A Perfect Storm for Learning

By Bill Henk — The Blizzard of 2011.  A Blizzard of Historic Proportions.  The Great Groundhog Day’s Blizzard.   The Blizzard of Oz. 

You can call the incredible storm that paralyzed the midwest last week whatever your heart desires, but in the end, it amounted to just plain nasty.  Score a HUGE one for Mother Nature.  We’re talking havoc here.

And before I go any further, let me foreshadow the educational aspect of this post and say that:  (1) I first learned about the blizzard in a very interesting and unique way and (2) the storm represented a teachable moment of epic promise.   

How Bad Was It?

To give you perspective on the nastiness of this storm, keep it mind that I lived in the brutal snow belt of northwest Pennsylvania for several years.  Lake Effect downfalls there border on the unimaginable.  So, although it would be untrue to say that I’ve never seen anything like this blizzard before, I can honestly tell you that I’ve never HEARD anything like it.  This snowstorm sounded downright angry.

That Tuesday evening the wind howled almost constantly, and my house made strange and threatening noises.  I could swear I heard thunder.  My windows shook and whistled, calling me to them.  When I looked out, I saw winds blowing the already fallen snow so violently that I couldn’t tell if any new snow had dropped from the skies. 

Wednesday morning removed all doubt.  Our front entrance succumbed to a six-foot drift that needed to be shoveled by hand.  I spent about 45 minutes on that task alone.  But that was just the beginning.    

I opened my garage door only to be met with waist-high snow blanketing the full length and width of my driveway — about 700 square feet.  Clearing that snow so our cars could escape became the new job #1.   That nightmare took nearly three hours even with the generous help of my wife and my trusty but overwhelmed snowblower.  

Next we took on the dreaded mountain of snow that blocked our mailbox and then attacked the white stuff blanketing our front walkway.   At that point, I needed a break.  I emerged a few hours later to tackle the other colossal drifts around the rest of the house.   In the meantime, a shocking and significant life lesson awaited. 

Altogether the work totaled more than six hours.  My muscles ached, I was exhausted, and my back throbbed.  I remember thinking, “it doesn’t get much worse than this.”  I was wrong.

Didn’t See That One Comin’ 

Fact is, I have no excuse for not seeing the full force of this blizzard coming.   The Sunday beforehand my wife, daughter, and I took a tour of the WISN Channel 12 television studios that was kindly provided by weatherman Jeremy Nelson.   We won the tour at a charity event and had been looking forward to it for a long time.  We thought it would be…well… educational.  

The WISN tour turned out to be a terrific learning experience.  Jeremy took us through the entire station — meeting us in the lobby, taking us to his weather workspace, showing us the sets where the on-air personalities performed, and even took us through the control room.   The technology blew us away.  We marveled at how the remote cameras worked, how the graphics were made and displayed, and how he operated in front of the blank green screen as if the images he pointed to were actually there!  He delivered the forecast in a perfectly smooth and professional way, and we were also impressed with the  directing and producing of all the news segments.  

For the record, I’ve included some photos of our tour at the end of the post to give you a feel for what we saw.   

But here’s the thing.   Jeremy’s forecast included the prediction of two major storms with the second one figuring to be enormous.  Obviously he nailed it.

The severe weather patterns were right up there on the screen, and I ignored them.  As a seasoned veteran of many storms, I brazenly thought to myself, “Hey, how bad could it be?”  I learned the hard way.

Making the Most of a Bad Thing

In the midst of the storm I thought about what a great opportunity for teaching and learning a major weather event like this one provided.  Once school resumed, there would have been abundant opportunities to capitalize on blizzards in the Big Four:  science, math, social studies, and language arts.  And the learning would have been timely, relevant, and probably memorable. 

Let’s face it.  Weather IS science.  Meteorology depends on scientific principles to explain nearly every phenomena.  For that matter, a host of mathematical calculations could be made, particularly ones related to physics — volume, mass, weight, height, density, and velocity to name a few.  And blizzards profoundly affect us in social ways, because we must contend with them as communities, organizations, and families, not just as individuals.   For that matter, an extraordinary weather occurrence sets the stage for a wide range of reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities — an English teacher’s dream. 

To me, seizing a teachable moment of this magnitude would trump the day or so of regular instruction that had already been missed because of school cancellations.  It would also justify, in my mind anyway, abandoning what had otherwise been planned.  If I were still teaching, risky or not, I envision myself dropping everything else and figuring out some creative way to parlay a significant current event in my students’ lives into a special case of learning.  Put differently, I’d have been on this opportunity like ‘white on rice’ or better yet ‘white on snow.

By the way, while Googling for background on this post, I came across a few links related to blizzards that teachers might want to check out:

It Got MUCH Worse

During the break I took from snow removal, we received awful news.  A  neighbor just down the street from us had suffered a heart attack in his driveway. The snow had proven too much.  Despite efforts to revive him, he didn’t survive.  He was 54 years old, in reportedly good health, and with no history whatsoever of cardiac problems.  Tragically, my neighbor had become a Blizzard of 2011 statistic — the worst possible kind.   

In hindsight, I feel fortunate not to have endured a similar fate.  And I could have.  My physical exertion that day had been extreme, and I had done nothing to prepare for it.  Instead I approached the mammoth snowfall  largely like a young man on a mission even though I’m older and heart disease runs in my family.  It took my beloved father.  So, I should have known better.  This time around ‘I dodged the blizzard.’  Next time  around reckless abandon could claim me as a victim if I remain stupid.

By the way, at the precise moment I learned of my neighbor’s passing, my body aches and exhaustion seemed embarrassingly petty.


The WISN Tour

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