Classes, homework slid straight to Internet as snow fell

This month's snow stopped school buses, like this one at Holmes Middle School in Fairfax County, in their tracks and kept them there for days.
This month's snow stopped school buses, like this one at Holmes Middle School in Fairfax County, in their tracks and kept them there for days. (Katherine Frey/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

With the record snowfall this winter, classrooms across the Washington area have spent weeks on hiatus. But when classes have been canceled, some teachers have moved their lessons to 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 as the blizzard was about to hit earlier this month and 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 a change. So she told her students to keep doing their reading, posted quizzes online and led an online discussion via a virtual bulletin board. Many other teachers across the Washington area tried similar tactics.

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

Midway through the week off, Carballo posted a link to a Web 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," said Carballo, who added that she had picked up some poor-weather teaching experience when she worked at a Department of Defense school in Iceland.

When classes resumed last week, Carballo said, "we just picked up . . . as though that snow had never happened."

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. "It's more relaxed. You can do it on your own time."

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, bring out good comments and focus on students who seemed to need more help.

Another student said she prefers 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. "We can't talk about it directly person-to-person, but we can still continue on with our lesson." 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 blizzards, 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 or the library and that she had been understanding about access problems. During the blizzard, she said, the biggest problem was power outages -- but even then, students usually managed to let her know their status through the grapevine.

Such access 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 the end of last week. "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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