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4 tips for implementing independent learning days

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Michael Rotjan is coordinator of instructional data for Rockdale County Public Schools in Conyers, Georgia.

When a hurricane blew through South Georgia two years ago, our district was forced to shut down for several days. A few months later, we ran into the same situation when winter weather hit. That meant making up several days of school while also restructuring our calendar for the rest of the year to ensure that we met our professional development goals.

As all districts know, this type of calendar juggling is never easy to manage, so we sought out a more proactive way to manage these fluctuations. We found the answer by combining our “itslearning” learning management system (LMS) with an initiative that we call independent learning days.

Now, when inclement weather hits or we need to schedule professional development days, our students simply log into the LMS and complete assignments that are posted by their teachers. On scheduled early release days (half days for professional development), students are given assignments to complete at home. Because we have a 1:1 computing initiative in place, we can confidently allow students to work from home on their assignments.

This eradicates the need for makeup days, and also enables a more robust professional development offering for our teachers. Here’s how we did it:

Don’t be afraid to use a trial-and-error approach

Initially, we wanted to model what this would really look like for teachers and administrators. So, we would rotate and say, “Okay, this scheduled independent learning day would be an English language arts or math day” or something similar to that.

We’d have people come together at a district level and build lessons that would then be implemented districtwide for that content area. The lesson learned is that while we liked the idea of modeling, it was too complicated to manage for a district our size. There was never enough stakeholder input and we ran into a lot of communication gaps.

Set more guidelines, but use a less rigid structure

We realized that we’d actually do much better by giving more guidelines but less structure with the specific lessons. We’d say things like, “Okay, the students have five days after the Independent Learning Day to turn in any assignments from that opportunity,” or “An assignment should be X amount of time long and should take an average student X number of minutes for that specific grade level.”

We also set guidelines based on the grade, so teachers can use 30-minute assignments or 45-minute assignments. If you’re talking about a full day with seven classes, for example, you want to come up with reasonable expectations for what the students can do during that time. Teachers work in their own professional learning communities based upon where they are in their curriculum. They’re basically doing what they’d do in the classroom on that specific day anyway, as opposed to trying to fit in what a group of people “thought” should be happening on that day.

Open up those lines of communication

Particularly on inclement weather days, we needed to ensure that teachers could communicate and give feedback and guidance to their students. So, if students have questions about the content or the assignment, there’s a mechanism in place in our LMS that teachers use to communicate with them.

We’ve honed this process along the way by focusing on what teachers really need to think through and give guidance on, throughout the process. When school closes for a weather-related reason, for example, the independent learning day counts as an actual school day and work day for the teachers — meaning, the teachers are online and available for the students. They give students their hours, with notes like, “Hey I’ll be online for these hours or at this time in the morning and this time in the afternoon if you have questions.”

Stick to one centralized platform

All students in grades 3-12 have their assignments in itslearning; that’s the expectation — not any other website. So, students don’t have five or six different locations to go to. They can go to one location for their courses and find the information there.

Knowing that the students are always going to have other online learning opportunities at their avail, this approach encourages students to be more independent learners. It also simplifies things for parents, who know that all of their children’s assignments will be in the LMS.

According to forecasts, if we believe that there may be inclement weather coming, we try to tell the teachers to be preemptive and start sharing information with their students about what’s to come. They can advise students to download the assignments to their devices before they leave school that day, knowing that they may be learning from home the following day (or days). By taking this proactive approach, we’ve been able to save the hassle of restructuring a school calendar around a few hurricane or snow days.