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Preparing for the dog days of summer homeschooling

(Illustration by Ginger Seehafer for The Washington Post)
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This is the final piece in a series on The Answer Sheet for parents who have found themselves learning to home-school their children on the fly now that the coronavirus pandemic has closed schools across the country.

The series is written by Roxanna Elden, who combines 11 years of experience as a public-school teacher with a decade of speaking about education-related topics.

Her first book, the nonfiction “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers,” is widely used in teacher training. Her debut novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress,” follows a diverse group of educators in an urban high school. She has adapted some of the advice she has long provided to new teachers for this series. You can see more of her work on her website.

By Roxanna Elden

It’s been a long few months of distance learning, and many parents are probably counting the days until June. Soon the mandatory lessons from school will stop. No longer will you find yourself locked in a family-wide round of Zoom-scheduling Twister or valiantly keeping up with assignments across multiple educational apps. When summer arrives, you’ll be blissfully, breathlessly on your own.

But also terrifyingly on your own. Because even as the hottest months of the year bring an end to school-year headaches, the cancellation of many habitual summer activities means parents will still be on the hook for some form of offseason programming. After the chaos that engulfed the last quarter of the school year, many parents also will want to make sure their kids are doing something academically productive.

We might as well face it, parents: We are going to be running summer school. Or, at a minimum, summer camp. And we are going to need a plan.

Planning, in some of its forms, has gotten a bad rap lately. Teachers don’t always know how their distance lesson plans land with parents; daily lesson plans were never meant to be interpreted by stressed out non-teachers between their own work emails while their kids spill milk on the sofa and sneak onto unauthorized websites.

In the “old normal,” teachers’ daily lesson plans needed to be decipherable only to the teachers themselves. Anything from a detailed, minute-by-minute breakdown to the phrase “scientific method” scribbled on a calendar might have been enough to guide a class through a day’s learning. That’s because daily lesson plans are actually just one corner of a teacher’s planning triangle. They exist within a larger framework anchored by two other types of planning, both of which will be useful to parents as they prepare for this long, hot pandemic summer.

The first type involves routines: determining how to use the time in the school week and space in the classroom. What should kids be doing every Tuesday morning at 9:05 a.m.? Who collects the materials at the end of an activity, and how do they put them away? After making these decisions, teachers try to make some classroom routines run on autopilot by teaching the steps to the kids, building in incentives or assigning class jobs.

Teachers value routines because they know something parents may fully appreciate only after a few months of distance learning: Kids who don’t know what to do next need your attention now. A lack of structure makes them more likely to pick fights that end with cereal on the rug or start a long, droning whine of the phrase, “I’m boooooorrrrreeeedddd!” that begins with the initial “I” sound in early June and continues, unending, until the final syllable wraps up during Labor Day Weekend.

With this in mind, it’s a good time to think about what the weekly schedule might look like at Camp Momanddadarebusynow. Is there an activity kids can do without your help? Might they be encouraged get started on it immediately after breakfast, without multiple reminders, while you get a handle on the day ahead? If you have a Zoom playdate or a relative calling in to read a story, could this be slotted in during a time when you need a break? An upfront investment in a predictable schedule can save you a lot of troubleshooting time later.

The other type of planning is long-term planning. This is sometimes also called “backward planning,” because teachers work backward from what students need to learn by the end of the year.

As a made-up-and-possibly-flawed example: If fourth graders need to learn long division by May, they need to master the basic concept of division by March. This means that multiplication, division’s easier-to-understand cousin, should be a lock in November, preferably in time for the natural break provided by Thanksgiving weekend. These smaller goals go on a teacher’s calendar at the beginning of the year so they know if they’re on track, but — and this is important — all this should be mapped out in only minimal detail. Things change. Long-term plans are best written in pencil. (As if anyone needed to tell you that right now.)

What does all this mean for you, Mr. or Ms. Pandemic-frazzled Homeschool Teacher? Partly, that’s for you to decide. With the speed things are changing around us, it can feel impossible to plan too far ahead for anything.

But goals also can provide a useful focal point, even in a crisis — maybe especially in a crisis. We could all use the feeling of forward momentum. Plus, just as your routines are more under your control during the summer, you also have a chance to customize your children’s learning goals — to address particular areas of struggle, to maintain the skills that rust most easily, or to focus on a topic that all of you truly enjoy.

Once you have the other two corners of the planning triangle set up, then you, too, can drop in daily lesson plans that might be indecipherable to anyone else. After all, you’re no longer quite the homeschool-teaching rookie you were in March.

In fact, you’ve probably already learned the hard way that teaching is a lot like parenting: We’re all just laying the best plans we can, forgiving ourselves for inevitable mistakes along the way, and making thoughtful adjustments as needed over time. We’re all writing in pencil.

Here are the first three posts in this series:

How home-schooling parents can avoid exhausting their emotional energy too early — and in the wrong places

Sanity-saving advice for parents now trying to teach their kids

A new teacher’s worst day in school — and how it can help homeschooling parents