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For the past few years, I’ve shared in this space some information about changes in the school calendar for the coming year and some of the rationale behind that. I wish we could just settle on a format and stick with it for years to come, but we always seem to find some way to tweak things in an effort to improve the educational experience, and this year is no different.

The 2017-2018 NRHEG school calendar is currently available on the school’s Web site. I’ll give you a moment to go look at it if you want. There is very exciting change on there which we hope our students and parents will appreciate.

We’ve fiddled with how to handle snow days for years now; in fact, that was the reason the calendar committee was formed in the first place. The old way was always to just tack days on the end of the year. Nobody liked that since it prolonged the school year into the interminable time of summer, where it is nearly impossible to achieve any true learning. We moved to incorporating make-up days during the year, where they were more relevant to the quarter in which the day was lost and could hopefully accomplish something of value.

That idea has drawn some ire though. We’ve heard from many people that they’d like a calendar that is set, with no floating “maybe” days. Many people use scheduled days off from school to take care of appointments or go on a long weekend trip so as not to have to miss school. When we added the make-up days, it made things more difficult in those matters. It was still better than adding on in June, but a different solution was sought.

That solution, hopefully, is flexible learning days. This is a growing trend in Minnesota, a land of expected weather problems. While we usually focus just on winter storms, our district has also experienced two flood days and a train derailment day this year, bringing to the fore the need to find ways to handle unscheduled days off from school in a manner that is consistent with learning goals.

Here’s how a flexible learning day will work next year. Let’s say we have a blizzard on Jan. 8, 2018. It would be unsafe to come to school, so we all stay home. But we can still have school, in a sense, with flexible learning. It will look very different in each building, so let’s start with the secondary school.

All our students have a device, and teachers use the Schoology platform to send and receive assignments. In the case of a weather day, teachers would post work expectations in the morning and be available throughout the day to answer questions students might have. We might be in the middle of something in class and give directions for the next step in the process. We might be between units and have something ready, just as we might if we needed a sub, something that meets some course expectations and standards.

Our elementary students don’t have devices they bring home. Thus, the teachers in that building will create bags to send home with activities that can be used to meet some of the learning objectives of that grade. These might include items with reading, math, writing, phy ed, etc. One example could be a bingo card where students need to choose one activity from each column.

What will this accomplish? It will count as a day of school; even the state legislature is considering a law that would formally allow this. This means that the calendar would be set. Next year, we have a long weekend around Easter. There’s no chance that you will suddenly have to send your kids on Easter Monday because it’s a make-up day. You have that day off, period.

What about some of the potential drawbacks? We looked at other districts that use this and asked, first and foremost, what some of those might be. The first hurdle is what to do about people who don’t have wifi at home. In our district, that number is about 5-6%, a relatively low number. The elementary kids will have materials at home already, so they’re covered. Secondary students could be a bigger problem. But let’s be honest, we usually know when the weather terrorists are going to strike. As teachers, we can give forewarning about what we might be doing in that case and students can download any materials they might need while they’re still in school.

The district is also looking at getting some hotspots for some of those scenarios. That would allow those students the same opportunities as everyone else. Again, that takes some looking into the crystal ball with the weather, but it’s not insurmountable. If a student absolutely doesn’t have that chance, he or she would be treated just as if they were absent and be given extra time to complete the work.

An area we have to be extra careful is in how much work we give students on those days. I’m not going to assign a five-paragraph essay to be done by the next day. I might ask them to write an outline or their introduction, but the idea is to look at about 20-25 minutes per class. After all, the kids should have some time to enjoy the snow day, just like we did when we were growing up.

Flexible learning will surely have a few bumps along the way, but we are hopeful that this will be a long-term solution to the weather day problem. The best part is that they give more flexibility to the calendar as a whole. Just take a look at the potential last student day for 2018: May 30! Flexibility has never looked better!

Word of the Week: This week’s word is lodestar, which means someone or something that serves as a guiding model, as in, “NRHEG used schools like Zumbrota-Mazeppa as a lodestar while designing a flexible learning plan.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!

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