It’s a two-word phrase that’s music to the ears of schoolkids across Maine: “snow day”. The rush to catch the bus turns instead to plans of sledding, making snowmen or just relaxing.
But the snow day could be going out of fashion, thanks to emerging technology and self-directed education.
On a recent icy weekday morning, a slippery slush has blanketed Maine’s roads. Freezing rain and hail are still on the way. A few brave cars make it out, but for students from York to Newport, the verdict is the same: no school.
Yet here, inside a garage in North Yarmouth, three students from Portland’s Baxter Academy for Technology and Science are hard at work on a different kind of school project. Sophomores Taylor Wells, Jack Brown and Charlie Wilson are prodding at a rusted, World War II-era ambulance.
The vehicle is owned by Wilson’s grandfather. Their goal is to restore it and get it running by the end of the school year, but between the rusted hubcaps and frayed cables, there’s a lot of work left to do.
Every Baxter student has an independent project like this. They work on them on Fridays. Some students are designing yearbooks, some are creating websites and one is even developing plans for a prosthetic hand.
“So it wasn’t such a big jump to make their learning out of school on a snow day meet standards around math and science and humanities engineering,” says Michele LaForge, Baxter’s head of school.
LaForge says these projects presented the school with an opportunity: That even if the school building was closed, the students could keep learning through these projects, then report on that learning throughout the day with technology.
“If you happen to be out for a snow day, you can keep working on the long-term projects for your business,” LaForge says. “You can keep working on all the things you know are coming up.”
Inside the garage, sophomore Jack Brown explains how this works. He pulls out his phone, which displays a worksheet that he’ll send to his faculty advisor. The questions are simple — What’s your goal for the day? How is it connected to school? Did you achieve it? The idea is to quantify the learning and report back.
“At the end of the day, you write your reflection, which is just one or two paragraphs about what you accomplished,” Brown says. “That takes about five minutes to do.”
The approach isn’t unique to Baxter. The Snow Pond Arts Academy in Sidney also has its kids work online on snow days. And districts from New York City to Indiana have eliminated the snow day, as well.
Since almost every middle- and high-schooler in Maine is issued a laptop or iPad, might other school districts in Maine consider expanding this kind of learning?
“There may be a way to do that, but somebody would have to convince me of that at this point,” says Tony Maker, principal of the Elm Street School, a combined elementary and middle school in East Machias.
Maker says he understands how the self-direction strategy could work in a high school, where students are more independent. But it’s hard for him to imagine it working at the elementary level.
“To try to get parents on board with the idea that these are the classes, the courses, self-directed by your first grader, and that’ll be counted as a day of school,” he says.
Schools are finding new ways to account for snow days. In fact, Maker testified in support of a 2015 law to give schools more flexibility, so they don’t have to simply add a day at the end of the school year for each snow day in the year.
Under the change, a district can now instead add an hour of instruction at the end of the school day for a week straight.
“Doing it in smaller increments, earlier in the year, for more time, I think is more valuable,” Maker says.
While the two approaches to snow days may be different, they embrace similar goals. By not forcing students to stay in school until late June, the hope is that they will stay engaged and won’t tune out by the end of the school year.
Back in the garage, Wells says he’s glad he’s here making progress instead of sitting around at home.
“It’s a really fun project to get up, come over here, start working on this to revive this old monster,” he says. “I like it. It’s a good concept.”
Baxter Head of School Michele LaForge says she could see expanding these at-home days to five or six per year. But for now, she says, she’s glad to see her students interested in learning, in and out of the classroom.