Lots of parents across the world have been trying their hand at homeschooling these past weeks, thanks to Covid-19. It looks different for everyone, of course, since everyone’s circumstances are different. It might look like my brilliant and overachieving colleague who expressed “glee” at finally getting to use her pedagogy on her own kids, or it might look like managing to keep one’s children fed while they play with cars or watch Sid the Science Kid on YouTube.
Right now, in Ontario, the education community has just finished its first week of “distance learning” – brand new territory for everyone. Teachers are offering assignments and activities, hoping to help students stay at grade level and feel connected to their school communities. We’re also hoping to take some pressure off of families – but everyone has different circumstances, and for some the process is very difficult and stressful. The first few days were rocky for a lot of teachers I know, too. We are honestly all just feeling our way at this point.
BUT! From my vantage point, I have some advice for parents of young school-aged children. Mostly, it is this: don’t fret. This is going to be okay. Learning will happen.
I know this not just because I’m a teacher, but mostly because I was a homeschooling kid. It’s actually funny that I ended up as an elementary school teacher, because I had very little experience with the public education system as a child. I had one year of kindergarten and a few weeks of Grade 1 in regular classroom settings, and then I chose to try homeschooling instead. My mom had given up her career in biology to stay home and raise us, and she gave us that option – though she never insisted one way or the other.
What made me choose Homeschooling?
I think, at the time, it had to do with me being a bit of a homebody. Also being kinda scared of certain boys in my Grade 1/2 split class. And hating the deadly-boring Mr. Mugs books. And disliking the part where I had to get up while it was still dark out (I’d been an afternoon kindergarten kid, so Grade 1 was a rude awakening, so to speak. I have never been a morning person).
Anyway, I remained a homeschooler for the next seven years. I skipped the rest of Grade 1, with the permission of the school board. I re-entered public school in Grade 9, and again it was my choice.
What was it like?
It was the ’80s. Homeschooling was very rare at the time. I was like a weird subspecies – a kid apart from public school. People would ask me what school I went to, and I would heave a big inward sigh. I knew there would be questions and explaining. If I was talking with another kid, when they heard about the homeschooling, they would almost always ask one of two questions next: either “So do you get to sleep in as much as you want?” or “Do you go to school in your pyjamas then?” (The answers were, respectively, “No” and “Well – sometimes.”)
Other than having to explain it to people, I really enjoyed homeschooling.
The truth is, when you’re homeschooling a child (by choice), you can really put into practice the things elementary classroom teachers (at least in Ontario) are always aiming for: true differentiation and inquiry.
In the education system, for those who don’t know, differentiation refers to teaching children according to the individual levels they are at in different subjects. Inquiry is using children’s own curiosities and questions to guide where learning goes. I didn’t know those terms while I was in homeschooling, but I lived them. When your student-teacher ratio is 1:1 (or sometimes 2:1, when my sister was homeschooling), you can cover way more ground and really tailor the content. (Yep! Class size matters.)
My mom and I took lots of nature walks – for as long as we wanted. We would look at plants and find them in the field guide when we got home. We would collect pond water and look at it under the microscope. We would have long conversations about all kinds of things.
We had a book called “The Science Book” that we read together, and would do our own versions of experiments that piqued our interest. We read a whole series of “Early Settlers” books from the library and ended up hosting a pioneer-themed costume party for my friends (I remember that we served thimble biscuits – actual tiny biscuits cut out with a thimble).
I learned about math – in the context of life – in all kinds of ways: baking, grocery shopping, exploring maps, music notation, etc. We also did math flash cards – which I didn’t love, but they did help with math facts. And my mom customized my math work to the point of benevolent manipulation. In Grade 3 or so, when I was furious about fractions and long division, having occasional crying jags and frequently complaining about how I hated math, my mom started me on algebra. She knew I would like the puzzle aspect of it (and the lack of guesswork) and found we could go much further with it – and that she could say, “See? You don’t hate math.”
There were plenty of non-customized things as well. I had commercially-produced workbooks for many things, including cursive writing, phonics, and math. I watched “Téléfrançais” and “Parlez-Moi” on TVO. I used various textbooks, some of which were wildly out-of-date and had to be critically unpacked to account for social/cultural bias. (“They Went Exploring”, from 1954, talked about settlers arriving in the “New World” and described the Indigenous peoples as though they were part of the scenery. We had a field day taking that apart.)
Looking back, I am grateful for some specific things that kept me in the loop of the outside world and what other kids might do. I had morning routines – getting ready for my day and making my bed, etc., like a normal kid. It was helpful having that sense of structure. I did “write-ups” every day to keep track of what we’d covered.
I also had activities with other kids (besides my 3 siblings) in the form of dance classes, skating lessons, and summer camp – not to mention playing with my best neighbourhood friends. I was reasonably well-socialized – and got lots of physical activity. (Of my own volition, I also did the “Good Morning Workout” with Pamela Collyer on TV every morning at 9, for several years. The target audience was stay-at-home moms and retired ladies, so I learned about things like “saddlebags” and “love handles” even though I had no such things. Honestly, I watched because I liked her shiny spandex outfits, especially the ones with leg warmers. But I digress.)
The Best Part
The absolute best thing about homeschooling was the permission to enter a “flow state” in an activity I was doing. We had approximate schedules to keep ourselves on track and to get different subjects covered, but everything was flexible. In retrospect, I can see that my mom deliberately let me get lost sometimes in the things I really loved. Occasionally it was reading – what more human pleasure is there than losing a couple of hours in a row to an awesome book? – but I could have done that every day, so we did have to put limits on it.
I was permitted to spend long periods of time writing – stories, novels, poems – which I cringe to read now, but which still amounted to useful practice. My word-nerdery thrived in this environment. (I had whole lists of “good words” that I would look for excuses to incorporate into whatever I was writing.) I learned to type, on our old family PC (at least a decade before the internet would become a mainstay), for the sake of my writing.
I could also spend an inordinate amount of time noodling around on the piano. I’d always wanted to play beautiful, flourish-y music, and I took piano lessons from my mom for a few years, but (sort of unwittingly) cheated. I never learned to read music well, because it was much easier for me to play by ear. But I solved the flourish-y music problem by coming up with my own pieces that I was capable of playing and liked the sound of. It takes a lot of uninterrupted exploration time to allow for this.
We also had projects we would do together that took a big chunk of time – making bread or pasta from scratch, learning to tie-dye, getting a big chunk of potter’s clay and sculpting lots of tiny creatures. I learned from everything we did.
So we did a lot of things together, but I did a lot of things on my own, too. My mom was a dedicated teacher in a way that a parent working from home during a pandemic likely does not have time to be. But right now, it’s comforting to remember how much learning we found in everyday activities.
By the time I entered high school, I was quiet, and pretty shy, but not painfully so. I was abnormally good at talking with adults. I had no problem making presentations – but was slightly more awkward at making friends. (Luckily, I was befriended by a lovely person in my math class who introduced me to all her people. Our social group grew to include my future husband.) I was more than prepared for Grade 9, knowledge-wise. I was very good at self-directed work. And I knew myself really well. So even though I was shy, it wasn’t a crippling thing. And I was nerdy, but everyone in our group had certain things they were nerdy about. (Looking back, I can see that my high school was less cliquey than you’d think. Lots of crossover between jocks and band kids and math contest people and school-play cast members and student council and so on.)
And I still find it very easy to talk with my mom. I’m grateful to her for all those long, patient years, for her open-mindedness, her creativity, her guidance and permission to explore. If I could do it over, I wouldn’t change a thing.
And the point is…
Sorry, this post wasn’t meant to be about me.
What I’m trying to say is that children, especially during the elementary-school years, are learning all the time. Given the chance to immerse themselves in an activity that fascinates them, they will go deep and learn all kinds of things – not just about the topic, but about focus and perseverance and passion for ideas. And although I love witnessing kids’ friendships, there is also a lot to be said for learning without peer pressure. Noticing what you notice, and caring about what you care about, with no one to influence you.
This isolated time is a unique opportunity to un-schedule children – at least to some extent – and let those moments happen. For families doing distance learning, it may be an activity from a teacher that sparks deeper curiosity in a student. Or it may be time alone in nature that triggers a new trajectory. Or it might be a dose of true boredom. Even better, a dose of true boredom in nature can open up whole new possibilities in the minds of children. (But they have to be allowed to get bored, i.e. go off-screen for long periods of time.)
At our house right now, we are making sure to get outside every day, and get some exercise every day. The kids are working on things their (Grade 2 and Grade 5) teachers have asked them to work on every day. We are working on our routines of tidying our rooms and doing our expected chores. We listen to music every day, and most days fiddle around (ha) on a ukulele or our digital piano. We speak French when we remember to. My kids are nerdy like me, so they spend a lot of other time reading, writing, or drawing. And when the whim strikes them to play with toys, as long as the basics have been covered, I let them do it. And they usually get some screen time too, once they’ve taken care of their responsibilities. They’re learning the whole time.
I have ambitions to teach them more about cooking, to figure out some sewing projects to work on (though I’m no expert), to co-create some choreography, to do some big science experiments… But it’s looking like we have lots of time. I’m not going to stress about it. They’re going to teach themselves all sorts of things I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of – especially when I leave them alone.