asked them to pass it on to classmates using as many methods as they wanted. Once a student heard that I had sent an email to the class, they were to reply to me. Although we never got all fifty or so students replying, asking the students to disseminate information through social networks was very effective and fast.
My little study had a by-product of information for me. Students who stayed connected to me and to each other during snow days, seemed to be strong students. It was as if the mental construct of school stayed with them even when they were not physically in the building or with the teachers. I took to sending out emails every snow day to encourage students to spend a little time “remembering” school and our work. While I didn’t expect big work, I sent out photos or links to short articles– just something to keep school, and our work together, in mind. I always made sure to check email myself, so that students working on science projects could use the snow days to do research and writing, and have me as a resource.
By the following school year, our resources for staying in touch with students during snow days had blossomed. All middle school teachers had websites and so could post information. Edmodo was gaining ground as a platform and that allowed teachers to have a chat with a whole class at once. We had TodaysMeet and PrimaryPad as other online collaborative venues that were quick and easy to set up. Access to Google docs made it easy for students to submit work. Snow day assignments became part of our school culture. We were able to keep learning going, and not lose so much ground, due to technology and the creative and caring planning of our teachers. We even received some attention from the national press. You can read some PDS history with snow day work, here, on Josie’s blog.
Here is how our snow day assignments work: Teachers will let students know, by 10am on a snow day, what the snow day assignment is. In some cases, (eg. when the snow day seems inevitable even before the first flakes fall from the sky), teachers will post the assignments the night before. We realize that sometimes households lose power and teachers are asked to take this into account. (We also have had very resourceful students who somehow work around the power loss!)
We have never expected snow day to work to be identical to that done in school. We also don’t expect students to spend six hours hitting the books on snow days! There should be time to play, sit cozy with a book, bake cookies and shovel the walk. These are important too, and we value the slow down of a snow day as much in our own households as we do in yours. Yet, if we can have the best of both worlds– a slow down AND a lessened impact on learning– we’ll take it and appreciate that the modern world can offer us both!