If I can survive homeschooling, so can you. Here’s how.

It was just announced the schools will not be re-opening any time soon, after a 3 week “precautionary” closure.  All around the city, moms are posting teary-eyed faces and gloomy mom pictures.

I gently told my kids… and they cheered.

Well, that was unexpected.

I went into this season with a great deal of intentionality and survival-strategies.  I have never wanted to be a homeschooling mom.  I never even wanted to be a stay at home mom.  This was not in my plans.

My best friend growing up was homeschooled.  My husband was homeschooled.  My sister-in-law travels the world speaking at homeschooling conferences.  There’s been a little… pressure…to choose that route for my kids.  I have hesitations about homeschooling, having front row seats to both the good and the bad, but my biggest reservations were for myself: I don’t have what it takes to do this.  I like working.  I don’t thrive in the stay-at-home lifestyle.  I’m a public school veteran and a public school advocate, so unless my husband was willing to be the stay-at-home dad, our kids would be in the public system too.  Which they have been, and it’s been great.  We love our school, we have fantastic teachers and our kids have made life-long friends in their classrooms.  Homeschooling was never going to happen.

But now we’re home.  We’re home-something.  We could home-school, home-entertain or home-avoid, but that “home” part is now non-negotiable. 

surviving homeschooling during quarantine

I’m clearly no expert at homeschooling, but even the homeschooling experts will tell you: this is not what homeschooling looks like.  This is crisis schooling.  Crisis schooling means trying to fit your work in while overseeing your kids education.  Crisis schooling means there is no play groups, homeschooling co-ops or field trips to participate in.  Crisis schooling means the curriculum you ordered in the mail isn’t coming this month.  Crisis schooling means there is no normal routine and everyone in your house is dealing with anxiety of some sort.  Crisis schooling means there is no time to prepare and no long-term strategy.  Crisis schooling is its own category, and we’re all new at it.  The homeschoolers are struggling.  The kids affected by school closures are struggling.  Even the unschoolers are struggling right now.  We’re all new at crisis schooling.

Still, there are lessons I’ve learned from watching the homeschoolers around me and from being a distance online teacher myself that I think have helped us make the transition.

It’s supposed to look different

If I’ve learned anything from my homeschooling friends, its that if you’re homeschooling looks just like school at home, you’re doing it wrong.  Focused school work should be taking less than an hour a day for grades 1 and under, 2 hours for grades 2-5 and 3-4 hours for grades 6-12. The goal of home schooling (or crisis schooling) is not to fill 8 hours/day, it’s just to stay on top of your learning objectives – most of which can be met in only a fraction of the time.

Boy reading a novel at home.

Your teachers are not experts either

God bless the teachers and the frantic pivoting they’re being forced to do to support kids learning at home.  I can’t imagine any solution that will fit for every family.  Some are bound to be overwhelmed and others wish for more.  If you’re a teacher, thank you for doing your best at working with us in crisis schooling.

Parents, we need to remember: teachers are new at this too.  Which means we can give them grace.  It also means we hold their expectations loosely.  One teacher wants her elementary students online throughout the entire school day for regular updates, new assignments and teaching. Another stays off line but assigns mountains of workbook pages, essays and research projects.  Yet another teacher from the same school sends a list of ideas kids can do around the home for fun that have some educational value: count by twos as you run up the stairs.  She wants a photo of you doing something outside.  You’re going to get every extreme and whether you’re feeling the pressure of meeting your teacher’s expectations or the disappointment from not getting enough teacher support, you need permission to hold those expectations loosely.

Take a deep breath.  You’re going to be okay.

In our province, the government has mandated that no child can fail their grade due to COVID-19.  That means if you do nothing, your kid will still move up a grade, have a new teacher and get a fresh start in September.  Just breathe.

I know there’s a very real “summer slide” in kids mental prowess, as the typical 2 months of summer without reading really has an impact on kids learning, and I don’t want to compound that so I am expecting my kids to do some schoolwork.  Still, I get to decide how much is appropriate since I’m the one that has to live with them and oversee their work.

It’s okay to take that mountain and re-assign only 10% of it to your child.  It’s okay to take that stair-climbing exercise then head over to pinterest to find a count-by-two’s worksheet to add to that.  You are now the teacher.  Use the resources available to you, but do not pressure yourself or your children with unrealistic expectations. 

Embrace the opportunities

We’re missing so many opportunities right now – I can’t provide French immersion, choir or basketball practice like school does.  But there’s so many opportunities we have that they don’t get in school either.  We’ve started a life skills unit: last week my 8 & 10 year old each had to make a meal plan and cook a dinner.  This week they’re learning what those laundry symbols mean and doing their own laundry.  We’re doing a “course” on letter writing and phone etiquette – things school doesn’t touch on and (so far) they think it’s fun.

It’s not just parent-driven either.  The kids started a list of ideas and interests to could tackle in the course of homeschooling (it gets added to whenever someone gets a bright idea) and that helps fill our time after schoolwork is done.  They’ve set a goal of learning to do the splits by the end of April and we’re taking watercolour painting courses via YouTube (anyone want a bookmark?  They’re being created by the dozens!). We’re not just learning math, we’re also finding time for hobbies and interests and that’s a great part of homeschooling!  Embrace the opportunities!

Children painting watercolour bookmarks

Define some finish lines

One issue with homeschooling is a lack of parameters: what should they learn?  How long should they be doing this?  How will we know when we’ve succeeded?  It’s so unstructured that we find we long for some finish lines along the way.

It can be a time limit: you’re finished after 30 minutes, no matter what you’ve accomplished.

It can be mark of completion: one page essay on Mozart, or finish 2 pages of your math workbook.

It can be a milestone: once you’ve hit 20 wpm in your typing course or cooked 2 meals from scratch.

Name some finish lines in your work and make a big deal of it.

It’s silly, I know, but stickers are providing some wins in our family right now.  We’ve gone girl-guide style, where they can receive a “badge” (homemade sticker) upon completion and we even had an award ceremony on the weekend to celebrate.  They’ve earned badges for cooking meals, writing essays and presenting research on animals.  They also have a list of badges they could earn and what it would take to get that one.  It’s working for us for now!

You can celebrate by letting your kids earn screen time, get a sticker, earn play money to spend on your snack “store” – there are so many creative ideas.  Rewards are always a good idea if they are earned (not given randomly) and if kids know exactly how to earn them and they’re achievable.  So mark some “finish lines” and give your kids a goal.

Get resourced

There is so much available for free right now!  I’m letting their teachers guide their math and French homework, I’m guiding their “life skills,” but I’m also leaning into some experts who teach what I never could.

We’re loving musical theatre classes from Meraki Productions here in Winnipeg, live online every Monday.

We’ve watched a few of the free Astronomy classes, from Discover the Universe, published live from Quebec daily.

Winnipeg Zoo is doing a creature feature Monday, Wednesday and Fridays.

My friend, a teacher, is reading the book Aquila to her elementary aged kids daily, and we’re following along.

Friends of mine who lived in Africa are doing live “Stories from Africa” zoom specials where they teach kids about animals, culture and daily life from a village in Tanzania.

Where else will my kids ever hear these things?  We’re leaning into some of these unique opportunities while we can!

Boy taking online classes

Live online classes

I’ve been teaching online for over a year now, and I’m a believer.  Not every platform or teacher is created equal, and it may take a few tries to find the right fit for your child but the difference between learning from a YouTube video and learning from a live teacher, even if online, is huge.  

If you’ve never tried a live online teaching, LingoBus (the sister company to the company I work for) offers free trial lesson in learning Chinese for kids ages 5-12 (plus I get free lessons for my kids when others use my link) and right now has 90% off their group classes ($5 USD for 4 lessons).  Whether Chinese interests you or not, it’s a fun way to test what an effective online platform looks like.  My kids took the free trial lessons with them and can still, months later, introduce themselves in Mandarin.  They also tried the same with free app DuoLingo, and while it was fun, they put in 10x the time learning another language but can’t remember any of it.  Relationships matter in learning, and even 1/2 an hour “relationship” cements learning better than any video.

Another good option is Outschool, where thousands of teachers teach classes on every topic imaginable.  You can try a stand-alone class or take ongoing classes, and prices range from $5-20/hour of teaching.  You can get $20 worth of classes for free by using my referral link – and I’ll get free classes too!  My kids have taken classes on the Musical Greats (Beethoven) and Women in History (Helen Keller) and named their courses as a highlight of the day.  Their curriculum and teachers vary widely in quality and qualifications, so do read the descriptions and profiles before purchasing a course. 

Honestly, my favourite part of live online classes is how it breaks up the week.  I’m struggling with lack of definition in the days of the week, and knowing Chinese class is on Wednesdays, Musical Theatre is on Mondays and Outschool is on Fridays has been a worthy investment not only in their education, but also my sanity!

Breathe grace

Crisis schooling isn’t forever, but it looks like it’s not going to be a little vacation either.  Give yourself grace.  Give your teachers grace.  Give your kids grace. Then look for ways to make it fun!  We may look back at this time ten years from now as a stressful time of panic, but hopefully our kids can look back at it and remember it as the time they got to plant a garden and called it “school,” or the time when Phys Ed meant learning how to do hand signals while cycling, and how special it was to take a course called “bicycle mechanics” with Dad as he did his usual spring tune-ups.  May they remember the gifts of this season, not just the stress.

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Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash

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