Some Md. classes, homework shifted to Internet as snow fell

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010; 5:36 PM

With the record snowfall, classrooms across the Washington area have been deserted for more than a week. But some teachers have moved their lessons onto the Internet and pressed on -- and they've been pleasantly surprised by the results.

At Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, history teacher Patricia Lynch Carballo looked out the window a week ago and she knew she had to do something. Students around the world will take the International Baccalaureate's standardized history exam on the same day in May, and there's no chance for change. So she told her students to keep doing their reading, posted quizzes online and led an online discussion via a virtual bulletin board.

"In some cases, the quality [of the responses] is even better" online, Carballo said. "They have a little more time to think about it."

Especially last week. When Montgomery County classes were dismissed early Feb. 5, not to reconvene until Tuesday Carballo's seniors could sleep late, help their parents dig out and still devote more time to history assignments than during a regular school week, when assignments from seven classes can compete for a student's attention at night.

On Thursday, Carballo posted a link to a page of Cold War-era political cartoons, told students to pick one, write an analysis and post it, and then write responses to two other students' analyses over the next couple of days.

"It's not unlike what we'd do in class. We're just doing it online," Carballo said.

Some students were surprised to find the exercises valuable. "I was initially less than enthusiastic about having to do schoolwork over break, but it has kept me in touch with class," said Reshma Crawford, 17.

But the virtual approach is not without its drawbacks, Carballo said.

"You can't tell tone from the written word," she said, adding that it was difficult to actively moderate online discussions.

Another student said she preferred face-to-face discussions to online ones.

But "for having a snow day, it's a good way to continue things," said Sisi Reid, 17. She also noted another drawback: "A couple of my close friends, they don't have Internet at home," she said. Normally, they can go to the library, she said, but she wasn't sure how they had coped during the blizzard when travel was difficult and most facilities were closed.

Carballo said that her students without Internet access at home were generally able to get to a friend's house and that she had been understanding about access problem.

Such concerns kept Maura Ryan, a history teacher at Wheaton High School, from introducing much new material online during the break. She did, however, post lessons and homework on her class Web site and expected assignments to be handed in by Friday. "We can't afford to give away this time," she said. "I want to be fair, but at the same time I don't think we need to stop dead in our tracks."

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