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How Jewish Learning Benefits From Snow Days

Teachers should harness their students’ excitement without overloading them

Moshe Rosenberg
February 21, 2014

When SAR Academy students woke up to their first snow day two weeks ago, they also received an email with a link to my JudeoTech Haiku online education site. When they clicked they saw:

They also found two more links. The first took them to the Guttenberg Project’s text of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Dancing Men. The second linked to a YouTube audio dramatization of the tale, which also displayed the key to the code of the dancing men that plays a central role in the story. My snowbound students quickly realized that a game was afoot.

Dozens of students used the key to decode the clue, which was the word Choshen (the High Priest’s breastplate in the Temple). Instructions on the site invited them to check back every hour for another clue. The next one was the word tzitz (headband), the one after that me’il (cloak), and so on. After six clues, the final hour of the exercise consisted of questions about these Priestly Vestments (which just happened to be in that week’s Torah reading).

The students were engaged all day, glued to their computers, and sending back answers moments after I posted the questions. They knew that the grand prize—an iTunes gift card—would go to those who got the most questions correct. One mother sent me pictures of her son that afternoon waiting to see if he had won and celebrating when I posted the results:

Later that week, we had an unprecedented second snow day. Unprecedented events call for unprecedented measures, so instead of one contest, I ran two, both utilizing similar online technology.

I was far from the only educator to employ technology this winter as a means of injecting education into snow days. Indeed, the growing number of schools offering online options during snow days spawned a flurry of media stories, including one in the New York Times entitled “Snow Day? That’s Great. Now Log In. Get to Class.” The article detailed Pascack Valley High School’s virtual school day, during which students huddled at their laptops for hours, reading Shakespeare and performing lab exercises, all in the midst of what used to be called a snow day.

The snowball effect has already reached Jewish educational circles. My colleague Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky, Director of Technology at the Frisch School in New Jersey, posted on Facebook the lesson he had taught during a recent snow day. He subsequently blogged that “The End of the Snow Day is Nigh,” arguing that “Snow Torah shiurim send the message that there is no break from learning Torah.” He welcomed the demise of the “old” snow day, going so far as to bid it “good riddance.”

I understand his points, and the intentions of the educators at Pascack Valley High, but I’m not entirely convinced.

My misgivings derive from what kids of the future will be missing. Anyone who was ever a student or—even more so—a teacher can never forget the quickening pulse, the pounding heartbeat, the catch in one’s throat upon first hearing: No school! Forgotten were the realities of shoveling, finding parking spots, and ultimately, school work to be made up. Nothing mattered except that Christmas (OK, Hanukkah) had come early and we were unwrapping the gift of an unexpected day off—a day to be spent with its own rituals and activities, away from the humdrum routine of daily classes. When snow days vanish under a blizzard of tech-generated tentacles, I don’t want that excitement to be lost.

That’s why I would argue for a new paradigm for dealing with snow days. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a card carrying member of the JudeoTechnocracy and I readily embrace every new presentation tool. But is the best that we have to offer our kids on a snow day more of what they get on a regular class day?

Snow day learning should be nothing like daily learning. We now have the ability to use the day in ways we never could allow ourselves to use a school day. Certainly online interactivity is part of it, but that’s not enough. As evidenced above, I’m partial to the Treasure Hunt format. Treasure hunts can be used to teach facts, introduce personalities, build skills, even master particular apps. An email hunt can send kids to words in the Bible that build a sentence specifying where a treasure is to be found. A hunt through the elements of the Periodic Table can yield clues that, combined, form a person’s name. Treasure hunts are one powerful approach that can generate both fun and learning. I’m sure enterprising and creative Jewish educators can come up with many more.

There is certainly room for standard distance learning Torah lectures on a snow day. But they will never produce the excitement of a kid who wakes up and says: Snow day: Color War! I’m on the White Team!

Pittinsky and other commentators are quite right that the traditional snow day format is on the way out. But the question remains: What will we, as educators, choose to replace it with? Will we tell our students “There is no vacation from Torah,” as we were told, or will we so engage them so that they look forward to a possible snow day? Will we let Big Data do to kids what it has done to parents—make them available 24/7 by device and scientifically squeeze every ounce of productivity out of them? Or will we use this opportunity to nudge the trajectory just slightly so that our students will have what we did: The sense of the possibility of the day, both as mysterious and new as all that is concealed by freshly fallen snow?

Moshe Rosenberg serves as JudeoTech Integrator for the SAR Academy in Riverdale and as Rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills. He is the author of Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter.

Moshe Rosenberg serves as Rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills and teaches Judaic Studies at the SAR Academy in New York. He is the author of Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter and The Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah.