Not long after we were all encouraged to telework, I returned to a near-empty office that once had about 100 people in it. I saw one of my colleagues as he was putting on his coat saying he had to return home. He made a comment about the first thing on his mind – his kids being home. I work for the government but I once ran a business, often from my home office. It was a constant challenge to maintain a professional atmosphere while working from home. So I smiled with some empathy. He went on, “It is particularly challenging having the kids home schooling. They finish their assignments by noon. What do they do for the rest of the day?”
Hmm. Welcome to “home schooling.”
Yes, there are two great ironies about the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. One is teleworking, or working from a home office. That has a history so explosive that it requires another journal entry. The other irony, however, is home schooling. As someone who actually did it for three years, I know all about it. I also still hear those condescending remarks. “Oh, home schooling. Your kids will never develop social skills.”
Columbia, Missouri’s home schooling industry did not resemble the stereotypes that people cooked up about home schoolers. Yes – most were religiously motivated. But I say “most” because the home schoolers in Columbia were a very diverse lot. The second most frequent reason for home schooling were kids with special needs. We had an association and that included a couple of large events each year to exchange ideas and curriculum, field trips and mini-academies to help teach the difficult subjects.
We learned a lot about ourselves in those three years. Home schooling is expensive because one spouse has to devote a lot of time to it. Usually it is the mother and most mothers these days can work at well-paid jobs. They don’t if they are home schooling. Home schooling requires planning and that means if you are not a credentialed teacher you will certainly be most of the way there after a year!
After three years we decided to re-introduce our child back into the public schools. Before doing so we had to run some assessment tests to be sure our child was ready. Needless to say, our daughter was not only “ready”, she was just about ready to graduate at the age of 13! We discovered that we had done much better than we expected. And here is why – learning efficiency. Yes, as my friend noted, your kids are done with their assignments by noon. Home schooling kids, returning to public education, almost universally recognize that teachers spend a lot of time managing kids. At least a third of the day is devoted to crowd control. It is the simple dynamics of having a lot of kids in one place. In other words, if kids did nothing but learn, they would be done by noon.
The other efficiency factor is scope of knowledge. As an example, I bought for two dollars a discarded biology text book for sixth graders. It was a bit worn around the edges having survived a dozen years in the public school system, but I noticed that the pages in the last third of the book were untouched. We went through the entire book that year. So not only was she getting through the assignments by noon, but she was getting more knowledge in the process. She absorbed 33% more information than a typical public school student. Hmm –33% – about the time devoted to crowd control.
Yes, those “social skills” people keep talking about – what is that again?
So what many are discovering is that home schooling has peculiar challenges. I don’t envy the teachers who have to convert to distance learning. It’s horrible. I did not enjoy it as a university professor and I would find it tough to do that with a child. As a teacher said in one news report, she misses the favorite part of her work – the kids.
But parents should now be gaining some respect for home schoolers. It is no longer the teacher’s job to motivate them to learn. It is your job. And it takes your time. You have to help them plan their day and reach specific goals. Wow – imagine that. It is now your responsibility for their success!
I realize that the school year is over as I submit this article. But my guess is that parents who are home schooling will empathize with these observations. First, know the material. This gets to be challenging for high school kids on many subjects, but knowing what you do not know is just as important as knowing how to help on other subjects. Your ignorance on chemistry may be a good sign of when you need to reach out for help. Use your teacher’s time well. Scan the Internet for resources. YouTube is an excellent resource.
Second, look for everyday activities as tools of learning. I have noticed a lot of cooking activities in Facebook. Cooking is a great way to teach a lot of subjects, from reading to math to science. I could spend a month on yeast! Alaskans love to fish. Open up the fish and have a biology lesson. Go to the beach and inventory the marine life. Identify flowers and trees. We have a living geology with “young” mountains and glaciers.
Third, achieve the impossible and set specific goals and consequences. This is really tough (as I know well). But most of us do not home school and drop off our kids at the school. We hand over a difficult task to the teachers and staff at the school. But when the kids are home schooling, you have to roll up your sleeves and be engaged. A great resource is the teacher. Other parents are a huge help.
In essence, home schooling, if embraced, can be a fun on-going experience. Knowing what your child is having to learn is vital because it provides you with clues. If your child is learning fractions, introduce them to measuring cups while mixing up a cake (I think that is happening a lot because we have a flour shortage). If you are checking your car battery with a voltmeter, invite your child to work with you. Explain electricity. What is a volt? Why is 12 significant? Why change it to 110? Your garden and the world around you is exploding with opportunities for learning. Home repair has all sorts of examples in the use of measuring tools, the use of levels, the chemical properties of paints and thinners, the dangers of flammable material and chemicals. All of these items can integrate into the curriculum. Heck, you can come up with a half dozen lessons just from brushing your teeth!
We home schooled during the mid-90’s. Wow, seems like a different universe with two young girls and newborn son scampering about the house (the baby, of course, crawling). Both Missouri and Alaska have a progressive approach to home schooling, but many states in the lower 48 do not and it is certainly ironic, if not a bit humorous, that public school teachers are taking ahold of this incredible challenge. I hope them the best of success. And I hope parents can learn to appreciate the amazing investment we need to make in educating our children. Hang in there.
An Added Note Regarding “social skills”
While writing this I observed the agony parents and students underwent with the loss of a big event in their lives: graduation. As noted earlier, I had an earful of the criticism that home schoolers lack the development of social skills because people perceived our children lived in isolated cocoons. But every parent now should appreciate how being pent up with your children all day every day can drive you mad. As home schoolers, we invested considerably in activities outside the home. Yet there are trade offs. Home schoolers have difficulty competing in school sports, do not usually have dances and proms, receive little recognition for success, and many don’t have graduation ceremonies. And guess what happened in the past few months? High school seniors saw evaporating in smoke the senior prom and graduation. Athletes in winter and spring sports saw their seasons dissolve. It had to be heartbreaking and frustrating.
But young people can improvise. While golfing the other day, my partner commented he never saw so many high school kids playing golf. Well, what would you expect? The golf course is where you can easily practice social distancing and have some sort of fun. Those young adults were out playing golf because their baseball, basketball, soccer or softball activities were suspended.
When you think about it, there is probably no graduating class that has experienced as much bewildering uncertainty since the class of 1942. My dad served during World War II and I lost count of how often he has referred to his high school classmates. They faced the sudden reality that all their hopes and dreams would have to be placed on hold. WW II not only saw many lose their lives and health, but consider how many high school romances were never rekindled, families forever broken, careers changed. Today has not been all that different for many teenagers. Not only are their graduation ceremonies virtualized, but their college education may either not happen or will only be a shadow of what a real college experience should be. If you are in a place like Juneau, Alaska, forget about seeing extended family. Who has enough leave time to suffer through two week quarantines – both ways. And why take the risk of having elderly kin being exposed? And consider that of the more than 100,000 who have perished in the U.S., how many young adults have seen family and friends die. Alas, COVID-19 may not be as traumatic as WW II (see Unknowable to qualify that), it is nonetheless a considerable challenge for our young adults.
The social activities that young people experience are vital. As a parent – I would say “scary” at times. But it is a part of life. Fortunately, it is a myth that home schoolers lack “social skills.” But just about everyone can now appreciate our traditions and ceremonies are what make life special and fun. We will not take those for granted and I hope that young people will look back at this year and see fond memories of very unique experiences with family and friends. After not having a graduation, I can guarantee the class reunions will be a lot more interesting.
By Eric Niewoehner
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