In (Pandemic) Life Updates: The “Lost” Two Months, I gave a quick synopsis of the struggles both kids were having with remote learning and announced that Chloe had decided to homeschool for the remainder of the school year, but that Liam had improved enough that we were keeping him enrolled in remote learning public school.
We made it one week of homeschooling Chloe before Liam’s anxiety severely spiked again, and I realized I was just done. I was done expending energy and time just trying to help him get through a day when it obviously hurt him to do so. Done emotional laboring and collaborating with overworked, underpaid, completely overwhelmed teachers and administrators at his school that, despite their best intentions and high degree of professionalism, can’t actually make many systemic changes on Liam’s behalf right now. There’s just no right way or one-size-fits-almost-all way right now in public education, and my son was hurting as a result.
Meanwhile, after that first week, Chloe’s energy and spirit was bright and high in ways I hadn’t seen from her in months. We had time for walks together, to talk together, to read and discuss literature together. We could eat breakfast and lunch together. And, most importantly, her screen time went from 13 hours per day to less than 2 (and most of those 2 includes her newly found leisure time to play Roblox or update her Youtube channel again). The answer for Liam seemed obvious. I decided I could simply adapt Chloe’s 6th grade curriculum for Liam’s 4th grade level, and just work with both of them together. They could read aloud together, work on projects together. We could have richer discussions and centralize our family’s focus in a powerful way–a way that I perceived would help simplify a complicated, fraught time.
I don’t know that I’m by any means an expert on homeschooling, seeing as how I’ve only been at this officially for four weeks. But I do know that so far what we’re doing is working. The kids report that they are enjoying their school days, that they feel less stressed than they did in remote learning, and that they feel like they’re learning. On my part, I feel as if I have a chance to help guide my kids towards a deeper understanding of how they learn and why, to help them discover learning strategies that will impact their engagement well beyond this time period, and to also encourage the development of their intrinsic motivation to learn. Below I’m writing out our basic homeschooling day, with notes and thoughts about my balance as a full-time remote profesional.
We start our homeschool day with Health. Sometimes it’s 8:30 on the dot, sometimes not. That’s the beauty of homeschooling: I can adjust and adapt on the fly. Often this is a short yoga routine or walk in the forest, but sometimes it includes reading age-appropriate articles on topics like self-care, how germs spread, personal hygiene, and what yoga does for our bodies and brains. Sometimes it even means picking-out a recipe for them to make at dinner that evening. In the fuzzy gray-area between getting dressed and Health starting, we have a brief (~5 minutes or less) morning meeting where we review the schedule for the day and I apprise them of any changes I need to make (maybe due to my schedule or a hiccup the day before) and have them write it into their schedule binders.
Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: I wake-up at least an hour before the kids. I’ve had coffee, read the news, perhaps gone on a solo walk or a walk with Brian, so I feel good and ready to start my day. As the kids wake-up, I hop in the shower. They stumble groggily around for 15 or so minutes then start getting dressed, completing a few simple chores, and getting organized, during which time I take a few minutes to log-in to work stuff and make sure all is well. The writing center opens at 9, so I like to make sure before 9 that things appear smooth and organized for the day. I usually have to approve a login to the student-access writing center accounts, but that doesn’t take hardly any effort. It just means I have to be by my phone.
After Health we start our Humanities block with Social Studies. The curriculum I selected is called Build Your Library and so it is a reading-intesive curriculum that centers around history as its focus. The curriculum includes a basic schedule and assignment and project materials that I’ve found useful and also easy to adapt and customize. All of the books are sold separately. We’re doing Civil War through Civil Rights, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the opportunities we have to connect what we’re learning to modern day contexts. Our Election Day discussions were robust and fascinating. The kids rotate through quite a few books in chunks, but there’s definitely a primary text we lean on and they only read one creative nonfiction at a time (I’ve emboldened the primary text below and listed the creative nonfiction texts in order so far). They will read-aloud the primary texts together, practicing popcorn reading, and then either read individually or via audiobook (depending on availability) the creative nonfiction text. We are working on a long project on the Civil War that has smaller scaffolding assignments.
Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: Once we’re done with yoga, it’s usually 9am on the dot. If Brian didn’t have time to make the kids’ breakfasts, I make them and they eat while they read. I generally make myself a quick smoothie (something I can eat and do work at the same time) and sit down at my “desk” (ahem dining room table) by 9:15. Work things have been up since 8:30, with sound notifications on, should anyone have needed me (and sometimes they do). I’ve already glanced at email, Discord, the schedule, Canvas, one.iu, and even Facebook groups of professional relevance, so I know what needs my attention first. I do have to circle in to make sure the kids are on task, especially if reading together, and once each week I’ve found I have to do the reading with them so they get caught-up to the schedule (at least they’re having fun reading together), but I generally get a solid hour to plug away on work before I need to shift them from one book to another. Once a week I have Office Hours during this time and so need to be available, but since I host those in Discord, it’s been really manageable to multi-task. At least once a week, I try to do a 15-20 minute Supernatural workout on the Oculus during this time.
After Social Studies, we have English. Usually this means we do their favorite part of the day–narration cards. Every Monday we have a discussion and answer reflection questions about our literature reading. On weeks we’ve finished a reading, I use Monday for true writing instruction. We’re building-up their summary and strong response skills with discussion, activities, and example worksheets. For their literature reading, which may be independent reading, audiobook reading, or me reading aloud to them, we have been completing after school or before bed to make better use of class time.
What we’re reading/have read in the first 4 weeks for Humanities–
Nonfiction: American History Encylopedia, Two Miserable Presidents, We Were There Too, Words That Built a Nation
Creative Nonfiction: The Underground Abductor, Silent Thunder
Fiction: The Giver, The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody
Narration Cards: These came with the Build Your Library curriculum, but I modified and added some personalized ones for each kid. These ask them to reflect on our readings, which I rotate between subjects, in a new–and hopefully fun–way. Chloe’s are very art-focused, and say things like: create a cartoon using 2-3 quotes from the text, illustrate a scene from the reading, create a Kinemaster animation asking and answering 2 questions from the text. Liam’s are drama-focused, and say things like: write a scene script for an important idea or scene, conduct a pretend interview betwen you and 1-2 characters, write a scene from the reading as if it takes place in a favorite fan-verse. They both have cards that say things like “retell the reading in your own words” and “annotate the readings with visuals.” Our science narration cards for science readings also get done during this time and say slightly different things.
Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: If they do a narration card for English, which they do 4 out of 5 week days, then I get even more time to work once I’ve helped them select a card and gotten them started. I may have to circle in to do a time management check, and then need a few minutes to review their work. If I need to conduct a discussion or a writing lesson, then I’m actively engaged with them for this full hour. My work windows stay up with notifications on, should the writing center need my immediate attention (and it sometimes does). This is usually my most productive work hour of the day.
After English, they get a full-hour for recess and lunch. Again, once I’ve made them lunch and made myself lunch, I have still-more time to work. If I’m in the middle of a good workflow, I fudge the schedule a little to keep working until I’ve completed whatever it is I was doing. Occasionally, and especially if we did yoga and not a walk during Health, we’ll take a group walk at this time, which eats into my work ability. But, it’s lunch and I don’t really take a full lunch, so a 15 minute walk is fine, I think.
At 12:30 we reconvene for Science. Science is included in the Build Your Library curriculum (again, books sold separately). This year they are doing Astronomy, which is wonderfully appropriate for Brian and I to facilitate as two space-loving nerds. So far we’ve read two chapters in the textbook. On a week where we worked through a single chapter, the kids read aloud or independently (up to them) from the textbook the first two days, then we did a lab on Wednesday, did an activity or watched a video on Thursday, and then worked-on a learning comprehension set of questions on Friday. The second chapter we read took much longer, so they had more days for reading, a lab, an activity, several media days, and two reading comprehension days. I added narration cards for Science to increase engagement and reading comprehension. We just enrolled them in a NASA education course component that lasts a week, but is relevant to their studies, and also developed a list of even more science activities to make this time as active as possible. In addition to the textbook, they also have a companion creative nonfiction science reading. I read this aloud to them and we have very brief discussions about it afterwards. For these first four weeks, it has been George and the Big Bang by Lucy and Stephen Hawking, which has produced some very enjoyable laughs and memorable moments.
Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: I try to read the textbook on the weekends so I know what’s going on. Brian tends to facilitate the labs and activities for me once or twice each week. I facilitate discussions, read the creative nonfiction, and watch media with them.
After Science we have French. On Mondays and Wednesdays they do Muzzy. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they complete pages in their French workbooks and we go over the answers together, having short practice conversations as we do. On Fridays we practice conversations, read short stories in French, and do other activities like plan a Passport Night to France. (Note: I was once fluent in French. Given that I haven’t spoken any French in 15 years, I’m rusty, but it’s all coming back to me relatively quickly and easily).
Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: I tend to have meetings in the afternoon, which is why French rotates between an independent screen-based learning mode and a hands-on active learning mode. Depending on my week, they might do even more Muzzy than the two days, or we might skip a French day altogether.
After French comes Math. We started out using Kahn Academy, but both of my kids are creative-minded and profess to struggle with Math. I don’t think I’m bad at math, but I also don’t use most of the math equations and whatnot in my professional life as an English professor. Brian uses Math every single day of his life, but struggles to communicate the concepts in a way the kids can understand. Therefore, we have just switched to Beast Academy after they reviewed the materials online and felt positively about them. Beast Academy uses graphic story-telling to engage critical math thinking and then asks students to engage in the text for problem-solving. Given Chloe’s love of graphic novels and art, and Liam’s love of story-telling, and the fact that both of them are good creative problem-solvers but tend to freak-out if it’s just a bunch of numbers, I’m hopeful this will work out better for them. This was expensive, but they get beautifully illustrated books and workbooks plus online access for practice and review. It also has clearer schedule guidelines for me to follow than Kahn Academy did, so I know what to assign and when, which is helpful.
Work-Homescshool-Life Balance: More meetings happen during this time than any other time, which is why I need Math to be fairly self-directed. I’m also usually getting pretty fatigued by this point in the day. I drink decaf coffee to help control my anxiety, but have been adding about a 1/4 caf to my second cup of coffee of the day, the one that I treat myself to during this time. If it isn’t a special latte I make myself, then it’s a cup of green tea. Also dark chocolate. I’m hopeful Beast Academy will help us all feel better about this hour. If I managed a workout earlier, I tend to feel more energetic at this point in my day.
Because Math has not been going well, we’ve paused the Music/Art block at the end of the day. I think they get plenty of art-making time in the regular curriculum, but lack art-history and art instruction, which given that Brian has a BFA in painting and I took a bunch of art history classes, I’d love for them to do. They both are musical (Chloe plays flute and Liam trumpet), but we’re all usually fried by this point and Math has been taking double the time. It’s ok, honestly. I’m realistic to life and don’t want to push us to be and do too much right now. They know it’s a goal to work towards, but they’re also okay with how things are right now.
Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: by this point in the day I am BEAT. I’ve multi-tasked from 8 in the morning onwards. I need a breather by myself to center my thoughts. I keep my work tabs open and notifactions on, but tend to slip my wireless headphones on and either take a walk in the forest by myself to energetic music, or mellow to an audiobook while I do dishes and prep for dinner. I’m still available for work, and will keep those tabs open until 5:30 or 6. The writing center closes at 7. Before bed we read aloud from our literature reader, which has been a good and fun routine, especially on The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody, which is a delightful and fun read. I’m more relaxed by then and can put energy into the voices and dialogue delivery, much to the kids’ delight.
On the weekends: I take a few hours to prep the coming week. Build Your Library suggests a schedule, but I can tweak it to suit our family’s needs. I compare everyone’s calendars for the coming week and consider successes/failures from the previous week and the overall emotional/mental/physical health of all of us and make some decisions on what we’re doing. I may need to read ahead or glance ahead to make sure I have materials necessary for labs and activities and that we know what we’re doing. I make any materials: discussion questions, assignment sheets, etc. .. and print them out. I print things from the provided curriculum. I print the schedule for each of our binders and get them reaady for Monday’s morning meeting. Overall, though, I try to be intentional about sellf-care on the weekends. A lot of people depend on me to be at my best during the week, and taking good care of myself helps me be at my best. I clean, I bake, I read for fun, I do some chores while listening to audiobooks, I sleep in, I stay in pajamas all day. I plan the menu and make sure we have all the food we need so I don’t have to worry about it during the week.
I’m fatigued in places, but not empty, not “done” in the same way I was when we set-out on this journey. It takes a lot of self-grace and patience. Some days that’s easier said than done. Some days I focus on work more and other days on them more. Next semester, when I have a synchronous class to teach, that will make things a little more difficult. But, we’ll also be far more than four weeks in to homeschooling. In sum, at the end of this fourth week, I can say that the kids are engaged, happy, and healthier with this schedule, and that to me tells me all I need to know. We made the right decision. We are in this, doing this, living it, and learning to love it together.