Erica Jacobs: Bracing for swine flu in the classroom
By: Erica Jacobs
September 1, 2009
Projections for the swine flu epidemic have ranged from modest (no greater risk than any flu season), to the alarming (up to half the population at risk.) Schools in many communities will be centers for mass inoculations, but as they get ready for a possible flu outbreak, will teachers be prepared to deal with numerous absences?
I’ve never taught during an epidemic, so my experience with emergency class cancellations draws on the winter of 2003-04, when weathercasters predicted big snowstorms, and I devised a contingency plan. Each week I thought to myself that it might be “the big one, Elizabeth,” as Fred Sanford was fond of saying.
Fairfax County teachers had Blackboard accounts so we could post assignments and e-mail students in class groups, and that became a huge asset. I set up a “mini reading unit” on the novel “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. Copies of the novel were distributed to all my classes, and the assignments posted on Blackboard. Any student who didn’t have a computer knew to print out a hard copy of the assignments in advance, or arrange with a friend to access the work.
What kids are reading
This weekly column will look at lists of books kids are reading in various categories, including grade level, book genre and data from booksellers. Information on the books below came from Amazon.com’s list of children’s best-sellers.
Books on Staying Home Sick
» 1. Purple Death: The Mysterious Flu of 1918 by David Getz and Peter McCarty (Ages 9-12)
» 2. Miss Bindergarten Stays Home from Kindergarten by Joseph Slate and Ashley Wolff (Ages 4-8)
» 3. Who’s Sick Today? by Lynne Cherry (Baby-Preschool)
» 4. Bear Feels Sick by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman (Ages 4-8)
» 5. Germs Make Me Sick! by Melvin Berger and Marylin Hafner (Ages 4-8)
» 6. Rick is Sick by David McPhall (Ages 4-8)
» 7. Mother, Mother, I Feel Sick; Send for the Doctor, Quick, Quick, Quick by Remy Charlip and Burton Supree (Ages 4-8)
» 8. When Vera Was Sick by Vera Rosenberry (Ages 4-8)
»9. I Wish I Was Sick, Too! by Franz Brandenberg and Aliki (Ages 4-8)
» 10. The Berenstain Bears: Sick Days by Jan Berenstain and Mike Berenstain (Ages 4-8)
“The big one” arrived, just as predicted, and we were out of school for more than a week. I e-mailed all my students, asking them to make hot chocolate and popcorn to accompany their reading. During the prolonged school closing, I updated students on the essay deadline, adjusting it according to when schools were due to open. The reading unit unfolded with clockwork precision.
Blackboard has interactive features that allow students to ask questions of one another, creating virtual conversations, and students can start a “thread” to explore characters or literary techniques as a group, feeding off one another’s interpretations and insights. This aspect of my online assignment allowed students who felt very comfortable online to participate even more than they would within a classroom’s four walls. Many of my students told me they enjoyed reading and commenting online so much, it almost didn’t seem like schoolwork!
How this would play out when students were not absent at the same time would depend on how each teacher handled the assignment. A teacher of any subject can include an element in the curriculum that’s a discrete unit, able to be completed at home. Any student who is absent for a week, for instance, could “substitute” that unit for the missed in-class activities. There might be a problem with classroom lessons that are essential — part of a larger unit or sequence of learning that cannot be skipped, in history or algebra, for instance. But for many of us, one assignment, quiz or test is expendable and can be made up with an online lesson using the same skills (writing and interpretation in an English class.)
Continual posting online of all assignments lessens student and parent anxiety, as well. Knowing what you’re missing is half the battle in making it up! It’s no fun to be sick, but if teachers help students and families with online options, flu season will be far less disruptive, making “the big one” just that much smaller.
Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesdays, teaches at George Mason University. E-mail her at [email protected]
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