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Millions of parents nationwide have been thrust without warning into the role of homeschool educator for the first time. This stark and sobering experience is the new reality.
We are longtime educators, as are our wives. There are five children in Brian’s family. Jon’s family has three. Total age range: 5 to 15.
For all parents, learning how to find an appropriate work-family balance is of paramount importance.
For years, we have made it our mission to help educators reimagine their schools and classrooms with a model known as competency-based learning. While experienced homeschoolers might not use this term, the strategy can be integral to their work.
Competency education differs from the way that most of us learned in school. Learning is organized into competencies (big ideas) as well as content and skills (standards). A crucial part of this type of learning is that before moving on in their education, students must demonstrate that they are able to apply their new knowledge.
These practices are useful not only in school but also at home.
You can’t recreate a whole school experience instantaneously. But despite becoming a homeschool teacher overnight, you can more easily manage the process with some clear guidelines.
We offer a series of tips that we hope can serve as realistic expectations for a self-quarantined family with work obligations and also kids across a wide spectrum of ages and grades.
Every family is unique, and what families are dealing with extends far beyond school (examples include worries about where future meals will come from and parental concerns about job security, access to technology and other resources).
With great respect for these real, life-altering challenges, we offer these considerations to help ease the transition for what you can control related to the continued education of your children:
1. Create an environment conducive to learning. Select a physical location that will offer your children flexibility — perhaps one with various seating choices and an open area so they can spread out. Help their minds get ready to learn using mindful practices. For example, Brian’s wife, Erica, has started making daily three- to five-minute mindful learning videos for her students to help them ready their brains for learning in much the same way that we use a tart or citrus flavor to cleanse our palette in order to intensify the flavor of something we’re about to eat.
2. Routines and a schedule are crucial. There’s no shortage of examples of homeschooling schedules for children of any age or family situation. Schedules can reduce anxiety and stress for your child by promoting good habits and proper routines. Consider your child’s individual needs. How much time should they spend on academic and non-academic tasks? Add time for movement breaks, play, meals, etc. When possible, provide flexibility and choice. For example, you may have daily free reading or math-game times where your children can choose their activity. “Choice and voice” is a strategy often used by teachers when developing classroom schedules.
3. Academics should take the front seat. In a competency-based model, learning is authentic, relevant and meaningful to students. But what should parents start with? The first design principle outlines that students should be “empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.” Now, more than ever, we need to allow our students to demonstrate their agency, becoming co-designers of the learning experiences we are working to build together. Parents can get creative with this. Not all learning has to be through the many online apps and modules that have sprung up. Remember, the homeschool situation is temporary, but that doesn’t mean you can’t set some short-term goals for your child. For example, one goal could be for your fourth-grader to practice long division from 3:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. and master the skill.
4. Find a balance. When thinking of school and learning, we often visualize classroom lessons, but school extends beyond that. In homeschool situations, interaction with peers is missing. Our older children with access to technology have adapted by way of FaceTime and other similar technologies. Our younger ones, however, are likely to feel more socially isolated. It is critical to make time for young children to “stay connected” to others, to whatever extent possible. It may look different, but as we are finding, even the opportunity to talk on the phone with friends can have a positive effect on outlook and state of mind.
Lastly, keep this in mind: Many families struggle to find quality time together.
The obligations of work, school and other activities can make families feel as if their lives are spinning out of control.
Becoming more engaged in our children’s day-to-day learning can be — and is — overwhelming, but it also provides a safe opportunity to explore things together that otherwise we could not.
Remember, you and your child are in a new situation. Welcome that challenge together, and be open to the learning that will follow.
This story about the temporary homeschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Brian Stack is principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire, and co-author of Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work (2017).
Jonathan Vander Els is director of innovative projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative and a former school principal. He is co-author of Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work (2017).