The approach of September, six months into a global pandemic, is terrifyingly complicated for almost everyone we know. Will schools stay open? Are they safe? Will our kids learn enough at home? What will they miss?
“They’ve decided to homeschool.”
My mom is talking to a friend on the phone. “Grades 4, 8 and 10.”
“Did your daughter go to teacher’s college?” the friend inquires politely.
“Well, no,” my mom says.
“And will she be quitting her job?”
“No. . .”
“How will that work, then?”
There is no way we can recreate the experience of regular school at home. It would be foolish to try. We have to focus instead on what we can do well.
Of course, I won’t really figure that out until March.
In August, I am as jittery as a first-time teacher. I am a first-time teacher, with a separate full-time job and three students who never leave. I research curriculum frantically and hang up posters like “Your Daily Homeschool Schedule,” with half hour time slots for every subject.
We never use a single one.
Days fall into an easy rhythm at first. We start together at 9:30 on unit-based material and wrap up by noon. In the afternoons I work on Christian Courier while the kids do independent math. COVID news on the radio remains grim. To balance an overdose of U.S. election news, we memorize “Amazing Grace.”
I print off a map of the Great Lakes region before settlers arrived. Our region was originally home to the Mississauga people, and also the Iroquois, Objiway and Metis. The First Nations map has no borders the way we’re used to: only brightly coloured, amorphous shapes indicating each tribe that overlap so frequently it’s hard to see where any of them begin or end. The Great Lakes, unchanged, are easy to spot.
With other homeschooling cousins, we gather outside (following regulations) to learn more about Orange Shirt Day: on a medicine walk, making Haida art, cooking bannock. After weeks of isolation, it’s so good to be together. The topic feels heavy but every kid is paying attention.
When I went to elementary school, the history of residential schools was not part of the curriculum. Now the library has a display of relevant material, including picture books. If a new generation learns more fully about the sins of the past while they are still young, will that make a difference?
“Why do you think we’re reading these books and talking about this stuff?” a cousin asks.
My nephew, age 4: “Because it actually happened.”
Ripley’s Aquarium has a special event for homeschool families – squid dissection! The kids learn to identify male & female squids and pull out the ink sac, eyeballs, beak, spine and heart, while I watch, glad to be wearing a mask; the smell is awful.
Toronto itself is weirdly empty, all normal traffic patterns gone. It’s the furthest we’ve driven in a long time.
Spirits are flagging; everyone is behind on math. Name an outing or activity, and it’s no longer allowed. On Christmas Day we skate at an outdoor rink, now heavily fenced off. It takes us longer to register than to skate. The border closure and provincial travel restrictions keep us apart from beloved family members, missed desperately over the holidays.
We join my parents for church Christmas morning (no singing allowed indoors). Creatively defiant, everyone gathers, bundled up & socially distanced, in the parking lot afterwards to sing Ere Zij God – how’s that for a 2020 snapshot?
Some days we miss the structure of regular school. One daughter is worried about forgetting how to take tests (we have no tests) and meet deadlines (we have very few deadlines). I get overwhelmed thinking about all the subjects we’re not doing, but honestly: it’s been a weird year for everyone on the planet. Nothing is business as usual, anywhere.
“I finally figured out the trick to homeschooling!” I email my sister, who years ago homeschooled her five children. “You just quit all the subjects you don’t like!”
So we don’t even pretend to do French anymore. With the end of the school year in sight, we double down on our favourite topics and let the rest go.
There are still some bad days, like the time I put up a sign: “I don’t have time to make supper. Make something if you want to eat.”
I mail Meghan Kort a letter, using a piece of lined paper without noticing it has writing on the back. She texts me a photo, bemused. It’s a note to myself that I accidentally sent all the way to B.C.: “Light and matter; launch a rocket; flying contraptions; fruit batteries.”
She wonders if it’s a list of upcoming CC topics for a special science issue. I laugh for five minutes at my mistake. It’s actually a list of homeschooling ideas for science class.
“Ok, THAT makes more sense!” Meghan texts back. “I was wondering how CC was going to ‘launch a rocket’!”
The caterpillars arrive May 5. It’s incredible to watch them double in size, hang upside down in a lower-case “j”, transform into hard-shelled white cocoons and then crack out a week later as crinkled butterflies, paper-thin wings in sunset colours. They all get names, of course: Dave & Morley, Black Widow, Linda. A week later, we release eight healthy butterflies into our backyard, keeping the one whose top wings never fully unfurled, convinced it won’t survive. After that, at least once a day, someone yells out, “Has anyone fed Hulk?”
We are doing a lesson on siblings in the Bible when a package arrives. It’s a box from my sisters in the States packed with games, socks, toys. Would you believe that we were just reading Exodus 17, the part where Aaron holds up his brother’s arms during battle?
I love that story.
How did we make homeschooling work during COVID – when local homeschool groups couldn’t meet, when some months we couldn’t buy a pair of scissors in person, when the local library hasn’t been open for browsing since March 12, 2020?
How did any of us make any part of our lives work, during the pandemic?
It is the lesson underneath all the other lessons of this COVID year.
When spirits flagged, when we grew tired, loved ones stepped in.
And, with steady hands, they came alongside for a little while – holding up our arms.
Who were those people for you?
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Murphy’s laws of homeschooling
Alba Bick, age 14
Any curriculum you buy will not be completed, no matter how colour coded and scheduled you make your calendar.
A cup of coffee every morning is mandatory for the teacher and no you cannot make it for her because you will get it wrong.
The recess time bell is also known as the phone ringing and is completely random.
If the weather is nice, school moves outside!