I have two children doing “distance learning” at home right now. My eldest daughter, 11, is relatively self-sufficient. She’s old enough to follow instructions, turn in her work online and email her teacher questions. She loves to learn and values the peace and quiet of her bedroom, so “homeschooling” has actually been pretty enjoyable for her. My youngest, however, who’s eight, is your typical I-go-to-school-to-socialize extrovert, and getting her to sit down to do math and science at the dining room table is an exercise in patience, bargaining and raised voices.
It’s no secret that the shift to educating our children at home has been a months-long challenge for parents, students and teachers alike. Moms and dads struggle with the curriculum (Geometry! Algebra! Shakespeare!) as well as often having their own work to do, managing children 24/7, keeping a handle on stress and anxiety during an uncertain time, and never really getting a break from any of it.
Students are anxious about falling behind and grieving the loss of friendships, year-end trips and graduation. There’s a wide range of teaching styles, expectations and online interactions, not to mention access to education for those who may only have one shared computer or possibly no computer or internet connection at all.
Teachers struggle with being accessible to their students all the time, covering the curriculum requirements, learning new tech, motivating students and worrying about what might change come September.
Like so many people, the families of Christian Courier writers and staff with school-age kids have been navigating this new reality since mid-March too. In between CC tasks, we are making seemingly endless amounts of meals and snacks, refereeing sibling fights, helping our kids with assignments, trying to get fresh air and supervising our kids’ Zoom chats. Here’s a glimpse into what lockdown “distance learning” has been like.
How’s it going for parents?
Extra time as a family and enjoying the slower pace of life was highlighted by everyone. Staying flexible and valuing harmony and kids’ wellbeing also seemed to take precedence over schoolwork.
“We’re very flexible,” says Kevin Tamming, one of CC’s designers and father of two boys, ages five and nine. “Some days just do not work and become an impromptu PD day.”
Much of the instruction has fallen to his wife, a teacher, Tamming says, as he is still working full-time. Like many other teachers across Canada, she juggles her sons’ learning with teaching her own classes.
Tamming mentioned the desire to “get back to a schedule,” but adds that it’s “nice to have open days with no pressure to be at school or to run to this sports practice or that music lesson.”
CC’s Editor Angela Reitsma Bick has three kids (ages 8, 13 and 15) and has found online learning frustrating.
“Needing a dozen different usernames and passwords for a dozen educational websites, folders, activities, Zoom calls, games and groups is too much. I don’t feel like I’ve done much ‘teaching.’ It’s closer to admin assistant, tech support and lunch lady.”
Balancing her CC work and schooling has been tricky, she says. “It’s tough. At the end of the day, it feels like I’ve done a good job with one or the other, never both.”
But Reitsma Bick did mention that “more family time has been a wonderful silver lining” to quarantine, with “more time for non-school stuff, like hiking, biking, baking and playing games together.”
The Schuurman family keeps a regular schedule. “Get one child to feed and walk the dog,” says Peter, CC’s Contributing Editor. “Get them set up on computers, make sure they know what time their classroom meets are happening. Snack. Recess. Work. Zoom meeting. Lunch. Zoom. Snack. Recess. Get kids set up for online music lesson. Make dinner.” He says being on a device for so many things has turned his kids – ages 9, 11 and 13 – into “screen-slavers.”
And what about getting his own work done? “There are a few more distractions around with three kids buzzing about,” he says. But he often goes out with them at “recess,” and now his son “can out-shoot me on the basketball court.”
Schuurman says it has “created good family bonding time,” but “it’s wearing thin, and they need to see friends and extended family, too.”
For CC’s Development Manager, Jennifer Neutel, “there was a learning curve to figuring out what works for my oldest son, in Grade 2. I thought I could help him with instructions and then tend to other things. Once I learned that he needs a parent to stay right beside him, it has been easier.
“Because we need to stay home and are restricted to only seeing the people who live in our household, it is challenging on many levels,” she says. Neutel has three kids between the ages of 1 and 7.
“There is a lot I miss about life before and look forward to returning to, though ‘normal’ feels so far away. I miss seeing our kids’ teachers, the other parents at the school and hearing about their days.”
How’s it going for teachers?
I interviewed six teachers for this article, offering anonymity so that they would feel free to voice their concerns. Keeping students motivated as the weeks have dragged on was a common theme.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced,” a high school English teacher says, “is with student engagement.” Once it became clear that marks couldn’t go down, “why bother to keep participating? The Ministry [of Education] de-incentivized learning.”
“Our Google Meet attendance is dwindling each week, which tells me students are losing motivation even for face-to-face discussions,” says a high school math teacher working with kids who have learning challenges. “Many of my students do not have supportive parents at home that are able to help them with work or to motivate and ensure work completion.”
With all of these obstacles, how are teachers planning to assign grades?
“Student assessment is very difficult since a lot of assessment is [normally] done in-class, based on individual conversations and in-class activities,” says a high school English teacher. “In the distance-learning model, we’re assessing final products almost exclusively and so students are losing the opportunity to demonstrate skills in a variety of ways.”
Most distance learning relies heavily on technology. But “many households only have one device and more than one child. This puts single-parent homes, current and new Canadians, racial, Indigenous, and other non-white families at risk, especially if they are already living in poverty,” a special ed teacher points out. “Is education only for the rich?”
Online learning is also less than ideal for young students – who need to play, socialize and interact with adults to learn reading and early math, as a Grade 1 teacher says – not to mention for students of any age who get Bs, Cs and Ds. They need “a physical presence to motivate and explain concepts in person. It takes sitting with them for an extended period to come up with a strategy to help them understand.”
Furthermore, many people assume kids are tech-savvy, but one teacher says that just means “they’re good at social media. I had students writing to ask how we submit work, or open files – really basic computer operating tasks that they couldn’t figure out. I’m finding a lot of students are just googling answers to questions I am assigning, and submitting work that is clearly not coming from them.”
Teaching students how to learn
“Teachers are not magicians – they are trying their best – all of them,” says a high school special ed teacher. “Teachers had zero training for this.”
“I’ve learned the importance of in-person connection with students. For them and for me,” says the high school English teacher. “I need them for motivation as much as they need me. I’m inspired by and energized by a classroom of students and the challenge of inspiring students who aren’t interested in the content I’m teaching. Most teachers are pretty cerebral, myself included, but I get pretty passionate talking about my subject matter and students definitely pick up on and are inspired by it.
“I’ve also learned the importance of teaching students how to learn, not just what they should be learning, or forcing concepts on them, but the skill of absorbing and internalizing concepts. That needs to be taught more explicitly.”
Our Grade 1 teacher offers some tips for parents of little ones: “Keep learning fun! Tackle work when children are relaxed and interested in learning. Children tend to enjoy learning when you are close by, and they can discuss their thinking when they have your full attention.”
Despite a laundry list of frustrations, what seems clear as the school year wraps up is that everyone – parents, students and teachers – have been trying their best, figuring out together how to navigate a new way of being. We have all earned this summer break.
Wondering how it's going for the kids? Check out our companion article “Crisis Schooling: Ask the Students.”
Hear more of what the teachers had to say in Part II of this article: “Crisis Schooling: More Thoughts from the Teachers.”
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