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Learning in the Snow

Posted by on in Education Leadership
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snow layer

Last year a student approached me and said that he had a concern. His concern was that none of his classmates seem to know about what is happening in the world, no one followed current events. He asked if we could start a club to talk about current events.

His request intersected with a misgiving I'd been having about the frequency with which I had direct contact with my students in a teaching and learning context.  I spend a good deal of time with our kids in the hallways and in the cafeterias but I do not often enough engage with them as a teacher.  As a principal, it’s important to me that kids see me as a learner and as a teacher.  With this in mind,  along with the district curriculum associate for social studies,  we started a student-led current events forum at our school.  

The forum meets once a month and a dedicated group of kids faithfully attend to talk about topics in the news that grab their attention.  A core group of passionate and socially active students plan the meetings, publicize them, creates fliers, and identify articles and videos for the group to examine.  It is a terrific example of student voice in action.   

Recently Long Island experienced a heavy, snowy blizzard so we had a snow day. Everybody loves snow days!  After a huge breakfast of pancakes and bacon (a snow day tradition at our house) I decided we would have a digital version of the current events forum.

At 11am I e-mailed parents and posted the forum on our learning management system.  The forum was scheduled for 1pm.  We are a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) school so I set up a Google Classroom for the discussion to take place.  My original intention was to host the entire session on Google Classroom but I thought it would be more engaging if there was a video component.  Formerly, I would have employed Google On Air (GOA) for this purpose, but I’m finding the new iteration of it, YouTube Live, confusing.  You have to download an encoder, and, did I mention there was a blizzard outside and I was getting anxious already with all the shovelling ahead of me later that day.  So for the video component, we used Appear.in which is super-easy, allows screen sharing,  and requires NO downloading if you’re on a laptop or Chromebook.   

At 1pm when the conversation was scheduled to begin, over 70 students had joined the Google Classroom!

Here’s how it worked:

We began by examining a recent article about president Trump's son, “Barron Trump, and how being a White House kid comes with pluses and minuses.”  The article explored the ups and downs of being the child of the president of the United States.  Kids read the article, it was short, and then weighed in on it.  I posed some questions and the kids responded and responded to each other.   

The conversation was guided by the following questions:  

Would you want to be the son or daughter of the president of the United States?

Should the media be allowed to cover the president’s young children? Write about and photograph them? 


A student posted a link to an article about the journalist, Katie Rich, who was dismissed from her job as a writer on Saturday Night Live because of a joke she posted on Twitter about Barron Trump.  

Do you think that people should be allowed to make jokes about the president's children? 

Do you think that the journalist should have been dismissed? 

How important is it that bullies are punished? Do you think it changes their behavior? 

If a bully get suspended, does that make the victim of the bullying feel better? 

What do you think about suspension? Are there are better ways to change behaviors?


I dropped in a link to an article about restorative practices and we had a conversation about that also. 

An hour went by so fast that it when it was over, it seemed like we just started. When I signed off, the kids stayed on the page and continued the chat for another ½ hour.  

One student commented: “It was like school, only it's fun.” 

Here are some of my takeaways from this awesome event: 

The conversation had a fantastic flow that I'm not sure would have been possible in a classroom setting. Nobody had to wait to raise their hand and be recognized by a teacher before responding.  

The students who participated were earnest and open to the opinions of their peers.  There was no inappropriateness, rudeness or cynicism. This contradicts the widespread belief that kids use digital media for snark and putdowns.

The problem with Appear.in is that only eight people can be on-screen at any one time. Eight students joined the video and stayed on the entire time.  There’s no way to moderate like there was with GOA.  Kids commented they were frustrated that they couldn't get on the video.  It's not nice to feel blocked out the way kids did,  I'm not sure how I will do it next time.  Perhaps I could just ask kids to drop off the video after a certain amount of time, give other kids a chance.   

Interestingly when I asked the students whether we should include parents next time they said yes, this would add more perspectives in the conversation.  I agree.  Next time I’ll use Edmodo or TodaysMeet so anybody with the link can join the conversation.  I’d use Twitter but most of my middle school kids do not have a Twitter account.  If we use an open source like Edmodo, then we could invite other schools to participate also.   

It was important to me to use a source for the news article that was not obviously Republican or Democrat. In our face-to-face forums, in school, I don't particularly worry about the bias of a particular source because we are all there together to talk about it and challenge each other's views in a polite and appropriate way.  So what do you use, CNN? FOXNews? I settled upon an article from Newsday - I figured we couldn't go wrong with Long Island's local paper. 

As it turned out, because of icy conditions on the roadways throughout Long Island,  the following day was also a snow day.  I thought about doing another forum and a few kids reached out to me to do so, but I decided that I wouldn't. Let the kids get out in the snow and play. The next time there's a blizzard and we're all stuck in the house,  I'll host another snow day forum.   

Kids have different modes of learning -  inputs and outputs.  One of the most articulate and insightful participants in the forum was a sixth grade young lady who, in the school building, is diffident and quiet.  In the digital forum she was outspoken and assertive, taking a leadership role in the chat. We must offer a variety of learning modes for kids and ways for them to express themselves.  

The forum reinforced the powerful idea that learning is not something that takes place only in school, in 40 minute blocks. Learning is collaborative, dynamic, engaging and can happen anywhere,  anytime.  Schools exist for learning.  Anything we can do to reinforce with kids the primacy of learning is important work.  The current events snow day forum was a unique opportunity for students to collaborate and weigh in on issues that concern them in their lives. This was a highly successful first endeavor for this kind of activity. I look forward to another blizzard so that we can do it again!

How are you using 21st Century tools to ignite passion and engage students in learning 24/7?  


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Donald Gately Ed.D. is the principal at Jericho Middle School on Long Island. J.M.S. is a high performing middle school that has a comprehensive school-wide program to develop social emotional literacy; the school was named a New York State/National School to Watch in 2009, 2012 and 2015. Don was a middle school principal in Plainview-Old Bethpage, the assistant principal at Memorial Junior High School in Valley Stream and a teacher of English Language Arts in the New York City public schools. He is the former p resident of the Nassau County Middle Level Principals Association and active in a number of organizations that leverage support for innovative middle school practice. Don is a middle level leader with a singular passion and commitment to the intellectual and social/emotional development of adolescent learners. He was a BAMMY Award nominee for Middle School Principal of the Year in 2014 and 2015. He was named New York State Principal of the Year in 2016.  Along with his wife Danielle (@dmgately) and an incredible PLN of committed Long Island educators Don cofounded EdCamp Long Island (@EdCampLI) in 2014.

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Guest Monday, 17 December 2018