Ten Tips for Thriving Through School Closures: Lessons from Homeschooling Parents

The man delivering these saw me take a picture and said, “Not the same.” And we laughed and laughed.

1. All human beings, including kids, are hard wired to learn. Every single person is made to take in their environment in whichever way or ways they can and to process their experiences. That’s all that learning is. I used to be a classroom teacher so I’ll let you into a little (actually, big) secret: everybody learns. The biggest, hardest part of being a teacher is allowing this process to take place naturally. Sometimes this means getting the right resources into their hands at the right time and sometimes this means protecting them from standardized testing and other barriers that traditional schools and society places in between them and authentic learning. Whatever it is, the hardest part of being a classroom teacher is negotiating the education system for our students. The easiest? The learning. Kids do it without any help from anyone. Curiosity is innate. Actual learning requires no work (zero! zilch!) on the part of the teacher. So no matter what happens during this period of time when the schools are closed, I can guarantee your kids will be learning.

2. Listen to your children. They will figure out a way to communicate their needs to you but this becomes much easier if they have a willing and eager listener. They will tell you what they want to learn and even how they want to learn it.

Learning can be messy. But it doesn’t have to be.

3. You can always throw out the curriculum. At the beginning of our second time around starting homeschooling (we sent the two older kids to Catholic school briefly) we bought two curricula, one for each of our kids. When it was shiny and new, it was all very exciting. It eased some of our stresses and concerns around “are we doing the right thing?” However, it stopped working for us a few months in. The material was too out-dated. Some of the ideas being taught were illogical and inaccurate. And our experience with the “support staff” showed that they were not interested in working with families to improve or make changes. It was starting to take us more time to “undo” the problems than it was to actual teach the material. We continued to use those bits and pieces that seemed to be working but for the most part, we tossed it (which was painful given how much money and time we had already spent on it). You will possibly have access to a curriculum while your children’s school is closed. It might work for you. But it might not. It might work really well for your children’s teachers and for your children in the context of that classroom. But it might not work for you and our child at home. That’s fine. Just put it aside. There are infinite other things and ways and ideas and topics to learn out there. Jump in.

4. You are an expert on… something. We both have advanced degrees. We’ve spent a lot of years (and a lot of money!) in several different institutes of higher learning, some of them are “prestigious.” But these degrees haven’t helped one iota in getting to know the one subject we have had to learn inside and out in order to successfully homeschool: our children. This is an opportunity to become an expert on your children, to learn everything you can about them. And vice-a-versa. You are an expert in your own life. You might also be an expert in all sorts of other areas, but believe it or not, you have made it this far, surely you’ve had some experiences and learned some things about life along the way. Your kids want to hear about those things. Just the other day, Ms10yo overheard Eric and I talking about the newspaper where I worked briefly. “You worked at a newspaper?” she exclaimed. “Why haven’t you ever told me this?” She then had a series of questions about what I did and what it was like. I think I worked there for maybe nine months, definitely less than a year, so it wasn’t exactly life defining, but, to a 10yo, it was eye opening for her to hear about it. And especially coming from her mom. Which brings us to….

5. Tell stories and read aloud. My parents live about eight minutes away so we see them almost every day. They are a crucial and integral part of our lives and therefore homeschooling. The other day, I overheard them in the kitchen while I was watching Mr2yo. My mom grew up in the city (DC) until she went to boarding high school in rural Pennsylvania where she was taught by nuns, one of whom she knew from her elementary school in DC. It was my mom’s job to go outside to ring a bell at meal time. One day, she took her bell outside to ring it. As she looked out over one of the surrounding fields, my mother saw some sort of creature near the edge of the woods. She was horrified. She ran inside, put her bell down and rushed down the stairs to the safety of the school community. As she rounded steps into the dining hall, the nun who knew her from her childhood in the city saw her, “Chris,” the nun said, “Calm down. It’s a groundhog.” Unbeknowst to my mom, this nun had watched the whole thing and knew that my mom, as a city kid, would likely be freaking out over this large (but not of an unusual size) rodent. Ms10yo sat with wrapt attention listening to this story. It’s not unusual for her to ask (nay, demand) stories from my mom. Kids love stories. Tell them. And if you feel like you don’t have stories at your fingertips, read them to your children. Even until as old as the 8th grade, children can comprehend aurally far above their grade level or what they can comprehend when the read. Even when they can read to themselves, they still love to be read to and they still learn so much from listening to these stories and being read to.

6. Technology can be social too. And with this period of social distancing, we are going to be relying heavily on technology to keep us in touch with friends and family. We also got a Nintendo Switch this Christmas and, to my complete and utter surprise, it is much more social than I thought it was. It’s basically a story that the kids are a part of. They share ideas with each other and with their dad, they negotiate. There’s a lot of learning that goes on. The last time we went on an airplane trip, we gave the children a lot of free reign over their screen usage whilst on the plane. Afterwards, their eyes were blood shot and they felt head-achey. “Wow, that’s the last time I’m watching a screen for that long without a break.” Even kids have alarm bells that tell them when they’ve had “enough.” Part of parenting them is teaching them to pay attention to those internal signals. But they have to have these experiences in order to learn when they’ve “overdone” it.

7. Any sort of change to the routine of school but particularly one that is caused by something as potentially scary as a virus or disease can lead to a lot of stress and fear. Children hear much more than we give them credit for. So they have a small amount of information combined with their big, active imaginations and this can all lead to a lot of fear, stress, and overwhelm. So how do we mitigate this? Honesty. They can handle a lot more than you think they can. But being honest about what the situation is can help them tame their imaginations. Let them express what they are feeling and their fears in a productive way. Some kids will want to write. Some talk. Some will want to play. Or sing. Or run around outside. Or create something. Ours made their coronavirus video. These forms of expression also allow them to feel in control in a situation where they might particularly feel like they have control over nothing. Let them ask their questions and answer honestly. Which brings us to…

8. Three of the most powerful words in homeschool and in life: I don’t know. The other day, I was sitting outside next to the girls where they had set up some quilts and blankets on the ground and were reading and listening to podcasts in the sun. Ms 10yo turned to me and said, “Mom, when was the Berlin Wall torn down.” It turned out she was reading a book that took place in Eastern Europe. “Uhhhh,” I thought for a moment. “1992?” But I wasn’t sure. Fortunately, I had a small computer in my hand at the time so I looked it up. 1991. “I was a year off,” I told her. “So you were alive when it came down?” I told her yes, I was alive, suddenly not feeling very old, but feeling like I had, through her eyes, an impressive amount of life experience. We are lucky in that we can double check these sorts of questions and curiosities. But, when we can’t, or when we aren’t sure, it’s fine, in fact it’s a really good idea to say to your children, “I don’t know.” Write it down to find out later. Whatever you end up doing with their questions, don’t worry about if you don’t know answers to everything. It is far more of a comfort for them to hear an honest, “I don’t know” than to sidestep the question or to make up an answer.

9. I’m sure that suddenly having a few weeks where your children are home from school feels pretty overwhelming. Like, “what am I going to do with them?” But here’s a thing that I have found to be true about homeschooling: Social distancing is an opportunity for family closeness. Our children won’t be this age forever. They will all grow up and grow more independent and perhaps distant from us. Homeschooling has ended up being a gift for us and our family. And I hope that this period of “social distancing” proves to be the same for you and your family.

10. One of the biggest surprises in homeschooling: our kids actually enjoy their time with us. In spite of what sellers of toys and games and stuff might want us to believe: we are enough. Turns out, we’re not the boring losers we thought we were. And neither are you.

2 thoughts on “Ten Tips for Thriving Through School Closures: Lessons from Homeschooling Parents

  1. So positive, as always. More home schooling ? Hope so…
    I used to envy Aussie cousins in a remote area their distance learning …

    Perhaps at about ten, I began to understand that my mother preferred teaching in school, full time
    to what we now define as ‘ parenting’.
    I began to wonder about teaching as a career for any parent of young children, man or woman.
    The wonderful woman who became my mother in law thought not. Qualified teacher, she shared her
    love of learning with her own children –

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From time to time, I worry that I haven’t used my training to teach in a traditional setting. Your comment gives me much needed perspective on what I *am* doing. I hope your “social distancing” is going well…


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