Like many other parents who send their children to public school, I’m now supervising my children’s education at home due to COVID-19 school closures. Unlike most other parents who send their children to public school, I was homeschooled from kindergarten through 12th grade and I run a nonprofit that advocates for homeschooled children.
When I learned my children’s school would be closed, I decided I would have them do their school work in the morning and give them free choice time in the afternoon. I work from home and still need to have time for my own tasks, for one thing, but I was also homeschooled and this was the schedule my mother kept growing up. You can read more about why I didn’t want to simply replicate a school schedule at home here.
Here, I want to focus not on the school schedule I’ve kept but on my efforts to navigate the resources provided by my children’s school district. While middle and high school teachers are continuing their classes online as best they can, elementary school districts are taking a variety of different approaches. Given that many other parents are trying to navigate these same things, I thought my experience might be instructive.
When a parent sets out to homeschool, they typically spend time looking at different curriculum and choosing what materials to use. This is not the case for those of us thrust suddenly into educating our children at home due to a global pandemic. We have the advantage, of course, of having a school district and teachers to help us and provide us with materials, but they, too, have had to throw things together suddenly.
We’re all navigating uncharted waters—principals, teachers, parents, and children. It’s important that we show grace to all of those involved—especially the children. I would rather have my children feel loved, safe, and supported—even if it means they miss some learning—than make them miserable by forcing something that isn’t working.
Chapter 1: Choice Boards
On the last day of school, my children each came home with a packet of materials in their backpack. These packets mostly consisted of worksheets and outlines for activities for parents to do with their children, as well as a “choice board” that offered different activity ideas under each subject, all of which required some parental involvement.
On the first Monday the children were at home, I went through their packets. I’m a planner, and I like to be organized. We did activities on the choice board—one each day for each subject, the materials said—and worked our way through some of the worksheets. After a few days, however, I realized two things. First, the materials that came home with my kids were primarily review—things my children already knew. Second, my children’s teachers hadn’t put the packets together; the district had.
Chapter 2: Online Assignments
As I went through the emails sent by my children’s school, I found that each child had an online platform that their teachers could post assignments to. I logged each child in and found that the assignments did not line up with either the worksheets or the choice boards sent home in each child’s packets. This was understandable, given that the packets were put together by the school district, not the teacher. I appreciated having assignments from my children’s teachers—it reassured me that I was not alone and promised to keep my children connected to their teachers and their classmates.
An assignment for my 2nd grader asked him to read a page from a book he was reading out loud, after practicing it; by hitting the microphone button on the assignment page, he was able to record himself reading. Next, the assignment asked him to take a picture of the page he read and underline words he had problems with. Finally, he submitted the assignment for his teacher—and his classmates—to view. The goal, the instructions explained, was to practice reading fluency. He loved it. He was engaged; he was able to produce something he was proud of; and he knew his teacher would view it.
I decided to defer to the assignments posted by my children’s teachers, and only use the materials sent home by the district as needed. I soon hit a bit of a snag, however. For one thing, my 2nd grader’s teacher only posted one assignment per day. While these were engaging assignments that made full use of what the online system had to offer, more was clearly needed. For another thing, I found my 5th grader sitting at the table near tears. “I already know this stuff, mom!” she said. “Why did she assign us all the same thing?” she asked. It was math. She’s always been ahead in math.
Chapter 3: DIY Learning Activities
It was around this time that the district sent out an email letting parents know that the governor had declared an Act of God, which meant that lost days did not have to be made up. While older students needed to complete the assignments on Google Classroom, the district asked elementary parents to make sure our children did reading, writing, math, science/social studies, and fine arts each day, but said we could choose how we did this. “Families may choose the activities they complete,” the email read, “activities provided by the educators or ones from the choice boards or you can design your own learning activity for the content area to align to student interests.”
This email came as a bit of a relief, because I was growing frustrated. As I noted, I was homeschooled as a child. I enrolled my children in public school precisely because I didn’t want to be the one making them do their work. I remembered the tension I had sometimes seen between my mother and my younger brothers as my mother had to be not only their cheerleader but also the enforcer. I had liked that I could tell my children they needed to do their homework because their teacher had assigned it and would be expecting it the next day, and not simply because I said so. More and more, now, I felt like I was fighting with my children to get them to do work—especially my younger child.
The email from the district also gave me a new feeling of freedom. I could use the choice board or have my children do assignments posted by their teachers—or we could design our own learning activities. One day, I created learning activities around a theme: the children calculated rates of exponential growth, we read about Louis Pasteur’s discovery of microscopic organisms; and we watched a Netflix documentary about pandemics. They loved it. Other days, I told them to choose something to do for each subject, based on their own inclination, and let them do their own thing.
Chapter 4: Finding Balance
After nearly a week during which I interspersed activities I designed myself with letting my younger child do whatever he wanted for each subject, I received an email from his teacher. She wanted to know why he wasn’t doing the assignments she was posting each day. She also wanted to know why he hadn’t logged into a program for practicing math, and another that let him read books she assigned and take a quiz over each to check reading comprehension. I had somehow missed these latter expectations, in part because there were so many emails. Oops!
At this point I realized two things. First, I value my children’s teachers and I didn’t want to sever their connections with the classroom. Second, we needed somewhat more organization to our school days—and our rhythm of life—than we’d been having.
Now in our third week at home, we are moving toward a new balance. My 2nd grader does the daily assignment his teacher posts, as well as the online reading program where his teacher assigns him books to read, with comprehension questions. Telling him that his teacher has assigned these things for him has helped; it means I’m not the one making him do them. I’m also having my 5th grader check Google Classroom first every morning, to see what her teacher has assigned.
I’m going to go rogue for some things, however. Neither of my children likes the online math their teachers have assigned. I asked my 5th grader’s teacher if we can do our own thing for math, and she gave the go ahead. I looked into a number of online math programs, some currently free, but found myself disappointed. I want my kids to keep progressing in math, but I also know the research—children who are homeschooled or enrolled in online schools perform worse in math than do their peers who attend public school. I’m not going to make my children do online math programs they dislike; I don’t want them to develop negative perceptions of math.
While I haven’t found a perfect solution for math yet, I’ve ordered fact sheets that go over the common core standards for each grade, with examples. When these come, I plan to use them as a guide and teach my children math myself, creating my own assignments. In the meantime, I’m teaching my 2nd grader his multiplication tables.
As for everything else, I’m keeping things flexible. I’ve told my 5th grader that outside of the small number of assignments her teacher puts on Google Classroom, I want her to spend some time each day on free reading and working on the novel she’s been writing for a year. Social studies, science, fine arts—for those we’re mixing materials the school has sent home with doing our own thing. Mo Willems is giving a daily art lesson online, and the Cincinnati Zoo is offering a daily home safari on YouTube. And for history, I’ve begun reading aloud a book about a 17th century English village gripped by the plague.