Friday, February 20, 2015

Pondering School Work For Snow Days...What The Heck Is A Blizzard Bag?

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It is old news by this point that we have had a decade's worth of snow this winter in the Greater Boston area.  In the last few weeks, we have had three times more snow than we did during the historic Blizzard of 1978. While many schoolchildren are thrilled to have missed multiple days of school (five here in Burlington), the thoughts of administrators have turned to making up some of these days prior to the dog days of June.  Here in Massachusetts, our district will pilot "Blizzard Bags" in an attempt to reduce some of the make-up days that now have us in school until Thursday, June 25. 

What are Blizzard Bags?

I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with the term Blizzard Bag when I first heard it and was unaware that the practice of employing Blizzard Bags to compensate for snow days is something that has been happening in states like Minnesota, Ohio and New Hampshire for a few years. In fact, I have started to bookmark sites of districts using this practice to get some ideas about how this works.  In all honesty, I have been underwhelmed with what I have found thus far on many of the sites. Many of the samples are simply worksheets that students would do independently and would fall short of the definition of structured learning time articulated by Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester in one of his weekly updates below:
The Department has received inquiries regarding so-called "blizzard bags," assigned work sent home with students in advance of an expected storm. In many cases, this work appears to be very similar to normal homework assignments; there is educational value, but it does not necessarily meet the standard for structured learning time. For this approach to count toward the student learning time requirements, school districts must ensure that such work is structured learning time, is substantial, and has appropriate oversight and teacher involvement.  

Blizzard Bags in Burlington 

As expected, we have received numerous inquiries from parents and news media about our Blizzard Bag proposal which must be approved by both the Burlington School Committee and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In all honesty, we have not yet articulated what the work will be that students will be asked to do in grades K-12.  The plans will be constructed over the next month or so and then brought forth to our School Committee.  

While I can't tell you specifically what our Blizzard Bags will be, I can tell you some of the qualities I think these assignments should have.  But before, I go down that path I think it is important that we recognize this wonderful opportunity we have before us. We have been presented with a chance to discuss learning and the countless activities that we could offer students to learn outside of our schools. We need to embrace this collaborative endeavor and ensure that we include staff, students, parents, and others with experience in this type of endeavor in the planning. Lastly, we need to be honest with ourselves regarding the fact that this will not be perfect. Some of the learning opportunities that we create will work well and others will not.  But isn't that what happens as we plan lessons during our 180-day school year anyway?

So here are a few of the opportunities that I think Blizzard Bags should provide students...

  • Independence
  • Collaboration
  • Hands-on
  • Digital learning
  • Inquiry
  • Teacher Feedback 
  • Peer Feedback
While I could continue with more examples, the point here is that these assignments should allow for choices by students and staff. They should not be worksheet-driven as a few of the examples I have seen in other districts using Blizzard Bags. In the end, we are attempting to have a learning experience for our students that would be equally as meaningful as a day at the end of June. No offense intended here, but I think we can do much better than that.

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