State, local educators give rave reviews to nontraditional instruction days
By Madelynn Coldiron
If every cloud has a silver lining, every snowstorm does, too.
The nontraditional instruction days born of excessive school snow closures produced some unexpected bonuses in the 13 participating districts.
PHOTO: Woodlawn Elementary School first-grader Blake Godbey is enjoying the perks usually only enjoyed by people who work at home __ working in his pajamas. Boyle County Schools was one of 13 Kentucky school districts that had teachers prepare “snowbound lessons” for students in lieu of taking a snow day and wasting valuable academic time. Photo provided by Boyle County Schools
“There were a lot more positives than we even thought about,” said Beth Peterson, branch manager in the state education department’s Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement, who traveled to all 13 pilot districts for a post-project evaluation. Those positives encompassed students, parents and teachers.
“Parents talked about how much they enjoyed getting to see what their children were working on firsthand instead of it just coming home as graded work,” said Boyle County Schools Assistant Superintendent David Young, whose district used five nontraditional instruction days. Peterson, who talked to parents, educators and students in her district visits, said some parents also noted that the experience gave their children a taste of working independently.
“We heard a lot about time management and how they were glad their kids were learning that lesson now, for when they get to college, especially the high school kids,” she said.
The “snowbound day” lessons helped teachers realize the value of blended learning – using a combination of traditional teaching with digital resources – and gave those who hadn’t used technology much “a really good nudge,” Young said.
He and Peterson said they heard from teachers who saw that some students who were shy about communicating in class didn’t have that issue online. “They asked all kinds of questions and they were much more open with their thoughts than they normally are,” Young said.
Apart from the benefits that were a surprise, the participating districts overall “had a good experience” with the nontraditional days, Peterson said. “We are getting real positive feedback.”
The most anticipated benefit – in academics –seems to have materialized. “There is not a regression because of being out of school a number of days,” Johnson County Schools Superintendent Thomas Saylor said. “Teachers can basically just pick up where they left off, not having to reteach a lot of items.”
After nontraditional instruction days, students still had academic content “fresh on their minds,” Young said. “It just seemed like (students) were more ready to go.”
Peterson said teachers did well with their online lessons; districts provided take-home paper packets for students without Internet access or with unreliable access. Teachers in most of the districts worked from home, she said. Salyer said teachers in his district ended up setting what amounted to an availability schedule because students were emailing questions at all hours.
One measure KDE looked at in these districts was the percentage of students who completed their work assigned during the snowbound days. Taylor County Schools Superintendent Roger Cook said the department’s check on his district showed 97 percent of students turned in their work.
“And this is crazy – we only have about 95.7 percent come to school every day. So I think they work better without us,” he quipped.
Educators, students and parents also were pleased about being able to end the school year at or closer to the original date set in the district calendar. “We got much more out of these days at home during the snow than we probably would have gotten out of the kids in June after testing was over,” said Cook, whose district used nine nontraditional days.
Some early stumbles
Peterson said the most common problems were related to technology, and those were worked out over time. Other adjustments also had to be made after the initial days. Despite a “quality control” check in advance to compare paper vs. digital lessons, Boyle County made some tweaks after getting feedback from some parents and teachers once students actually completed the first lessons, Young said.
Cook and Salyer said some teachers in their districts also had to make changes to strike the right balance in the students’ workload.
Salyer said he and his pupil personnel director took their data and other information to Frankfort after the initial snowbound days to run it by KDE “to make sure we were on the same track that they were with it. They said we were doing an outstanding job.” Johnson County ended up with the maximum 10 nontraditional days.
Peterson said the system worked most smoothly in districts that are used to blending technology with instruction. Taylor County’s performance-based learning system leans heavily on virtual learning, “so it was nothing for us to slide right into cyber-snow days,” Cook said.
The 13 districts that piloted the nontraditional instruction days are expected to repeat the experience this coming winter, and Peterson was expecting “a lot more applications” before the May 1 deadline for new districts. KDE moved up the process this time around to allow districts to use the summer for planning.
The pilot districts “had great documentation” to demonstrate lesson plans, learning outcomes and staff time, so much so that the department will look at streamlining that aspect, Peterson said.
Board View: No goofing off on snowbound days
Boyle County school board members Steve Tamme and Jennifer Newby said while nontraditional instruction days in their district this winter went well, it was not easy sledding for students or teachers.
“I think the students were surprised as far as how much time it took them to get through what the assignments asked them to do. And I think they were like, ‘We want to go back to school,’” Tamme said.
The staff also found it took a surprising amount of preparation and work, he said, “but they also found it to be interesting in the course of the day when the nontraditional day was in place – just how it all functioned.”
Overall, he called the snowbound days “a really good option to explore,” given that a regular snow day waiver means lost instructional time and “there is just nothing accomplished” by going to school in June.
Newby, the mother of a sixth-grader and a second-grader, said the snowbound days “went incredibly well.” It felt like a regular school day at her house, she said.
“The work was not easy,” she said. “It kept them busy all day. We took little breaks and then would go back to it. They would get out of bed around the same time that they would be in school and then get started on their work. We would be done typically by 3ish, and that was with taking the little breaks.”
Newby said communication between her children and their teachers was good. Her kids had no complaints, she said, but acknowledged with a laugh, “there was a little whining.”