I’ve been thinking about blogging again for a few months now. I find myself writing incredibly long threads on Twitter, which no one will ever read because they’re too long. And, anyway, Twitter isn’t a blog. It’s supposed to be quick, off the cuff thinking. So, I’m brushing off my long-neglected blog.
The coronavirus pandemic was a surprised to all of us in many different ways– how our country has been unable to control it due to mismanagement, how a few weeks at home has turned into five months and counting, and how we are hopeful about a vaccine in 2021. My family has changed from one that went out separate ways in the morning, and regroup after bringing our kids to various activities in the evening. Each morning, I’d put L1 on the bus to his school and then drive to campus for my day at the office. My husband A would drop L2 off at daycare and then drive to his office on campus. Then, depending on the night, we’d bring L1 to karate or Scouts or L2 to ballet class (or on special nights, we’d divide and conquer when both kids had to be at different places). Homework, dinner, showers, bedtime. Start again in the morning.
Instead, the four of us have been together at home since March 14. March 13 was L1 and L2s last full day of school. A and I became remote workers on March 16. And here we are, on August 22, still at home and preparing for the school year. We all struggle with treating this as normal or as a continuing emergency. I worry about the social implications my children will have when they do return to the classroom among their peers. I hear quite often about how much they miss school and their friends. A and I are right there with them.
We decided a few months ago that I was going to homeschool L1 this fall. L2 would be in the preschool room at daycare, so she will be getting some “school” as well (because, let’s face it, she needs to do everything her brother does). But her “school” will be play based and fun with an overarching theme. She’s asked us to teach her how to read, which is amazing. Our parenting philosophy is that things come to kids in their own time, and that we don’t need to force something to happen. L1 struggled with reading, so we did not force it at home. We want our kids to love learning, not build anxiety and perfectionism around the process.
And that is what we are carrying into our homeschool adventures. Second grade was a transformative year for L1. In October, we had him tested for ADHD after our parent-teacher conference. She said the same things that we had heard in kindergarten and first grade about L1: He was a bright kid, but it was next to impossible to keep him on task and focus his attention. Each year, we asked if that was age appropriate: in kindergarten and first grade it was, but in second grade? His teacher said that by third grade, students would have to self-regulate and engage their executive functions. As someone whose ADHD was not diagnosed until she was an adult (just two years ago!), I understand the frustration between knowing you have to do something and not being able to do it. I used to describe it as paralysis: I literally could not get myself to do the thing until a deadline was breathing down my neck. I didn’t want that for my son. It was no surprise that he was ADHD. After talking to our doctor, he mentioned that therapy usually helps older kids and that the medicine would have a more immediate impact on L1.
Both A and I hemmed and hawed. We’re 90s kids. We were socialized to be derisive towards ADHD diagnoses. After all, wasn’t everyone a little ADHD? (the answer is NO). A mom friend put it to me this way: If my son was diabetic, would I withhold insulin from him? Of course not. So, why wouldn’t I give him something to help him be himself, but fill those gaps that occur in the ADHD brain? We started him on a low dose of methylphenidate, the lowest possible for his weight, and overnight, we (and his teacher) saw a difference. Between October and March, our son moved up six reading levels. He went from reading below grade level to reading at level (and almost above)! His self-confidence has soared. Prior to his diagnosis, we’d ask him why he couldn’t focus, and he’d say “I don’t know.” Same thing with his temper tantrums. A and I felt like crying when he’d say “I don’t want to be this way, I don’t know why I do this.” That is not what you want to hear out of your seven year old’s mouth. We don’t hear that anymore and it’s wonderful.
Back to homeschooling: In March, all teachers were put in an awkward position to do a quick switcharoo to online instruction. As a professor, I had to do it too. I understand how we cannot compare spring’s instruction to anything that would happen in the classroom. L1’s teacher would zoom with the class twice a week. I remember the first time I sat in on this meeting: my 40 year old brain was spinning. Kids were unmuting themselves to ask to go to the bathroom, to ask random questions… 90 seconds did not pass without some sort of interruption. Worse was when the teacher had to keep reminding the students to stop drawing on the zoom screen while she was trying to teach them something. As I told A, I was pretty sure that my son’s teacher either had a bottle of wine after each zoom session or took a nap. It was exhausting all around.
When we first started considering our options for school this year, our district made it clear that we could either do in-person/hybrid, distance learning, or homeschool. In-person is off the table for us for multiple reasons. We recognize that we’re incredibly privileged not to have to fall back on school to go to work and that not everyone is in that position. We’re not here to judge other people’s decision-making. I’m explaining ours. We considered virtual but there were a few things that never sat very well with us. In the spring, L1 did a lot of work that seemed like it was a time filler, especially the computer programs they used in school. Many days, he was doing schoolwork from 10AM until 3:30PM! And that’s for second grade! Many parents at our school and district were proactive, saying that ways too much for 7 and 8 year olds, and our principal agreed. I didn’t want to struggle through that again. What also worried me was that in the virtual school options, they kept stressing that students need to be self-motivated. For an ADHD student who already has executive dysfunction, that seemed like I was setting my child up for problems, let alone failure.
After finding out at that another academic mama was going to home school her three boys (and she so very graciously shared so much information and reassurance with me!), I started looking into it more. My immediate reaction was “I can’t do that!” but I read more and more. I looked at various homeschool curriculum and more creative options of homeschooling and realized I landed somewhere in the middle of structure and freeflow. I also spent too much time looking at our state learning goals, which fall in line with Common Core (how is this still a thing?!?). I got overwhelmed and almost gave up and then realized that I could cover these things if I considered them topically rather than point by point as the WV learning goals presented them. I decided to have more structure when it comes to math and reading and allow L1 to have more input on his science and social studies assignments/topics. And, in true professor form, I considered learning objectives and settled on an overarching one of “Grow in our love for learning.” That’s it.
I also won’t lie that homeschooling will make it a bit easier on my family as well. Yes, I have to put in the work of prepping for a week’s worth of lessons. But I also won’t have to manage zoom meetings and trying to get my son to finish work that we both see as busy work (and basically lying through my teeth that he has to do it…did I mention how much I hate busy work?). Back in March, the Illinois dept of education put out this handy chart of what we should expect from our kids:
A third grader like L1 has 10-15 minutes of sustained attention! That’s no surprise. As a professor, I know how hard it is to keep a class’s attention for a 75 minute period. I have to switch things up a few times to get them to refocus rather than imitate Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. How can I expect him to sit through two 1 hour long zoom meetings a day when 40 year old me starts getting antsy about 30 minutes into any meeting? Right now, until I know better, I’m setting aside 2.5 hours a day for our homeschooling. That allows me to focus on him for that time, build short breaks into that time (sometimes we go outside and shoot hoops for five minutes or he does jumping jacks/stair steps or he runs around the house five times), and then in the afternoon while his sister is napping and he’s doing his independent 30 minute reading and then his video game time, I can get some of my own *real* work done.
This is my plan. I can’t stress enough that I don’t know how things will work out, but homeschooling provides us flexibility that we wouldn’t get through other schooling options. I don’t need to worry about L1 burning out over zoom. I don’t need to nag him because his lack of executive function makes him unable to stay on top of things. And, once he’s done, he has the rest of the day to do his own thing. I also like that, if an approach to a subject or topic doesn’t work, I can figure out another way to do it.
We are still in the middle of a pandemic with no end in sight. There will be knowledge gaps when we return to school in Fall 2021. Our children will also be traumatized in a way that we have never experienced. As a family, we’ve decided not to dwell on how “far behind” our kids might be in their schooling, but instead, keep their brains active and tend to their mental health as well with empathy, flexibility, and understanding. I’m glad you’re here on this journey with me!