This Is What Pandemic Homeschooling Looks Like

archery

Books and dirt feature prominently in this family's life right now.

When the schools closed and life under lockdown began, parents everywhere were faced with the question of how to continue their children's formal education, if at all. Messages from school boards, governments, and other families on social media forums have been conflicted. Some say it's important to maintain a routine, while others think families shouldn't have to worry about education on top of everything else.

For the first three weeks, families in Ontario, Canada, had no official guidance other than to "spend time together" (not much choice there). Then in April the provincial government rolled out online learning, 5 hours a week, for all elementary students. I considered it for about one minute, then opted out. We have limited devices, but mostly I didn't want my kids on screens any more than they are for occasional entertainment. Plus, I had already begun my unexpected adventure in homeschooling.

I was homeschooled from grade 6 to 11, and my mother's approach was highly structured. I started at 7:30 AM, ended at 2 PM, and followed a strict hourly schedule with a hefty curriculum that included subjects like formal logic, Latin, classical Greek, and reading the Iliad and the Aeneid, among the other usuals. Mom marked my work nightly, laying out corrections and the next day's schedule. It was far more rigorous than school had ever been.

I didn't want to go that route with my kids. Our pandemic-induced homeschooling is not a permanent arrangement, and both my husband and I have full-time jobs that we're doing from home. I do believe, though, that children need daily structure, but much can learned from activities that are less formal and more spontaneous than classroom work. And so, over the past seven weeks, we've established a good routine that is helping us all to cope. It falls somewhere between my mother's rigor and the total freedom I've seen other parents talking about on social media.

Read a lot.

Albert Einstein once said, "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." A wide range of high-quality books is as good a substitute for school as you're going to get (arguably better, in some ways) and, without doubt, a million times better than the short videos that have been released by the school board.

I see my job as providing them with an endless supply of literature. This requires some organization. I assign daily non-fiction readings, mainly history, natural science, and geography books that are geared toward their grade level. Later, they read fiction – whatever novels they're into (currently, Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials) and other fun books such as Shakespeare plays rewritten in comic book form and retellings of Norse and Greek mythology (we love D'Aulaires).

quiet reading time

© K Martinko – Quiet reading time in my household

I am fortunate to have a large library of books, many of which my mom gave me in early March when homeschooling looked inevitable, as well as dozens of library books that I wisely checked out right before everything shut down. I've also spent about $200 ordering books online for them to read and was loaned a box of junior fiction from a teacher friend. If you're short on materials, buy some or ask around. People seem happy to share; I see a lot of book-swapping happening among families on Facebook.

Use your hands.

I encourage the kids to do things with their hands. They're cooking and baking more than ever. I've started calling out to my oldest son (age 10), "Please chop an onion! Can you peel those potatoes?" and he knows exactly what to do. I give him free rein when it comes to baking, as he can now operate the oven independently and remove hot pans confidently. Sometimes I emerge from working upstairs to discover a pan of lemon squares cooling on a rack. It's pretty awesome, I must say.

kids cooking

© K Martinko – Kids hard at work in the kitchen, making 'potato chips'

They get into craft projects, making pop-up cards, papier-mâché, and folded paper monsters. They spend a lot of time coloring, drawing, and writing occasional letters to grandparents and journal entries. They play with LEGO and Playmobil and have beyblade battles. Whenever they get caught up in a game, I leave them alone. I like what Trent Hamm, writer at The Simple Dollar, had to say about this, in response to a reader's question about homeschooling:

"As for us, we’re strongly encouraging our kids to delve deep into things they’re interested in rather than trying to force them into a curriculum right now. What topics are they really interested in? What skills do they really wish they had? Our efforts are focused on those topics and skills."

One thing we haven't given up is music. They must still do a daily practice five days a week, because I don't want them to regress and I want to continue supporting the music teachers we care about so much via weekly Zoom lessons.

Play outside.

Outdoor play takes precedence over all indoor school work. That might sound crazy to some parents, but I figure that as long as they're running around the yard or playing safely in the street, we're all better off. It gives me some much-needed silence to focus on writing, and they're calmer afterward.

Encouraging outdoor play means letting go of certain aesthetic standards. There's an element of messiness that I have to accept if they're going to stay entertained out there. For example, we now have gigantic holes dug near the front entrance that are big enough for the kids to crouch in. They like to mix mud using a hose in the middle of the walkway. They trample through garden beds, climb trees, and dissect bulbs, buds, and flowers of all kinds. There are Nerf bullets scattered on the lawn, archery targets set up, partially-completed wooden construction projects, and ropes hanging from trees, not to mention the rather unsightly treehouse with graffiti they've painted on it.

building a door

© K Martinko – Building a door for their treehouse took all morning.

I purchased a basketball net to add to their collection of outdoor toys as soon as the pandemic started. They also like to play street hockey, ride their bikes, jump on their pogo stick, and shoot their homemade bows and arrows. This is all free play. I don't get involved. I stay inside and write frantically for every minute of peace I get.

Be flexible.

The schedule is roughly the same each day: read non-fiction, practice times tables, do some spelling words, write a journal entry or letter, study the world map and memorize a few countries and capital cities, practice your instrument, read your novel. But it can change based on the mood. If the kids are feeling restless and rowdy, I send them outside for more time. If they're fighting a lot, I tighten up the school schedule, move them into separate rooms, and give them checklists and time limits for what needs to be done by, say, lunchtime. If they're engrossed in a game (or mourning the loss of a beloved hamster, as happened last week), all schoolwork goes out the window.

Screen time only happens after school work is finished (reading + music, at minimum), and it's only at the end of the day when I'm done work and need a little break. I use that time to work out in my garage or to prepare dinner.

Every family will have a different approach, no doubt, and what works for some may not work for another. But it can be helpful to know how others are approaching a tough time. To sum up, I'd say that if your kid is reading a lot and running around outside, you're on a good track.