Advice from a Homeschooling Mom

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Vermont schools are closing their doors from March 18 until April 6 (at least) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, joining schools across the country that are going dark in a proactive effort to curtail the spread of this virus. As one school district after another cancels classes, I’ve received numerous requests from friends nationwide, all asking a version of the same question: “As a homeschooling mom, do you have any advice for us on homeschooling our kids?”

Before answering that question, I’ll admit that I’m writing this from a position of privilege: Our family is somewhat uniquely situated so that COVID-19 has had a less shocking impact on our daily lives. We’ve been homeschooling our kids since 2016. With five children, we have a large stash of toilet paper already on hand. We live in a small town, and our yard is 12 acres of rolling fields, plus a treehouse, yurt, and trampoline. The college where my husband teaches went remote last week, so he’s had to figure out how to teach his courses digitally, but his job is secure and he can work from home. This is privilege, and I acknowledge that others are struggling in many ways in which our family is not.

But if you’re still with me, I’d like to offer you encouragement rather than advice. My brief answer to the question, “How do we homeschool our kids during this time?” is: Don’t worry about it.

Here’s a question back for you: Has your school district told you that you’re responsible for ensuring your child’s academic progress while school is suspended? No? Then, congratulations! You get a pass; this is not your job.

Of course, if your school has provided work packets, or if they’re conducting online learning, by all means support your child in those things.

And if the idea of homeschooling fills you with joy – if it’s something you’ve always wanted to try and now you finally have the chance – go for it! You probably don’t even need my advice in this case; you’re likely soaking in all the online resources and philosophies and reading lists already.

But what I’m hearing and seeing most is a lot of stress from parents, who are overwhelmed with the idea that they have to translate their child’s schooling over to their home environment with only a few days’ notice. These parents are drawing up schedules, purchasing workbooks, and scouring the internet for learning apps. In between, they’re posting crazy-eyed memes on social media.

Let’s all take a deep breath.

I wonder where this stress is coming from, this pressure to transform from parent to teacher like a superhero in a phone booth. I’m unaware of any school district explicitly placing this expectation on parents. I suspect that it comes from…ourselves. It’s reinforced by our social circles, and reinforced further on social media – because if all of our friends are managing somehow to pull off structured, enriching homeschooling, we need to keep up or risk feeling like inadequate people and failed parents.

But the great thing about expectations, whether from inside ourselves or from others, is that we have the freedom to say “no” to them – which is what homeschooling families have been doing for decades.

So I’d encourage you to feel free to treat the next few weeks as a school holiday. This is not a normal time, and it’s okay to act like it’s a special occasion. (My own family has decided to take our spring break from school earlier than planned.) A few weeks – even a few months – without structured learning are not going to rot your children’s brains or interfere with their chances of getting into a decent college. Should you be fortunate enough to be home with your family at this time, enjoy each other! How often are we commanded to stop the frantic pace at which most of us live our lives? Appreciate the gift of time together. Do what you’d do on a snow day. Rest, play, eat, repeat. As long as your kids aren’t spending all day in front of a screen, they’re going to be just fine.

Now, I understand that after a couple of weeks of unstructured free time your children are likely attempting to destroy each other and you are losing your mind; that happens in my house, too. This is when routine and structure become essential to everyone’s sanity. You can call this “homeschooling,” if you like, but here’s a tip: Before you get started, consider the difference between “school at home” and “homeschooling.”

My biggest mistake when I started homeschooling was to try and schedule our days as if we were doing “school at home.” I’ve spent the past few years trying to wean myself and my children from the idea that our homeschooling should look just like conventional school, only at home —  complete with discrete subject areas blocked out for certain lengths of time. (I even scheduled in “RECESS” for the first couple of years!)

Here’s the difference: You are not attempting to shuttle 30-some children through a school day in which they need to reach government mandated benchmarks. You are your children’s parent, which gives you a unique relationship with them that even the best teacher can never achieve. And your setting isn’t an institutional school building, but your very own house.

To get yourself started, here are a few things you might do:

*TONS of reading aloud. (Now is a great time for epic series that feature good vs. evil and are full of hope – think Narnia, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or even the Little House series. Our family has also enjoyed Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and we’re planning to begin S. D. Smith’s Green Ember series.) When your voice gets tired, put on some audio books.

*Games, of the board and card variety.

*Go outside as much as possible. If you don’t have a large yard – or any yard – drive to a local hiking trail.

*Crafts – by which I mean blank paper and whatever markers, crayons, colored pencils, or paints you have around. If you’re feeling crazy, you can toss in some scissors or glitter glue.

*Cook together.

*Work on those sewing or knitting projects that are sitting half-finished in the tote bag.

*Watch movies – especially if you’ve read the book first!

*Write actual letters to family and friends.

My guess is that, after a few days of this, you’ll look around and realize that your kids are actually learning, just not in ways that look like conventional school. They’ve probably started writing books, putting on plays, making music, building cities or zoos or airports, creating art. That counts! And what they’re learning this way will actually stick, unlike many of the things that they’re forced to memorize in a school setting. This is the beauty of homeschool.

If you want to take it one step further, notice what your children are passionate about. Is it a book series? Legos? A particular animal? Manga? Dump trucks? Poland in the 19th century? Identify one thing and help your child follow their passion: Look it up online, get books about it, watch films about it – follow the rabbit hole as far as it leads. The secret is that any subject area has embedded in it mathematical, literary, scientific, and historical applications – and your child won’t even notice, they’ll be having so much fun.

While you’re at it, share with your child something that you’re passionate about, something that brings you joy.

You and your children are likely processing a great many things right now. Everyone’s senses are heightened, we’re all mourning cancelled plans, and even leaving the house feels like a calculated decision. It’s exhausting. You don’t need one more thing that’s going to add stress to your life, so if homeschooling feels like that, don’t do it. Give yourself grace and space so that you can parent your children through this.

Your children don’t need you to be their teacher right now; they need you to be their parent. They need the security of your love, and they need you to model how to be calm even when the world is not. They don’t need their home to be a school; they need their home to be a place of rest, happiness, and comfort.

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