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updated: 2/3/2014 3:49 PM

Technology keeps suburban students plugged in even when schools close

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Although most suburban students had four days of classes canceled in January because of frigid weather, that doesn't mean they all got a break from doing their homework.

Teachers have been using email, texting, iPad or phone apps, and class websites to keep in touch with students even when school is closed.

Several schools use Schoology, an online education social network, to post lesson plans and videos, message students, collect homework and papers, and let students discuss topics through interactive message boards.

"It allows us to stay in touch and stay engaged," said Mike DiMatteo, U.S. History teacher at Buffalo Grove High School. "It's a great way to be able to interact with kids who are not necessarily in the classroom, which is a far cry from when I was in school. A snow day used to mean school was out of sight, out of mind."

DiMatteo said it is useful not just in cases of extreme weather, but when students are sick or have to miss school for other reasons.

Last week DiMatteo posted several readings for his Advanced Placement students so that class could pick up where they left off even after missing two days.

Some students even took it upon themselves to do extra work from home during their days off.

Kristen Fisher, an Elk Grove High School computer science teacher, saw a tweet that one of her students had completed a new level on an online programming website even though it wasn't assigned. Students work at their own pace on Codecademy or Udacity, sites that teach programming languages.

"They reach a point where they get bored at home," Fisher said. "I wasn't surprised, but it made me proud as a teacher that my kids are really taking initiative to learn as much as possible. The whole course is built around 24/7 access to their learning."

For some projects, such as the school yearbook, extreme weather doesn't get in the way.

"The cold can keep us from school, but our deadlines aren't going anywhere," said Sandra Gruen, yearbook sponsor and English teacher at Wheeling High School.

For the first time this year Wheeling is using web tools to help build what will later be a printed yearbook, so students were able to keep working on layouts and page production from home.

Gruen said there was a little groaning from the students, but the work all got done.

"They knew they had the capabilities and they didn't have an excuse," she said.

She also uses an application called Remind101 that connects teachers and students through an alternate phone number so they can text one another without giving away personal phone numbers.

Students are immersed in technology in their personal lives, Gruen said, so they enjoy using it at school as well.

"The students have higher expectations of us, just as we have higher expectations of them now," she said. "They want immediate feedback. They rely on it."

The only downside to all the new technology is the added time for both teachers and students.

"It certainly isn't that when the school bell rings, school is over. It doesn't work that way anymore, you're on all the time," DiMatteo said.

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