Making the Most of Snow Days: Have Your Students Write!

As CUNY schools shut down across the city, many professors are left to re-organize “tentative” syllabi schedules. But instead of letting snow days wreak havoc on your reading schedule as well as the roads, use them to practice WAC principles, encouraging learning and understanding of the course material assigned for that day through low-stakes writing.

Here’s one of my favorite writing assignments to give on snow days that occur early in the semester:

Original Assignment:

  • reading due (quiz): J. Allan Hobson, from Dreaming, Chapter 7

Snow Day Assignment:

  • NO IN-CLASS MEETING: Professional e-mail assignment. By the end of our scheduled class period, send me a professional e-mail reflecting on one aspect of the reading for today, quoting with an in-text citation at least once (needs to be no more than 4-5 sentences).

Early in the semester, I explain to my students that professional emails include a thoughtful subject line, address to the recipient, organization, and sign offs. They are concise, to the point, and read over more than once. Professors often complain about student e-mails, so give students a chance to practice this crucial professional skill while also having them respond to course material in writing!

For those of you who don’t use online platforms in your classroom, a snow day might be a good day to require students to watch any video clips you planned to show in class, or even movie or film versions of a text you’re reading (depending on how long the class session runs—a good rule of thumb is to not give students more work than they could realistically complete during the class period). From the warmth and safety of their home, students can watch and respond to material that would otherwise take up valuable class time—or even read and respond to some material you had to cut in constructing your syllabus. Their written responses can be turned in and / or discussed during the next class, depending on how much time you want to take to read and respond to additional writing. Here’s an example from one of my literature classes that could be adapted for any relevant media:

Original Assignment:

  • reading due (quiz): Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus (to end) (on the reading quiz you will be asked what word you looked up in the OED and what denotations and connotations you discovered)

Snow Day Assignment:

  • CLASS HELD ONLINE: During class time, please watch the following clips from Julie Taymor’s Titus (Youtube links uploaded under “reading questions and responses”). Write a response to the film in which you discuss the OED word you looked up and one aspect of the film adaptation that is different from what you imagined (about two paragraphs).

Finally, in my classes, my favorite way to use snow days is to teach students how to respond to each other in writing. If you use a class blog or other online platform in a web-enhanced classroom, facilitating class discussion online becomes an opportunity for students to respond to one another in writing—practice for future writing groups, editing, and other forms of professional feedback in academia. Here is an example from my literature course, but, again, it can be adapted for any reading material across disciplines:

  • CLASS HELD ONLINE: read one story from Dubliners not assigned yesterday and write a “new post” (top right corner) about the kinds of violence represented in the story, as well as the stories assigned on Wednesday: how is paralysis represented in Dubliners and how do these representations depart from the more obvious violences we’ve encountered thus far? Make sure to quote specifically from story, as well as incorporate a close-reading using the OED in order to answer this question. Post and respond to at least two of your peers’ posts by 11:59PM.

When you first begin asking students to respond to each other in writing, it’s important to provide example responses to comments for students so they know that one or two lines isn’t sufficient. I try to pick example comments to show students that are written in simple language, as to not discourage writers who feel they don’t have strong skills. An example from one of my students:

  • I have to agree with what you said about Eveline justifying her father’s actions. She’s well aware that her father has had violent tendencies in the past, and as she’s gotten older, it has not improved. Yet, she mentions that there are times where perhaps he isn’t so bad, and weighs this rather heavily when deciding whether to leave with Frank or not. Many of the characters in Dubliners are creatures of habit, and when their habits are disturbed, paralysis sets in. Eveline has been no exception.

This comment is a gorgeous example of “Agreeing and Disagreeing,” a skill Gerald Graff encourages students to master in They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. In a short paragraph, the student agrees and disagrees with his peers’ post and draws larger conclusions about the text. Even if the grammar and mechanics were less polished, I would use this response as an “A+ example” of what I expect from students.

If you’re just beginning to try out online discussions, you might not have examples. Sometimes, I’ll respond to superb comments or posts to let students know I, too, am reading and engaging with their writing and that this snow day assignment isn’t just busy work. For example:

  • Prof. A says:
  • January 13, 2017 at 12:52 pm (Edit)
  • I really love how you chose to also focus on “how they handle” their paralysis–I think Lauren Berlant’s concept of “lateral agency” comes into play, but at the same time characters like Mr. Duffy and Eveline have been taught the “best” or “right” way to handle themselves, and it doesn’t always work out for them. “Handle” is also a great OED word because it suggests control and the ability to grasp–feelings / abilities Joyce doesn’t necessarily give his narrators. Well done!

Here, I incorporate key terms, databases, and how to quote from source material (it’s powerful for students to have their thoughts respected in this way—they often deserve this level of engagement, too!). Remember, though, it’s always more powerful when students see excellent examples of other students’ writing.

Finally, and I believe most importantly, I never grade my students’ participation in these assignments on low-order writing concerns such as grammar and mechanics. These assignments are a space to give introverts a chance to join the conversation, as well as students who struggle with writing a safe place to practice their skills. Emphasize to your students that their participation for the day is being graded on how well they engage with their peers’ ideas—do they ask questions, quote from the original post, make connections to other course materials, disagree respectfully? All these skills are far more important to good writing than grammar and mechanics and take practice, as well.

Hopefully this post inspires you to get your students writing tomorrow or on future snow days!

Stay warm,



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