Non-traditional instruction days

Non-traditional instruction days

Ed Innovators

Non-traditional instruction days living up to their name
Kentucky School Advocate
May 2016
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer
When the non-traditional instruction day program was launched two years ago for use in inclement weather, state education department officials didn’t expect it to be so … non-traditional.

Turns out, the program has produced unanticipated instructional spinoffs that began taking shape in some participating districts in 2015-16. Some districts primarily have used digital learning for NTI days and some have combined digital with hard-copy lessons, “but the type that’s emerged this year is the project-based approach,” said Beth Peterson, a branch manager with KDE’s Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement.

“We didn’t expect it at all. It’s really a genius idea because the question we get is, ‘How do we know what lessons to have if we can’t predict the snow days, how do we know what the lessons are going to be?’ And this is one way that it doesn’t matter when the snow days are because it’s a separate course. It’s its own type of curriculum that doesn’t matter when you do it,” she said.

Owsley County Schools blazed a trail last year with a multidisciplinary, project-based course at its middle and high schools, and continued this year. Grant County Schools launched its project-based NTI days this winter. The district used the opportunity to address its need to boost college and career readiness at the elementary level (grades K–5) through career investigation.
Grant County launched project-based learning this year for its non-traditional instruction days, with elementary schools focusing on a careers project. At right, Jackson Utter gave a presentation to the school board about the career as a pilot that he researched. 

“With the project-based, they had to have some kind of reading, some kind of math, and they integrated science and social studies,” said Grant County Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Wright. “So all of those components of content are within the project, but then it’s wrapped around what kind of career they may want to be. Each (grade) level did it a little differently, and each school as well.”

Students generally researched a career of interest, preparing a presentation to be delivered during a district-wide career day in May. The projects were assigned in the fall and students were expected to work on them during NTI days. For example, younger students designed the 2-liter “career” bottles seen on page 3 of this magazine.

Most students had online access either at home or at community locations. They were also able to get help from teachers, who are expected to work on snow days and check in with their students, Wright said.

Middle and high school students in Grant County, meanwhile, used the online learning management system the district purchased last year (Edgenuity) for specially designed online courses tailored to their grade level. Middle schoolers had reading and math classes equal to five days of work. High school juniors did ACT prep, while seniors had a financial literacy class, Wright said.

She said this year’s approach was an improvement over the more traditional snow day learning the district used last year.

“The advantage for us this year is, this is more real life for us. What I mean by that is if they go to postsecondary school or a job or wherever they go, they’re going to have deadlines and they’re going to have things to complete,” she said. “So this just gives them a little view of, ‘OK, I have this to do, I can do this on my own time … and we talked about it, it does go into their grades.”
Practicing blended instruction
NTI days in some cases also accelerated the pace of implementing blended learning, that is, combining the use of web-based resources with regular instruction. David Cook, director of KDE’s Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement, said his unit has encouraged blended learning for a long time, but he didn’t realize that the NTI days would be a catalyst for districts.

“I probably should have, but I didn’t see what a wonderful way this was to get them into the notion of not just digital learning, but this notion of how do you blend in the online stuff with the interaction of a teacher, and this is a great way for people to see how that works,” he said. “It allows the teachers to really expand their thinking about what they can do in class and what can they do out of class on any day of the calendar.”

Lawrence County Schools Superintendent Dr. Robbie Fletcher said his district began using Google Classroom as an online learning management system for blended learning two years ago after training all teachers in its use. Teachers who were hesitant about using the system were able to become more familiar with it during NTI days, he said.

“It makes our NTI days go more smoothly, because many of our kids are doing this on a daily basis, or weekly basis,” Fletcher said.

“We don’t want to make this a special event,” he added. “That’s the beauty of our NTI days – they’re not a special event anymore. In other words, Google Classroom allows these to be just ways to continue what’s already going on. So our goal is to get to the point where this is just a normal day, every day.”

The Lawrence County district used its maximum 10-day allotment of NTI days this winter, but spaced them out, both to give students and teachers a break – “(NTI days) are so rigorous,” Fletcher said – and to conserve them because of the sheer number of snow days the system tends to be hit with.

Joining the club
Peterson said she is anticipating “another pretty big jump in participation” for 2016-17. Lincoln County will be among those entering the field for the first time. Superintendent Karen Hatter said the district did not apply for the NTI program for 2015-16 because district leaders felt they didn’t have enough time to prepare. Instead, a committee developed a Plan B transportation system to use on designated routes when school buses couldn’t safely negotiate some roads in bad weather.

“We’re such a large, rural county that a few roads can keep us out of school,” she said.

Attendance during Plan B days bested the makeup days the districts used in June during the preceding two years, Hatter said. Parents, teachers and students liked Plan B and wanted to continue using it, but also wanted to give NTI days a try.

“So that when the majority of the roads are bad, we could use five of those days and then go back to school on Plan B when the roads start clearing up for us and miss even less instruction,” Hatter explained.
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