So what do people who have been on both sides of this — a classroom teacher and a parent who taught their children out of the classroom — actually say to do?
Here is some advice from Paula Prosper, a math teacher at Cooper Middle School in McLean, Va. She is also a mother of two children, one a high school senior and another a college sophomore. She home-schooled her children for three years when her family lived and traveled on a sail boat. From August 2013 through June 2016, her daughter was in grades 6-8 and her son was in grades 8-10.
By Paula Prosper
School at home is a new and daunting world for many of us, but a shift in perspective and expectations can help. I’m a veteran public school math teacher, but I’ve also been a home-schooler, teaching my two kids during some of their middle and high school years while we lived on our small sailboat. The coronavirus quarantine has thrown teachers and families alike into roles they were not prepared for, and many are reeling. This new learning structure is clearly not ideal. But it actually offers some ways to improve our kids’ educational experience if we adjust our thinking about it.
It’s important to differentiate between home schooling and distance learning. Those of you who sent your kids off to school each day did not sign up to be a home-school parent, so there should be no expectation that you will suddenly take on all the responsibilities for your child’s learning.
Many schools are transitioning to distance learning, in which they are responsible for providing lessons and materials and continuing to teach. Parents, you are not responsible for replicating school at home. Your role is to guide and provide support for your child through this new process. For those whose schools are not providing any teaching or materials, you should focus on finding ways to continue the learning process that feels right for you and your family.
This completely new situation is probably as stressful and frustrating for us educators as it is for families, so please be patient. Most of our teacher toolbox has just been chucked out the window, and we are working to find completely different ways to provide lessons, assess understanding, and individualize learning, all while maintaining our classroom community.
Please know that we are well aware of how difficult families are finding it to balance their own work requirements with this new and uncomfortable role.
Traditional schools work within numerous constraints to deliver an education to all students they serve, among whom there is a huge range of abilities and needs. Let’s be honest: the result is far from perfect.
Now is our chance to continue the process of learning at home, without some of the less-beneficial aspects of traditional school. Instead of trying to replicate the classroom, let’s embrace the opportunity to get out from under some of its downsides that are holding some kids back.
For all kids, consistency and boundaries are crucial. Let us differentiate between regularly and clearly communicated expectations and arbitrary structures or schedules.
For some kids, a carefully established framework created by an adult is necessary for them to focus and be successful. But for others, it’s a straitjacket. We need to help kids clearly understand what is expected of them and any deadlines to achieve those goals. But the means to that end can vary tremendously depending on your own child’s needs.
Much recent advice leans toward families establishing a structure that mimics the school day: create a daily time schedule, establish a consistent work area, and regulate educational activities. This is good advice for some students but not others. I have two concerns. First, it puts much of the responsibility for learning on the parent. Second, it is exactly what makes school difficult for a portion of our students.
A shift in how we support our kids in this new learning situation can make learning easier and give them additional skills they weren’t getting in the classroom.
Ditch the desk
Not many of us like to sit at a desk for hours on end. Yet we ask just that of our energetic students every day. Don’t force your kid to sit and do work at the kitchen table if that isn’t comfortable or if they have trouble sitting still. Let them read while riding an exercise bike or turned upside-down on the couch or sitting in a tree. Let them skateboard down the street and back after every three math problems. Let them watch the video lesson standing up or do some coloring while they listen to the lecture.
Adjust the pace
For some of my students, taking notes in math goes too fast, and they are left feeling frustrated and dumb. For others, the lessons go too slowly. Asynchronous video lessons will allow struggling kids to take it as slow as necessary. They can watch the video five times if need be, until it makes sense. For others, the school day is highly inefficient. They can put the video lesson on double-time and get through their work at a faster pace so they can have more time to do the math challenge problem, lift weights, do some painting, or to learn to juggle.
Ignore the clock
For goodness sake, please don’t wake your teen at 8 a.m. for school work! Studies show most middle- and high-school-age kids naturally sleep in and stay up late. Let them! While the coronavirus quarantine is a frightening health situation, it also provides an opportunity to improve our children’s health with enough sleep.
Now they can have a schedule that aligns to their natural body-clock and allows them to get the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. When I was home schooling my children, my son regularly did his schoolwork between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m.; that’s when he felt awake and sharp. This timing also allowed me to do my own work uninterrupted in the morning hours, a situation that might benefit many parents today.
Studies show offering choice in the classroom increases engagement and motivation. Rather than mandating a daily schedule created by you or the teacher, encourage your child to make their own choices within the structure of their required work.
Do you want to start with math or history? How many problems do you want to do before you take your jump-rope break? Which book do you want to read? During one week of home schooling, my daughter requested that we put aside her other subjects because she was so excited about the math we were doing. Allowing a child even small choices helps fuel the desire to do the work and generates a buy-in necessary for success.
If a question or idea arises from the work at hand, follow it! A biography of Thomas Edison sparks a question about the Battle of the Currents. That Google search leads to reading about AC versus DC current, and before you know it, your kid is making a potato battery. Rather than squelch this “off task” activity, roll with it. The biography can wait. Isn’t this what we’re trying to achieve, after all — an interest and excitement for learning?
Let your child lead
In our highly structured, over-scheduled existence, many children simply follow along the path created and enforced by teachers and parents. When these kids get to high school or college, they often lack the skills required for them to thrive in a more self-regulated environment. Let’s use this time to help them learn or refine their ability to organize and plan, to feel comfortable with autonomy, and to practice self-regulation and self-advocacy.
When I was home schooling, I gave my children the week’s assignments on Monday, and they had the flexibility to complete the work on their own schedule. If the work wasn’t finished by Friday, then I stepped in to micromanage over the weekend (a powerful incentive to finish). You can start with smaller chunks. Video game break at 5 p.m. if the afternoon goals are finished. Or, you get to set today’s schedule if yesterday’s work didn’t get done.
An increased degree of responsibility and choice will give students the chance to learn about how they best function, a knowledge that will help them as they reach higher levels of education. This is a great time to “go meta” and initiate discussions with our kids about what does and doesn’t work for them. Families can help guide their children to set goals and create systems to achieve them.
But don’t stop there. It’s important to revisit these with our kids, helping them to reflect, redesign or refine their strategies. Continue the conversation to help them better understand their learning styles and effective study habits.
These times are frightening and frustrating and fraught with uncertainty. Not all of this advice will be on target for everyone, but both teachers and families should work to adjust their expectations and perspectives. It might be what it takes to help us salvage the remaining school year and keep our kids learning.
Students may get behind by traditional standards, and they might not learn the same things they would have in school, but this can be a chance for them to learn in a different, positive and productive way.
(Correction: Fixing time in introduction that the family was homeschooling).