The assignment was simple: Write a story about a realistic character. Draw pictures showing the action, and then write down what’s happening. An hour in, my 6-year-old daughter was in tears. She loved drawing the pictures and imagining the plot. She refused to write it down. I was on the verge of tears myself.
By that afternoon, I was on the phone with the teacher, who told me that just a page of writing a day was fine. I braced myself the next morning, but within an hour, my daughter and I were at opposite sides of the living room. She was sprawled on the floor, furious and exhausted. I was taking deep breaths to calm down. We hadn’t even gotten to the tape diagrams and “quick tens” she had to master for her Common Core math lesson yet.
I’m an editor. It’s my job to help writers craft stories with engaging narratives and detailed descriptions of characters. Some of these stories even win awards. I had begun the week pretty excited about tutoring my own child in narrative writing. Instead, my attempt to persuade her to write three sentences was a disaster.
Not long after, I was allowed to listen in on a professional development seminar with a group of public school principals. They were listing some of the silver linings that have come with the shift to remote learning in the wake of coronavirus. I laughed out loud when one shared, “Parents are co-teaching at home!”
But it’s not a joke.
Many district leaders, ed tech entrepreneurs, education consultants and politicians have congratulated themselves for the swift, if bumpy, move to remote learning. Within several weeks of closing suddenly in response to the coronavirus pandemic, districts had shipped millions of devices to students to do their work at home. Educators have made a heroic effort to move lessons online, recording their own videos, grading assignments and responding to frantic parents like me.
What many people seem to have forgotten is that we caregivers at home still have no idea what we’re doing. And until we do, education for the vast majority of kids will be mostly a charade.
No one has provided me any training. No one has talked me through what to do when my daughter won’t take her head off the table. No one has given me access to teacher’s manuals, so I can understand what the learning goals are, or even what’s coming tomorrow. We’re muddling along completely blind.
Becoming a teacher usually takes years of preparation. A battery of tests. And time apprenticing in a classroom with a veteran who shows you the ropes. Even substitute teachers must demonstrate some skill and know-how before they’re unleashed in a classroom.
What many people seem to have forgotten is that we caregivers at home still have no idea what we’re doing.
As politicians like Gov. Andrew Cuomo have pondered whether we even need physical schools, we must remember that, especially for the youngest children from kindergarten through third grade — kids who still need their hands held, literally, whether crossing the street or sitting down to a math problem — it’s parents, grandparents and other guardians who are trying to translate and enforce the lessons coming across the internet. (While some also juggle work, others apply for unemployment and all of us try to keep food on the table.)
For most of us, the lessons we’re supposed to help deliver are a foreign language. But even the teacher-parents I’ve talked to are exasperated. It’s one thing conducting a classroom of children who aren’t your own. It’s another trying to cajole your 8-year-old to put down the video game to toil over worksheets when you’re trying to get your own work done. Or to figure out how to troubleshoot your child’s confusion over number bonds when you’re adding up what’s left in the bank account. Or to explain the phonics lesson when you don’t speak English yourself.
What happens at home always mattered in kids’ outcomes. Now, it’s all that matters.
Plenty of parents with resources, time and, in some cases, know-how when it comes to education are at a loss. Some privileged parents have given up, assuming their kids will be fine if they slack off for a while, for the most part correctly. I’ve cut back my daughter’s lessons to just an hour or so of reading, writing and math per day (although they often stretch much longer when she dilly-dallies or throws a tantrum). I figure the educational videos she watches while I work are good enough to cover science and social studies for now.
But low-income parents and parents in high-need districts are much more concerned that their kids will fall behind academically. What support is being offered to make sure kids who are traditionally at a disadvantage are not languishing? “Scaffolding” is a term teachers use when they’re talking about how to help kids build the missing skills they need to succeed. Educators: If you’re going to make us your “co-teachers,” we need scaffolding, too.
A few educators are starting to think about how to do this, now that remote learning is more or less up and running. I spoke with Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University and the architect of the writing curriculum that has been torturing me and my daughter. I explained that as a writer myself, I really liked the lessons. It was fun to peek into exactly what they’d be learning in school. But it’s been torture trying to orchestrate a challenging curriculum at home for my own child. (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.)
She sympathized. “People are saying all curriculum needs to have a digital aspect. But all curriculum needs to have a parent aspect,” Calkins told me. Especially if schooling is disrupted next year, which is very possible.
Anticipating that remote learning might continue, at least partially, in the fall, the Reading and Writing Project is creating videos of lessons that teachers can use (rather than recording lessons themselves) to free them up for more direct, individual support of students, along with videos for parents to introduce them to each unit, so that we have a big-picture understanding of what our kids are supposed to learn. Calkins also hopes that one-on-one tutoring models could help both teachers and parents handle the new burdens of remote learning by bringing in extra adults to help coach students.
“For next year to work, it does require that we think about our jobs differently,” Calkins said. “We have to figure out how to support the families.”
While online learning can never replace the classroom, “education for a whole generation could be slipping past us if we don’t figure out how to do this,” she said. “One of the things I’m advocating is that people get comfortable with inventing less than perfect solutions.”
Because even the most engaging, thoughtful remote learning programs will not be enough to close the educational divides that are opening wider by the day unless we can provide a serious amount of support and training not just for teachers, but also for parents — holding our hands as we hold our children’s hands through this stressful time.
Educators need to get creative and think more about the caregivers struggling at home. But as long as school is online only, it will never be perfect. So we also need to dampen expectations about what kids are really learning right now and hope it won’t be too long before our children can rejoin the teachers who know what they’re doing.