Over the summer, I thought to myself, I can swim. I can teach my kid to swim. Not so! Huge failure. So I forked out the money, she took one week of lessons from a high schooler, and BAM: swimming.
That’s okay, I thought. I’m not a swimming teacher; I’m an English teacher. I have a master’s degree! I’ll teach her to read.
Guess what? I failed. She didn’t want to make mistakes with me. She wanted me to read her a cohesive, flowing story. She didn’t want to start and stop, not getting the big picture.
In the fall, I sent her off to kindergarten and, lo and behold, she learned how to read. She will practice with me at home to a point, but she prefers to have me read to her. When it comes to the ABCs of learning to read, though, I didn’t do anything formal; her assigned teacher did, along with her third grade reading buddy, her peer groups, and the parent volunteers who show up and work with the kids in the classroom.
The American Academy of Pediatrics journal article entitled “The Power of Play” states that “the most efficient learning occurs in a social context.” This article was written in 2018, long before “distance learning” was in our communal lexicons, but the point is more punctuated lately: Kids learn best together.
My next-door neighbor, who, once upon a time, taught fourth grade, told me she hates homeschooling her fourth grader right now. “If I didn’t have my own full-time job, maybe I could do it” she told me. Then she added: “This isn’t homeschooling, though. It would be if I could get a few other kids and they could work together…and if I could leave my house!”
As a teacher for homeschooled kids, I agree. I started out in the traditional classroom, but in the last few years, my work has been with students who, for one reason or another, are not successful or happy with traditional school. Usually I’m brought in to teach homeschooled kids essay-writing. The parents are perfectly capable writers. In fact, some are lawyers and doctors with excellent communication skills. But still, their kids work better with me — someone whose dedicated job is to help and then leave, back to my own house.
I hate homeschooling my own kids. I teach homeschooled students, but I did not choose homeschooling for mine — that is, not until March 16, 2020, when schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, I’m tasked with the burden of teaching my daughter’s first, formative year of elementary school. Oh, and I have a preschooler at home, too, who needs attention.
I’m not the only one having trouble motivating my six-year-old to produce meaningful work. My friend and fellow parent to a kindergartner told me her daughter recently yelled, “This isn’t school!” during her online class meeting. She mentioned frequent tantrums, tears, frustration, and worry when it came time to sit her kid down to “do school.” She said, “my kid doesn’t like online school-directed learning, so the platform feels sort of irrelevant.”
According to my teacher training and decade of experience, my friend has hit on the most important aspect of student engagement: its effectiveness. If a student does not like what she’s learning or how it is taught, it is not likely she will retain any meaningful information. Don’t believe me? Think back and ask yourself: What is trigonometry anyway?
Knowing this, I chose to apply for one of the “public focus options” in my school district. The school’s educational philosophy is based on project-based experiential learning. The kids care for mealworms, much to my disgust. They go on nature walks. They have a winter solstice performance every year. It’s a bit crunchy for me, but it’s exactly what my simultaneously strong-willed and sensitive kid needs from her school. They emphasize community values such as “treat people how you want to be treated” — yet the kids still learn to read and do math. Their play-based kindergarten curriculum covers all the common core standards. My daughter was doing very well there.
But now? The experiential learning is all on me. Unfortunately, the care and feeding of the mealworms is also now under my purview. One has already died.
I can’t control the coronavirus. I support the school closures and the shelter-in-place orders. But while we’re home, how am I going to get my kids to do schoolwork? I don’t. I can’t. I won’t. Sorry. This may be my “job” but dammit I did not sign up for this at home, too.
So I’m reading to them. They’re helping around the house. They’re scavenging pine cones for art projects and climbing trees.
I never saw myself giving up on my kids’ schooling. After all, I was a child who “played school,” even with my dolls. But with the recent changes forced upon us all, it turns out, after all my years of formal training as school teacher, I’m out. For now, I am unschooling my kids. And they’ve never been happier.