by Kara Stiff
My heart goes out to all the parents who were never planning to homeschool, but nevertheless find themselves teaching their children at home today. I chose this beautiful, crazy life, and I completely understand why some people wouldn’t choose it. But here we are. We have to do what we have to do. You don’t want them to fall behind. You don’t want to lose your mind.
Believe it or not, it’s a golden opportunity.
Caveat: these are only my personal thoughts. I’m not a professional educator, just a parent successfully homeschooling.
This advice is only for people whose greatest hurdle right now is remaining sane with the little ones. This is a high bar to clear, to be sure, but some people are facing the little people plus big financial problems, they’re sick or working through mental health issues, or they’re managing other emergencies. In those cases, if you’re keeping everyone more or less fed and warm then you’re succeeding, and you don’t need me to tell you to forget the rest for as long as necessary.
For everyone else, I do have a little advice. I’m sure you’re getting support from your school district, which is excellent. Worrying about what to teach is often a new homeschooler’s first and biggest concern. But deciding what to teach is actually the easy part, and now it’s mom, dad, uncle or grandma doing the really hard part: actually sitting with the kid, helping/making him or her do the work.
First, I think you can safely let go of the worry that you may not be a good enough teacher because you’re a terrible speller, or you think you’re bad at math. It’s good to know these things about yourself so they can be addressed, but the truth is that how great you personally are at division isn’t necessarily a predictor of success. Neither is how well you explain things, or even how well you demonstrate looking things up, although that is a priceless skill to impart to inquiring minds. To my mind, the most important skill for successful homeschooling is:
Controlling your own frustration
We adults are fantastically knowledgeable and amazingly skilled. No, really, we are! So we forget how hard it is to do seemingly simple things for the first time. I remember sitting in my college biochemistry class, listening to the professor say:
“Come on you guys, this is easy!”
Folks, I’m here to tell you that biochemistry isn’t easy for most people who are new to it, especially people who just drug themselves out of bed five minutes ago, possibly with a touch of a hangover. And reading isn’t easy for a five-year-old, and multiplication isn’t easy for an eight-year-old.
The parent has to slow down, go through it again, redirect the child’s attention for the hundredth time and explain the material in a different way, preferably without pulling out their own hair. You can develop these skills. Even if you’re new to it, and you don’t find it easy.
When it just isn’t working, the parent has to know when to shift gears and let it rest. Preserving your relationship with the child is always very important, but it’s doubly so when you’re home with them all day every day.
I think I can safely say that all homeschool parents want to scream sometimes. Many of us have threatened to send our kids to public school at one point or another (or maybe once a week). It doesn’t make you a bad parent or even a bad teacher, it just makes you human. In the last week, I have seen a bunch of public school parents join my online homeschool groups, and the outpouring of sympathy, support and good ideas from homeschool parents makes me tear up. We’re here for you. Get in touch.
Run your day in a way that works for YOU
Just because they’re usually in school for six or eight hours a day doesn’t mean you have to school them for six or eight hours a day. That schedule is a crowd control measure instituted for the good of society, not for the good of children.
My children are homeschooled primarily because I think a kid should spend a lot of time outside moving around, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do that and public school. My own public school experience was pretty different from the norm today, with much less homework and much more self-direction, but still, I feel that I didn’t get enough practice directing my own attention. Research backs me up on this: kids who get many hours of freedom develop excellent executive function, which not only makes them a valuable employee but also helps them run their own life someday.
At my house, we do about an hour of formal school work per day, six or seven days a week. The rest of the time the kids help me with gardening and animal care, climb trees and play in the creek, draw and write and read things on their own or together, and make stuff out of Legos. They have an hour of screen time each afternoon just so they will sit down and be quiet, usually a documentary. David Attenborough is definitely this house’s biggest celebrity. We’re also accustomed to spending several days of the week with other homeschool families, although obviously that is curtailed now due to social distancing.
Learning doesn’t stop when we leave the table, because kids are unstoppable learning machines when they’re not too tired or stressed out. I’m always available to answer questions and help look stuff up, and the questions are pretty frequent. An adult reads to them (or they read to us) books of their choosing at bedtime, and sometimes just after dinner, too. It’s also a pretty common occurrence in my house for a child to see an adult reading a novel, a piece of nonfiction, or The Economist, and request to have it read aloud to them, which we do. They also sometimes watch me balance the household budget.
The schedule that works best for your family might look very different from ours, and that is good. Children are people. People have very different needs, and one of the charms of schooling at home is that you can arrange things in a pretty good compromise to meet everyone’s needs. An hour or two of focused one-on-two attention per day is plenty of time for my four- and seven-year-olds to get well ahead of grade level on reading, writing, and math.
Older kids obviously need more time to get through the volume of work they’re expected to do. They can also be more equal partners in directing the learning process, though. My high school placed great emphasis on self-directed learning, and some of the classes I got the most out of were the ones I designed for myself.
This might be a great opportunity for your older kid or teenager to quickly finish their spelling so they can finally study volcanoes in-depth like they’ve always wanted to do. Or maybe they want to rush through the math, so they can work on their comic book. If they have a passion for it I guarantee they’ll be learning something important, and now you have the freedom to let them explore it.
Can we just not?
Some people have declared they refuse to run a coronavirus homeschool, and I truly understand the sentiment. Children learn in leaps and bounds, so while it is definitely important to practice skills frequently, giving it a rest isn’t usually detrimental. Public school is stressful for kids, and taking an extra-long spring break during an extra-stressful time may be quite beneficial.
Personally, I think there could be two problems with this refusal. First, it’s a refusal of what a public-school mind might imagine a homeschool life to be, but in reality, homeschool doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be!) a stressful grind. Many successful homeschoolers are like my family, making excellent progress with a schedule that is mostly just playing and following our interests and living life, with some math and reading practice around the edges. Compared to public school, homeschool is a break. That’s why many of us do it.
The second problem with this refusal is that we’re probably in this for the long run. Some scientists are saying we may need to practice social distancing for a year or more. Some parts of society may be permanently disrupted, even in the rosiest scenarios where we avoid serious economic collapse. We can’t know for sure what’s going to happen, but it’s not looking good that this will blow over by April. All else being equal, the people who thrive will be those who make the switch to doing things the new way as soon as possible. Like Selco so frequently says, it’s to your advantage to notice when the rules have changed.
This is an unusual moment in time, and there are fantastic online resources opening up for older kids and teens. Here is just a small sampling:
Visit the Louvre for an online tour: https://www.louvre.fr/en/visites-en-ligne#tabs
Or the National Gallery of Art: https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/national-gallery-of-art-washington-dc?hl=en
Take a virtual dairy farm tour: https://www.americandairy.com/news-and-events/dairy-diary/dairy-farming/virtual-farm-tours-while-youre-stuck-at-home.stml
Best Math Websites: https://www.weareteachers.com/best-math-websites/
Virtual Field Trips: https://www.weareteachers.com/best-virtual-field-trips/
Skype a Scientist: https://www.skypeascientist.com/
For younger kids, there are more creative things to do than book work. Don’t get me wrong, I love workbooks. I have one child with very high resistance, and getting in a workbook groove can really reduce our conflict, help him get to the table and get something done. But when it comes to introducing new concepts or practicing multiple skills at once, games and projects are the best. There are many great books available for learning games, but just to get you started here are a few games we’ve used, and there’s nothing that says you can’t make up your own!
Dice. We always start new concepts with dice before we ever do equations on paper. A child rolls one die and a parent rolls the other, and the child adds the two numbers together by counting the dots. Or the child subtracts the smaller number from the larger one, or if they’re ready to work on negative numbers they subtract the larger one from the smaller one. They can roll three or more dice and add or subtract. They can roll two dice and multiply. The parent can take a whole handful of dice and turn them all to the same face, using them to illustrate division.
Marbles. Same concepts, different presentation, which encourages flexible thinking. I might give my four-year-old a little handful of marbles and ask how many are there, then give her another handful and ask, how many now? After each operation, she can say or write an equation that explains what she just did. I might give my seven-year-old an evenly divisible handful of marbles and say, “Divide by four.” Then I hand him one more, and we talk about the concept of a remainder.
Cards. When kids are clear on the concept of a particular operation, playing cards are a great way to practice. We sometimes play a simplified version of Skip-Bo to reinforce number order and practice holding numbers in their heads.
Another homeschool mom taught us to play Math Facts War, which is just like regular war except instead of the high card winning, the person who first says the sum (or difference or product) of the two numbers wins. You can start with number cards only, ace for 1, and add in the face cards assigning them higher numbers as it gets too easy. With a very small child, the adult can count to two or three seconds in their head before answering, to give the kid a chance and make it fun.
Fractions. This game is called A Piece of Pie. The parent uses a dinner plate to trace circles on scrap paper, two for each player, and cuts them out. The children color them like pies. The parent carefully cuts them into the fractions you want to work with, such as 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/3, 1/6 and 1/9. Then you trade, around and around until the pies are all mixed up, but each trade has to be equal: 3/6 for 1/2, 2/8 for 1/4. If the child wants to make an unfair trade, the parent can invite them to lay the pieces on top of each other to see if they match up. If you did your cutting carefully, they won’t.
Storyboard. Draw a map on a big piece of scrap paper, with a road and six or eight different locations. Each player makes a character out of playdough and we move them around the board, interacting. Each person then writes the story their character experienced (in age-appropriate detail, of course, because a seven-year-old can write a lot more words than a four-year-old) while the parent helps them spell. Later, the kids read their story to a dad, or a grandparent over Skype. This is good practice writing and reading, but also good practice thinking about narrative and perspective.
Make a book. A parent cuts up some scrap paper and draws the kid a box for a picture and some lines for text. The child decides what to write, the parent helps them make it concise and spell it, and the child illustrates it. Later they can read it to an adult or sibling. Older kids might like to write a comic book with speech bubbles.
Letters. Since we’re stuck at home, we’ve been writing to our grandparents who are stuck at home, too. For older kids, this can be a proper letter so they can practice the form, but for younger kids it can be just a picture with a few sentences or some labels and their name. You can write to friends in town who you might be missing, or get involved with a more formal pen pal scheme. My daughter insisted on sending her grandparents a book she just made. This isn’t only practice writing, it’s also practicing thinking about other people.
Building words and sentences. When my kids started reading, first we used letter flashcards to practice sounds, and then used the same cards to build words. Then we wrote different cards with complete words and used them to build dozens of different sentences. Making your own cards only takes a minute, and it lets you tailor the game to what the kid is interested in at the moment, whether it’s superheroes or bugs.
Make a book a different way. For a kid who has some sight words but isn’t reading fluently yet, the parent writes a sentence about the child on each page, and then helps the child sound out any words they don’t know. The kid illustrates the sentence while the parent makes the next page. At the end, your kid has a whole book about how they traveled to Antarctica or turned into a cat, or whatever your kid is interested in right now. Talking a moment to draw between reading sentences helps break up the mental work of reading, and it’s also good practice reading handwriting.
You can do this!
So I say, for those who are just stuck at home and not currently sick or managing other emergencies, embrace the opportunity to run your life and your schooling in a way that suits your family. Join your local online homeschool groups for support. Start figuring out what works for you.