A Teacher Shares the 5 Steps That Homeschooling Parents Need to Take to Make Distance Learning Work
I never planned to homeschool, and I know I am not alone. Like many parents across the country, taking on the responsibility of teaching my kids wasn’t optional. I was a middle and high school English teacher for eight years, and I have a MA in English Education. When COVID-19 shut down our schools, I thought: I’ve got this.
Boy, was I wrong.
Flash forward two weeks later, and I found myself scrambling and struggling to manage their Zoom classes, Seesaw assignments, handouts, and teacher communication. I also quickly realized that distance learning posed a set of challenges that ten years of experience in education had not prepared me for: teaching my own children.
I realized that in order to make distance learning work for my family, I was going to have to slow down, focus on quality over quantity and cut everyone some slack. Most importantly, I started listening to my kids and asking for their feedback.
If you are still struggling to make distance learning work or wondering how you can keep it going if schools don’t open their doors this Fall, here are the five steps you can take to restore your sanity and homeschool smarter.
Step One: Start With Systems (Google Docs, Google Calendar, Alexa, and Old Fashioned Folders)
When my sons’ teachers began sharing their distance learning plans via email, I was completely overwhelmed. From Lexia and Epic and Seesaw to Reading A-Z and Google Classroom, I quickly realized that every website had a different username and password. I cannot tell you how many times I had to reset passwords, which only augmented my frustration. I made a master Google Doc with every login and password, and I printed it out for my boys. I put it in a folder along with scrap paper so they would have access to it. I also put all of their Zoom classes into Google Calendar and set a reminder. Setting reminders using Alexa so the boys would know that they had five minutes to get ready and signed in was critical to lessening the pre-class chaos.
Another system that has worked well for us is using mealtimes to touch base on the schedule for the day. During breakfast, my boys and I cover the first half of the day, and over lunch we review the schedule for the rest of it. I highly recommend this because we often have to pivot or make changes depending on how the morning goes. I also discovered early on that my guys were overwhelmed if we went over too much at once.
These systems help me stay organized, and provide structure that helps my boys get into a routine.
Step Two: Put Them In Charge
I appreciate how hard my kids’ teachers are working right now, but our days are so full, I often worry that we won’t have time to transition effectively and painlessly from the Zoom music class to the Zoom math lesson. In addition to teaching, I have an eight month old baby and the kids all have to eat! My boys are seven and nine, and while they are experts in Minecraft and anything Nintendo Switch, there has been a big learning curve when it comes to some of the new tools they are using, including Google Classroom, Zoom, and Seesaw.
It is so much faster and easier for me to log in for them or to troubleshoot when the technology isn’t working. However, in the long term, this doesn’t save time.
The boys are constantly asking me for help. We had a very rough week where we were late for almost everything because I put them in charge of managing their usernames, passwords, and Zoom meetings. While all I wanted to do was jump in and fix it, I forced myself to hold back and now they are able to manage these tools on their own.
Step Three: Ask Your Kids For Feedback
Everything with COVID-19 happened so quickly. My boys went from a predictable schedule that included playdates, and basketball practice, and art on Tuesdays to homeschool. They were confused and worried about the pandemic, and my husband and I couldn’t give them a timeline or answers.
When I first started homeschooling I created a detailed schedule, printed out handouts, and set up their iPads. I didn’t ask them about how their school day was structured or how their teachers taught science. I just started teaching. After a week of behavior challenges, it occurred to me that I needed their feedback.
I introduced them to Glows and Grows, a self-assessment and goal setting framework that supports students to give and receive feedback. After a few days of sharing, I learned a lot from my kids. My oldest said, “I think it would be helpful if instead of assigning specific times to do specific work, if you gave us the work, and let us decide what to do first.” My youngest shared that he wanted to spend more time on math, and felt that we were doing too much writing (when I looked back at my lesson plans, it turned out he was right!). By asking the boys to give and receive Glows and Glows I was modeling for them that this homeschool experience belonged to them, too. We were in this together, for better or worse. Another framework that I love to use for this is the 3-2-1 Reflection.
Step Four: Incorporate Social-Emotional Learning
Some days are better than others at The Mason School (our house). We have magical days where the kids are focused, and they get to their Zoom meetings on time. We have days where we sit on our sun porch, read, and then share what we read. There has been a lot of laughter, but also some tears. Some days the boys are worried that they won’t get to see their friends again or play sports. Other days, they are happy they get to sleep in later and excited that gym class means a Peleton ride or jumping on the trampoline.
I recommend beginning your homeschool day by asking your kids to set a goal or intention for the day. The intention might be something like, “I can participate during my reading Zoom lesson” or “I can ask mom for help when I need it.” I like to support kids to use the word "can" because it is empowering. Throughout the day, or if the kids start to struggle, you can remind them to think about their intention, and ask them to consider how they are doing. Always circle back at the end of the day, and give your kids the opportunity to share on how things went, how they are feeling, etc.
Another framework I love to use for this is the rose and the thorn. The kids share a highlight from the day (the rose), and a challenge (the thorn). Together as a family, we brainstorm solutions for the challenges. Teaching kids how to keep a gratitude journal is also helpful. Many kids are anxious right now, and upset about everything they miss (like playdates, birthday parties, and sports). When I ask my kids to share a bright spot, behavior improves and learning continues. Brain Breaks and physical movement are also an important way to give kids a break and help them reset throughout the day.
If your kids are frustrated and they need to change their chatter, I recommend using Instead of This, Try This. Having a growth mindset is more important than ever with all the uncertainty of COVID-19.
Step Five: Assess Your Kids And Circle Back
When teachers are in a classroom with their students, they can pivot on a dime and make necessary changes to their lesson plan quickly. This is more challenging with remote learning, especially if students are watching pre-recorded videos and can’t ask their teacher for help in real time. Teachers also assess students’ progress in real time while they are teaching. Assessing students, and whether or not that is possible or fair right now, means that we don’t really know how our students are doing. While I would argue that mastering every skill isn’t the priority right now, health and safety are, it is important to make sure kids are understanding and learning the material we are using for homeschool.
One way to assess your kids is to ask them directly how confident they feel about the material by using a Self Assessment Scale. For example, after my son completed a new math lesson, I asked him to show me with his fingers on a scale of 1-5 (1 = I am lost and 5 = I could teach this to someone else) how he felt. When he held up two fingers, that was a signal to me that we needed to do more practice throughout the week. Good teachers circle back. They don’t teach a skill or concept once and never revisit it again. If your kids’ teachers aren’t providing quizzes or review work, don’t hesitate to ask them.
Also, if your child is struggling with a particular skill, ask their teacher for additional materials or strategies. My son is having difficulty with spelling, and his teacher shared his Lexia log in with me, and now I have incorporated that tool into our schedule. Here are some of my favorite assessment resources (and they are all free right now and easy to download and print).
And finally, give yourself grace. I always tell my kids that learning is a messy process. Modeling failure and making mistakes is one of the most effective ways we can teach our kids to be resilient and get back up when they are knocked down. I know that my kids are learning more than multiplication and identifying the main idea from me. They are learning that doing the best you can is more than enough, especially right now.
For more teaching tips and resources for your homeschooling journey, check out the At-Home Essentials on TeacherVision. Next, subscribe to the Prepared Parent, a daily newsletter that has everything from worksheets to crafts and fun activities for your kids.
Julie Mason is the Head of Content and Curriculum for TeacherVision, FamilyEducation's sister site. She brings expertise in blended and personalized learning, instructional coaching, and curriculum design to the role. She was a middle and high school English teacher for eight years and most recently taught at Dana Hall, an all-girls school in Wellesley, MA. She was a blended and personalized learning instructional coach for K-12 teachers at BetterLesson for two years, and she has presented at The National Principals Conference, ISTE, and ASCD where she shared her expertise on how instructional coaching builds teacher capacity in K-12 schools. She has extensive experience designing and facilitating professional development for teachers, and she oversees the TeacherVision advisory board.
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As well as being a mom to 3 boys, Julie is an 8th and 9th grade English teacher and Co-chair of the English department of a school in Boston, MA.