Back to Books: How One Family Is Coping With Education in Lockdown

After one week of online learning, we couldn't do it anymore.

kids homeschooling

K Martinko

One week before Christmas, two of my kids were sent home from school because of potential COVID-19 exposures in their classrooms. Roughly 50 students (and their families, by extension) had to isolate immediately, which meant a rapid transition to online learning.

Unfortunately, online learning turned out to be a joke. My son's sixth-grade class spent most of the day in a video chat, the poor teacher trying to hold the squirrelly kids' attention, while the kids communicated in the chat section about non-school-related subjects. To be clear, the ineffectiveness of this approach was not the teacher's fault, but more the medium's shortcomings. 

Every assignment was online. These included viewing YouTube videos and answering quiz questions, reading online articles and writing responses, doing online math questions. There were no offline projects, and the kids were expected to stay signed in until they were dismissed. After a week, my usually calm son was in meltdown mode. Ours is a mostly screen-free household, so to go from no daily time online to five hours' worth was a shock. Everyone in the family was on edge and fighting.

When Ontario's premier announced a province-wide switch to online learning after the holidays – initially projected to be one week, but now extended to three (at minimum) – my husband and I opted to create our own homeschooling program in order to avoid all that screen time. I was motivated by two main thoughts – first, that children have been educated offline for centuries, even with limited resources, so surely this is doable; and second, that we know excessive screen time is bad for child development, so why would I turn to the one thing they need less of as their main avenue for learning? 

Admittedly, I have a few tools at my disposal that make it easier. My mother dropped off a big box of textbooks, workbooks, and history books left over from my own homeschooled education, which means I don't have to create lesson plans from scratch. The fact that my husband and I both work from home also means we can oversee the learning process. Not everyone is in this situation, I realize, but I am confident you could pull together a decent curriculum with far fewer resources, especially with the help of the Internet (not relying on it entirely) and your local library.

Offline homeschooling turned out to be a very good decision. In the weeks since I've heard nothing but horrible reviews of Ontario's rapid rollout of online learning. Friends with elementary-aged children say their kids are miserable and frustrated. They're giving their kids multiple days a week off school to cope with the stress. Some friends have pulled their kids out altogether, believing that no schooling is preferable to the harm caused by such pointless screen time. Not a single person has told me it's working well, and online Twitter threads reflect the same attitude – torturous for everyone involved.

One helpful realization for me has been that there's a great deal of fluff in the public education system. (I knew it before, but it didn't bother me until I was trying to recreate the school day at home.) Remove the fluff, and suddenly what you need to accomplish each day with your children at home is far less intimidating. 

In a thought-provoking piece for the Shanker Institute, educators Jal Mehta and Shanna Peeples call for the US school curriculum to undergo the same decluttering process that Marie Kondo calls for in homes. They write, "The curriculum is as overstuffed as most American houses." To take this KonMari analogy further, we should work toward "discarding the many topics that have accumulated like old souvenirs, while retaining essential knowledge and topics that spark joy" (via New York Times).

Mehta and Peeples divide the curriculum into five buckets: (1) Topics that "spiral" as years go on, such as writing essays; (2) topics that are "nice to have" but unnecessary; (3) topics that are sequential, with skills that must be learned to build upon; (4) topics that are essential, like "Shakespeare, DuBois, Darwin"; and (5) crucial skills like reading and writing. When you sort education into these buckets, you start to see what's really worth spending time on. 

For our homeschooling project, I've distilled my kids' subjects down to the bare necessities – math, grammar, reading, and history. Math comes from the reputable Saxon Math program that my kids have told me makes far more sense than the math they do at school, while simultaneously challenging them more. Literacy includes formal grammar worksheets and reading assigned fiction (St-Exupéry's "The Little Prince," J.K. Rowling's "The Ickabog," and E.B. White's "Stuart Little" are underway). History has a Canadian focus for the sixth-grader and a world view for the fourth-grader, and they write summarizing paragraphs after reading. They do daily music practices and play outdoors whenever a break is needed.

I have also banned screens completely during the school week. This radical act instantly eliminated all the whiny begging for shows and games and forced us to come up with alternative forms of entertainment. (More reading! More playing outside! More baking cookies!) 

That's it. The kids are realizing that starting early and staying focused means they'll finish their schoolwork sooner than if they goof off, and then they'll get more time at the toboggan hill (a useful life lesson!). They're learning to answer questions for themselves by going back and rereading directions because Mom and Dad are available for important inquiries only. They're discovering how to block out the distractions of home. Best of all, they're having fun. Morale remains high, our dinner conversations punctuated with fun facts about the origins of evolution, the Vikings in Newfoundland, and the start of the Bronze Age – all information they've gained from the day's reading.

Education can take many forms. I have nothing against the public curriculum and will return my children to the Canadian education system the minute they're allowed; but I think online learning is fundamentally misguided in trying to replicate the classroom learning experience. Unschooling isn't the answer either; some things must be taught and learned, and won't be discovered through natural curiosity. Books and paper are the happy medium, a more focused and wholesome approach for my family than keeping the kids in a video chat all day. 

I'm not saying all parents should do what I have done, but I hope my account can inspire those who want to change their approach, to do so. I want to reassure you that you probably can teach your children, at least temporarily, and if they're of elementary age, and do a fabulous job in the process. (But if you're shaking your head, then that's fine, too! It might not be for you.)

Last word goes to Mehta and Peeples, of the "Marie Kondo curriculum" advice. They believe it's important for children not to feel that they're viewed only as vessels into which information is poured to prepare them for the future. Instead, we should welcome them "as whole human beings, as people who have had a life-defining experience and survived it with resilience and verve, and invite them to inquire with us about topics of mutual interest... [Then] we are much more likely to sustain their energy and attention."

Sustaining energy and attention is the best we can do at this point, after all we've been through. And if the computer's not doing it for your kids, you can go elsewhere. 

View Article Sources
  1. Madigan, Sheri, et al. "Association Between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test." JAMA Pediatrics, vol. 173, no. 3, 2019, p. 244, doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5056