I have never wanted to home school my children. I just need to put that out there, from the onset. I have always greatly admired those who do, certain in the assumption that I’d lose my mind in a similar position. Yet here we are, ten days in to home-schooling, with no foreseeable end in sight. It would seem that I am, despite my protestations, actually home-schooling my children.
What is possibly the weirdest thing to come out of all this so far is that I don’t hate it. I think I might even (whisper it) like it… I don’t mean in a permanent kind of way but in a ‘this will be fine for now’ kind of way. I have made similarly ridiculous statements before and lived to regret it shortly afterwards, so that could still happen here, but, so far, it’s honestly not so bad.
As a not in any way seasoned home-schooler, I thought it might be interesting to share some of the things I’ve learned on this crash course and just some of the random thoughts I’ve been having since getting forced onto this journey.
Now, as a visual support-touting speech and language therapist, you’d think the first thing I’d have done would be to make a large, colour-coded, laminated timetable. Well, I didn’t, because, quite frankly, I didn’t want to. The idea of being hemmed in to set lessons at set times for weeks and weeks into the future filled me with more dread than the idea of just seeing what happened. I am sure this wouldn’t be the right approach for all children. Some would certainly benefit from more structure.
But here, well, there were a few things I was worried about. Firstly, boredom (see Variety Is The Spice Of Life section). Secondly, the new set-up being too school-y. BB in particular has not been enjoying school recently. He’s in year six, which as far as he or I can tell, is just about past SATS papers. He badly needed to break out from that kind of schooling and this, although arriving through dreadful circumstances, could be just the escape he needed. Right from the start I saw this could be an opportunity to turn the childrens’ concept of schooling on its head. For that to happen, I wanted a bit more of a free-flow approach. I wanted the children to be able to steer their learning and for us to seize opportunities as they arose. I wanted lessons to take place in different locations and not to always feel like lessons. I wasn’t sure this could be achieved within the confines of a timetable. So I didn’t make one. I figured the worst that could happen would be everything going awry and me having to make one later – a risk I could live with.
I have tried to keep some loose structure though so LB in particular knows where he’s at. School starts at 9am every day. There is always a mid-morning break and lessons generally finish by lunchtime. After lunch, we go for a walk with the dog (sometimes weaving in some sneaky learning that doesn’t look like learning while we’re at it). Then everyone has a rest. Tea is always at the same time. Reading always happens at bedtime.
Coincident with the schools closing, I read a tweet thread by eminent psychotherapist Philippa Perry, in which she gave some tips for parents thrust into home-schooling. She suggested allowing children to teach us something so that teaching doesn’t become something that happens to them (or even worse, is forced upon them). She pointed out that children need good role models of how to interact with learning; how to respond; how to be enthusiastic and enquiring. I wasn’t really sure about it but figured there was no loss in giving it a go. So far, I’ve been taught how to play darts and Guitar Hero, how to make robots out of KNex and a lot about Pokemon. During the robot-building with LB, he kept reassuring me, saying things like, “this is tricky – you won’t cry, will you, if you can’t do it?” which was interesting. I was able to show that even though it was tricky for me, I didn’t mind getting it wrong and I didn’t mind having to try a few times.
I like this tip. I think it can be really powerful.
Variety Is The Spice Of Life
The thought of being trapped in one place for an indefinite period of time, doing the same thing, day after day would be overwhelming for anybody. Although I think it is good for children to experience boredom and find creative ways of entertaining themselves, I don’t want anyone getting the impression we’re now imprisoned. So, my approach is to keep things as fun and as unexpected as possible. Sometimes learning is at the kitchen table. Sometimes it’s in the garden or on the floor or in the playroom or in the office. Sometimes learning involves a pen and paper, but more often it involves paint or cooking or an experiment or a YouTube video or a book or a globe.
Similarly, although I’m having to carefully manage the food situation so we don’t run out and stay away from shops as much as possible, now seems like a good time to try different dishes. Yes, we will end up eating a lot of pasta, but they won’t notice if it’s interspersed with lots of different things.
This same approach has led us to doing some things we never usually did before, like a spontaneous disco in the living room one Saturday night which was easily the best night I’ve had this year.
I’m not a hoarder, but… Let’s just say I certainly haven’t Marie Kondo-ed. I know it’s sad, but I’m kind of enjoying the challenge of coming up with entertaining activities using only what we already have in the house. It’s a bit like on Ready, Steady cook where the challenge was making a meal from a limited choice of sometimes very random foodstuffs. I’m the sort of weirdo who likes that type of challenge. I think it’s partly because, like many of us, I have been wearing the guilt-cape of the over-privileged. We have a lot. We have too much. The world didn’t need us to buy so many toys or art materials. The guilt felt worse because many things stood there unused as the boys grew or couldn’t be distracted away from screens. Now is the time to use all the stuff and it feels quite wholesome and satisfying.
Case in point: I discovered two bags of mini eggs and all the ingredients for Easter nests at the back of a food cupboard yesterday and it’s honestly made my week. Down with minimalism I say!
On a similar note, I’m thinking really carefully before I throw things away or recycle. I now have a stash of jars/ plastic containers/ toilet roll tubes. I don’t know what I need them for yet but I do enough searching for craft/science activities on Pinterest that I’m bound to need them at some point.
Also, food waste. BB and I made guacamole the other day and realised the avocado pits gave us an opportunity to try growing them into plants. I also have some carrot and onion ends in water on the window ledge – apparently they’ll re-grow so we’re waiting to see if that really is the case. These are the sorts of opportunities it is more difficult to seize if your day is heavily timetabled.
A shift of approach
Let’s face it, I could have made the children use all our accumulated stuff before but, during holidays, I think I have always felt a pressure for them to have fun. I think when my activity suggestions have been met with eye-rolling, I have tutted and backed off, suggesting they find their own entertainment instead. Thus they have made their usual choices and the stuff has remained redundant.
Although I absolutely do want them to enjoy home-schooling, I do kind of have them cornered. BB is all too aware of the massive stack of past SATS papers on the shelf that he knows full-well I’m within my parent-teacher rights to make him do. Ditto LB and his pack of fractions and grammar. We have this informal agreement that I’ll keep the lessons fun if they remain engaged. If they don’t, well, I need only nod towards their school packs.
Miraculously, they are now a lot more interested in the random activities I invent after rummaging about in cupboards. And we all feel like we’re winning.
School of Life
If ever there were a time to teach children life skills it’s now. On the first day, we had a chat about how unusual it is to live and work and go to school in the same place. We talked about how if everywhere gets too messy, we will all feel stressed and trapped. We agreed that doing jobs around the house is an important part of the new home-schooling scenario and that sometimes, I would ask them to do a job instead of doing a sum. They seemed ok with it and certainly, since then, I have asked them to do things such as set the table, hang the washing out, put their clothes away, help with cooking etc. and so far, I’ve had far less resistance than I would have previously. I don’t know if I can explain why that is other than something to do with them feeling we are a team and something to do with knowing you have to do what you’re asked at school (and maybe the stack of school work on the shelf?!)
LB has certainly already become more independent which has been amazing to see. A couple of times, he has gone out of his way to help me with something without me even asking. That has literally never happened before.
I also wonder whether I’ve had a shift of attitude too. Usually I work part-time. I have lots of time at home when they’re at school to do house-work stuff and we have a cleaner. When they’re home I feel a bit guilty asking them to do things that I have plenty of time to do myself. Now that I’m suddenly a full-time teacher-cleaner (she’s furloughed for obvious reasons), it seems a lot more necessary to share the tasks. I feel as though everyone should help, so I’m more pro-active in asking them and they’re really stepping up.
It means they are learning things like how to use the kitchen appliances and how to cook, that I may well not have got around to teaching them otherwise.
Thank God for Fresh Air
No words of wisdom, just, thank goodness for air and trees and open spaces. And also the dog. She certainly adds to lockdown in a good way.
Measures of success
I strongly believe that surviving this pandemic is largely going to be down to attitude. Obviously you should stay home and heed all the medical advice – that’s a given. But once you are properly locked-down, your next priority is everyone getting through these extraordinary circumstances with their mental health intact. If that means un-schooling and playing play station all day, do it. If it means timetabling every day down to the second, do it. What works for each family will be different. The things I’ve talked about here are the things that work for us. Too much structure and the kids would be rallying against it (hello Demand Avoidance ), too little, we’d have some sort of feral Lord of the Flies scenario on our hands.
What I’m saying is, the only measure of success for this period should be everyone coming out the other side of it, as intact as possible.
They might be able to operate a washing machine or have learned some Spanish, but those things are bonuses and shouldn’t be the measures we’re checking ourselves against. Every day that I don’t lose my shit is a success. Every day that the children largely do what’s asked of them and enjoy their learning, is an amazing bonus in these trying times. Don’t skip over these moments – it has never been so essential to find the silver-linings.
*I am fully aware that much of my stance on being resourceful comes from a place of privilege. Resourcefulness is nowhere near such a romp if you don’t know where the next meal is coming from or your cupboards are bare.
**Also fully aware that not working at the current time is of itself a privileged position. I have absolutely no idea how people are supposed to home-school and carry on their paid work simultaneously. Hat’s off.