Friday, November 2, 2012

In the Wake of Hurricane Sandy, Virtual School

On the afternoon of Sunday, October 28th, members of my school community received a voice mail alerting us that school would be closed on Monday due to Hurricane Sandy. I am confident that students and teachers alike felt that small thrill of stealing an extra day off, the excitement of an unanticipated three day weekend. What none of us realized then was that the effects of Sandy would be severe enough to keep all schools in the city closed for the entire week. Without a functioning public transportation system, most of our faculty and staff were unable to get to school, preventing us from opening our doors to students.

Monday and Tuesday were filled with a sense of freedom as I slept late, watched TV, finally read an adult novel after months of a strict diet of YA Fiction. But by Wednesday, our third consecutive day without school, my teacher brain started to flare up. There were texts to read! Essays to grade! Students to conference with and conversations to be had about great literature!

Being stuck at home meant that I was unable to proceed with my lesson plans, but on Thursday of "Hurricane Sandy Week," we launched a 'virtual school day,' and I immediately took advantage of the fantastic (and free!) internet resources available to teachers and students. I created a short video message to my students on YouTube, linked it with my written assignment sheet, and posted everything on our school Moodle. I asked my students to write up a personal narrative of their hurricane experience in a GoogleDoc, which they then shared with me via GoogleDrive. In class we were already deeply engaged in writing about personal experiences and using meaningful, descriptive language, so this virtual assignment was completely in step with our existing curriculum.

As I had recently launched a classroom Twitter account, and was using Twitter to keep up-to-date with Sandy-related events, I also asked students to compose a tweet about the hurricane. Some students used the opportunity to share their personal experiences, while others tweeted photos or linked to articles and news items.

While 'virtual school' is no match for the real thing, it was a much needed stop-gap as NYC worked on righting itself after the storm.  As I read over each piece of writing a student submitted to me, I had the dichotomous experience of feeling connected to my kids but also kept at arms length. I am eager for students to return to the classroom, where lively conversations and intimate interactions occur daily. However, it is undeniable that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the spheres of cloud computing and social media made learning possible.

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