What does “Back to School” really mean in the era of Distance Learning?
by Samir Bolar
School is BACK. This week, at the age of 42, I started the 1st grade for the second time in my life. It appears several other parents in my son’s class have too. Distance Learning 2.0 here we come.
Whether it’s the difference between weekdays or the weekend, school vs summer break, study room vs play room, parent as parent vs parent as teacher, or device for games vs device for learning – the last six months have been about setting invisible boundaries for our children as we continue to combat an invisible virus. While it may have given parents comfort to set these boundaries to start, our children can’t pretend to see these boundaries anymore. I wonder if they ever could. The lines are completely blurred between home life and school life, structure and chaos. No amount of voice inflection is going to convince your child that a new day has dawned and a new school year has begun. From their perspective, their life is exactly the same as it was yesterday. Mom and Dad – you’re the ones who are going back to school. So what are you going to do about it? Schools have spent time updating their own approach to distance learning from last year. Parents must do the same. What does Distance Learning 2.0 mean to you?
There are two approaches you can take – 1) focus on learning or 2) focus on school. Let’s first talk about the latter. If the first week is any indication, from the school’s perspective, Distance Learning 2.0 means your child is about to receive a lot more live zoom instruction and online assignments. It’s hard to watch. You’ll be tempted to help – perhaps more than you should. In my son’s first grade class, parents are already posting perfect responses to teacher discussion prompts on Schoology (on behalf of their child). Many parents have decided DL 2.0 means playing the game of “school.” You might be thinking – “how can I let my child miss assignments or turn in poor work (or leave a Schoology prompt unanswered)? I NEED to help them!” You’re right, you do. But if you get into the weeds of your child’s school work and live instruction calls, you’ll soon realize you’re the student, not your child. There’s a better way that’s healthier for everyone. Focus on upholding the learning vs. upholding artifice of school.
What does this look like? Here’s a few tips that will genuinely help your children learn during this new school year.
Step 1: Step away from the kids during live instruction
The first step is the hardest. Make sure your child logs into their live class, but shortly after, back away, leave the room, and perhaps even close the door. No more off-camera “stage parenting.” Your child and their teacher need to figure out this whole online instruction thing together. If your child gets stuck, accidentally logs off, goes off mute to interrupt class, or cannot navigate the apps, they can ask for help. Your child will learn from the struggle. More importantly, the teacher will realize they need tighter systems to manage their class. By week 4, if students stop showing up to the live zoom calls, the teacher will need to reflect on why this is happening, reach out to parents, and make adjustments. Some sessions will bomb, some will succeed. It’s possible your child might retain only 30% of what is said by their teacher. You have to accept this. There’s no way you can keep up with all of your child’s online activities. If you can’t accept this, then you should just quit your job and homeschool your child. Otherwise, it will drive you mad. Whatever happens during virtual instruction time would likely have happened if school were in person – you just don’t see it. In a recent parent poll, 76% of parents said they were most worried about their children falling behind in school. Don’t let that fear drive you to poor learning choices. Few parents actually know what their kids look and act like during an entire school day. Kids struggle and tune out all the time at school and still manage to learn. “Over-helping” with online work will create new dependencies and helplessness once school returns in person. Their learning abilities will fall behind even if it appears they are not “falling behind in school.”
Step 2) Get clear on the monthly or weekly learning goals and fold them into home life
Instead of obsessing over your child completing every assignment and responding to every schoology post, get clear on the learning target for the week or month. Write it on the wall, talk about it with your kids. If the teacher has not communicated these targets, request it. This is a non-negotiable. All these zoom calls and assignments have to be working toward some type of learning target, otherwise it’s just busy work. Once you’re clear on the learning goal, you can more organically support your child with mastering this goal offline as part of everyday home life. You might even take 15-30min off from work to directly help your child with a specific learning goal and 1-2 class assignments that week. Let’s say the goal is learning a list of sight words and using them to write simple sentences. Print and display the sight words around the house. Have silent hours where you only communicate with sight words on post it notes. Create flash cards and do a quick drill together. Do a funny mad lib using sight words. Adding and subtracting within 5 and 10? Make meals in five and 10 pieces and model counting everything served and eaten. (e.g. grapes, crackers, macaroni). These strategies take little time, but they’ll help your child master the learning goal faster than any passive zoom call. Think HIIT for learning – short bursts, more intensity, immediate 1:1 feedback focused on the learning goal.
Step 3) Pick 1-2 learning apps than can reinforce learning targets via independent practice
Schools have dozens of apps available for use, but teachers rarely mention them or only pick select days of the week to assign them. Why wait? You already have login access to all these apps. Choose a couple, fire them up and let your child explore and work on skills at their own pace. If you’re clear on the learning target, your child could spend time on apps that focus on these targets. My son has a school portal with over a dozen apps already. Yesterday, during reading class, he sat on a zoom call while his teacher played a YouTube of another teacher reading a book. He couldn’t see the pictures or the words in the video. All he saw was a man talking and holding a book. The video stopped and started multiple times, making it hard to follow. When questions were asked at the end, students struggled to answer. With a clear learning goal in mind, my son could have opened Tumble Books (already provided by the district), seen text, heard the connection between the words and pictures, and (if offered by the teacher) made meaning with a peer on a live call.
Step 4) Note when your child’s learning is being formally assessed, and use the results to inform your support plan
Assessment data can be a gift. Prioritize the time and space your child needs to demonstrate what they know and don’t know. Your child will need an in-person proctor for any major exam they take to stay focused and on task. You can play that role. The results you receive from any exam will give you critical insight into your child’s learning level and needs. The data will potentially liberate you from the stress of seeing your child miss some assignments, particularly if said assignments cover skills they’ve already mastered. It will also help you focus your time on skills that matter most to your child.
Step 5) Prioritize opportunities for your child to get to know other children
After a week of Distance Learning 2.0, my children still have not spoken to other children in their class. On the Teams screen, every child is listed as student A, B, and C instead of showing real names. Most classes focus on watching, listening, clicking, and waiting. Super dry. We could easily do this on our own time. PE was the first time the kids had a chance to laugh, exercise, and watch other kids act silly. As you get a feel for what your school’s distance program offers, prioritize times dedicated to social interaction and relationship building. You can’t replicate this at home.
Schools are doing their best to create a sense of normalcy during this period of virtual learning. Most will continue sending lots of assignments and zoom lessons regardless of your child’s unique needs. Given that you and your child are still at home, you need to decide what is best for your family and how you will integrate school life into home life to foster authentic learning. There is no boundary between the two. It’s not your role to make the school feel good about their distance learning approach and puppeteer your child’s engagement behind the scenes. If something isn’t working for your child, communicate this to your teacher. Opt out of the parts that conflict with your family’s needs, opt in to the parts that drive deeper learning and connection. Teachers recognize how incredibly hard this is for students and parents. While they can’t explicitly say it, no school is going to penalize students for not fully engaging in every online class or activity. At the same time, make sure you follow the minimum attendance protocols so your school retains its enrollment-based funding. Our goal is the same – we just want our children to learn and build healthy relationships. Focus on the learning vs the schooling, and the rest will follow.