Letter From Quarantine

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I wasn’t sure what this column should be about. Then, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write it.

Last week, I thought, “Everyone’s writing about the new coronavirus, so perhaps I shouldn’t. Maybe my column can be a refreshing break from the news of the world.” But it quickly became clear that to write about anything other than the COVID-19 pandemic that’s sweeping the world would be to ignore an enormous elephant in the room, as the number of confirmed cases rose across the nation and entered Vermont, and as the first Addison County resident tested positive.

As the COVID-19 numbers climbed higher, our family’s world got smaller each day. Middlebury College, where my husband teaches, began spring break a week early and will recommence classes remotely. Appointments and events were crossed off our calendar until there was nothing left. Our typical movements around town were restricted as restaurants, shops, and the library closed their doors.

At some point, it hit me – as it probably hit all of us – that this was a BIG DEAL. By the end of the week, I was suggesting that my daughters keep journals to record their experiences during what will surely be considered an historic event.

So, although there’s surprisingly little material to write about in being at home with five children – at least, not much material that I haven’t mined already — I decided to try.

Then we got sick, and suddenly I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to write anything for a long time.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

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.

Comfy Chair Wars

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I’ll be honest with you: It’s not easy for me to focus on writing this column. Last night, we turned the clocks ahead one hour, but the baby seems not to have noticed. And it’s 46 degrees and sunny outside, with only a few patches of snow on the ground. (If you’re not a Vermonter, that’s amazing spring fever weather this time of year!) I’ve sent my family off to open barn at the sheep farm, and about the last place I want to be is inside forcing my exhausted brain to transcribe coherent thoughts while the ducks are having a party on the lawn outside.

But these signs of spring give me hope that we may be approaching a truce in the Comfy Chair Wars of 2020.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Pajama Games

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Now that we have a new baby in the house, one of the first questions I get asked (on rare occasions when I appear in public) is: “How are you sleeping?”

The implication is that, because babies are known for waking multiple times in the night to eat, my husband and I must not be getting a full night’s sleep. This is true, but it’s nothing new: My husband and I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep in almost thirteen years.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

On February, and the Search for Home

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After a fairly lackluster winter, we had our first big snowstorm yesterday.

Today, the world beyond my windows is gorgeous. Because the snow was preceded by ice, the tree branches bend low and glitter in the sunlight as if they’re encased in glass. Temperatures have yet to rise above freezing, so the snow still lies heavy on the evergreens. I’m unsure of the total accumulation – I’d estimate somewhere between 8 to 12 inches – but the fields are blanketed white, and the remaining hay bales in our neighbor’s field look like marshmallows tipped on their sides. The sun came out today, in a bright blue sky broken by puffy white clouds. To step outside is to experience “the white way of delight,” as my daughters say, quoting from Anne of Green Gables.

Last week, my eldest daughter asked me to send her to boarding school in Florida.

She was joking, I think. But then again, it’s February. Apparently it’s not easy to be a Vermont kid in February.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

American Orphans

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Our children had some friends over this past weekend, and they decided to embark on an outdoor adventure. The negotiations, as I overheard them, went something like this:

“Let’s pretend we’re on the Oregon Trail!”

“YES!”

“And also, some of us could be runaway slaves.”

“Okay, that works; that was around the same time.”

“I’ll be the Quaker person helping the slaves escape.”

“And also, we’re orphans….”

If they hadn’t been so insistent on historical accuracy, I’m pretty sure they would’ve added a couple of Jews fleeing the Nazis for good measure – they’ve played that before. (Jewish orphans, of course.)

I’m not entirely sure why children love playing at being orphans in perilous situations, but I know the attraction extends far beyond my own children. In fact, I remember loving a good orphan make-believe session myself; for at least a year of my own childhood, my friends and I pretended to be inmates in Miss Hannigan’s orphanage from the musical Annie.

Part of the appeal must lie in the sense of independence and courage that comes from imagining facing dangers alone, without the safety net of parents. In this way, games of “orphans in trouble” actually prepare our children for the reality of the world beyond childhood. The world can be a big and scary place, after all, and regardless of whether our parents are still alive, most of us have the sense at one time or another that we are on our own.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Of Hospitals and Hawks

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One thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that we are able to endure a great deal more than we believe is possible. Life is not a benevolent tutor, handing down lessons one at a time in order of increasing difficulty; instead, life often feels like an opponent in a boxing match landing a punch in your ribs and then throwing a jab to your eye while you’re still catching your breath. The remarkable thing is how many of us remain in the ring. We may be hanging on the ropes, bruised and battered, but we don’t go down.

This is why, when I found the mangled carcasses of two of our chickens (the rooster in the shed, the hen on a snow drift next to the coop) after having just switched places with my husband at the bedside of our ten-week-old son (who was beginning the second week of his second stay at the University of Vermont Medical Center in less than a month) – on the same day that my husband discovered fraudulent charges on our credit card – I simply thought, “Of course: Another predator.”

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.