So far, six states and multiple big city school districts have closed K-12 public schools for at least next week due to panic over the Wuhan virus, although it reportedly affects children far more mildly than adults. So far, the closures will affect approximately 5 million children, according to a tally by Education Week.
Some school districts, such as Los Angeles, will open school facilities as daycare centers during the closure, which is a bit confusing as the point of closing schools is supposed to be to reduce the congregation of people. But most districts are throwing kids back to their families, which will likely trigger further strain on businesses as working parents scramble to pick up the slack while being warned not to get close to older people such as grandparents, who are at the highest risk of harm if they contract Wuhan flu.
Most of the affected school districts plan to institute some form of “e-learning,” but not all, and in some districts such as Washington DC, so-called online learning won’t kick in until a week or two after the mass homing of children. Online learning provides sketchy academic results at best with the average kid, and under the circumstances, teachers throwing together random resources and attempting to keep kids on track during a month of effective spring break doesn’t exactly set kids up for success here.
“If kids learn anything during these breaks, it will be surprising,” Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas told USA Today about the school closures. He’s probably right, especially given that kids lose a lot of learning over the usual summer break. Disruptions to class really do set kids back, and it’s probably going to be even worse under the hysterical present circumstances.
So, what do the parents of these 5 million kids need to know about trying to make the best out of a bad situation? I’ve taught in a variety of education settings for nearly 20 years, and designed the curriculum for a private classical school. Staff from about two dozen schools have visited in the past three years to learn from our classrooms. Here are some basic things to know about educating your own kids so you can go from zero to cruising this weekend.
1. The Most Important Factor Is Motivation
When I say “motivation,” I mean both the student’s motivation and, in a closely related factor, the student’s parents’ motivation. You can lead a child to learning, but you can’t make him learn. A resistant, foolish, lazy, weak, or distracted child in the best classroom in the world will not learn anything.
Teachers can help motivate a child through various methods of persuasion, but in the end the choice to learn is up to the individual. This may sound obvious, but our entire education system is premised on the opposite. Most schools assume that children are like buckets you can just dump information into, and they completely sideline the soul at the heart of all persons by pretending a secular education is even possible. They ignore the fact that a person’s character is deeply tied to his ability to learn, and that an education can never happen if it doesn’t deal directly with a child’s soul.
Don’t make that mistake, because it will handicap you as a tutor right out the gate. You need to realize that teaching your child, or any child, is ultimately about shepherding the child’s soul. A true education equals moral formation. If your child is not generally obedient, does not have a good work ethic, or generally does not display a good disposition, the best use of your time during this break will be character training.
This is also at the heart of good parenting. But if your parenting skills are a bit worn down, or closer contact with your kids reveals that they have some bad habits that impede good family functioning and their ability to learn and love, this break is an excellent time to address that as your top priority.
Resources I recommend on this are “Laying Down the Rails,” by Sonya Shafer, “Tending the Heart of Virtue,” by Vigen Guroian, “Parenting with Love and Logic,” by Foster Cline, and “Mere Motherhood,” by Cindy Rollins.
2. The Second Most Important Factor Is Content
If your child is willing to learn, the top two factors that drive learning that a school or teacher can control are the quality of the curriculum and teacher quality. You can’t really control the quality of your teaching (since you’ve had no prep and little time to get it now), but you can control the quality of what you do together with your child.
I’ll give a few more ideas about this in some of the other points below, but if I were thrown into this situation the most beautiful and effective pinch-hit to gain you a home run in these two or three weeks is with a concept often called Morning Time. Some teachers will call it Circle Time, and some homeschoolers call it the Morning Basket.
Morning Time is where you collect the most soul-touching bits and pieces at the heart of a real education and place them all together in an hour or two each morning to start the day. Most families will read aloud at least one classic book during this time, sometimes while the listeners work a handicraft. Many also memorize scripture, hymns, folk songs, historical gems (such as the Gettysburg Address and Bill of Rights), and math facts. Other Morning Time ideas include studying great works of art and music, working through a grammar or math problem (and then following up with homework related to the demonstrated concept), and nature journaling.
This approach is not just an excellent fit for an opening to a day of instruction, but it’s also flexible enough to fit extremely well into the ad-hoc school break public school kids are now taking. This is the best roundup of podcasts I’ve ever seen to give you an introduction, and the site it’s hosted on has lots of other great content, including ready-made lesson plans, both blank and pre-planned for you if you’ve extremely nervous, so click around. This is the best book I’ve seen on the topic and recommend over any others, plus it’s very short and just $9, so the perfect quick-start.
To get more or other ideas for Morning Time content, such as titles of poems, folk songs, and classic works to read, the above resources have plenty but another good resource is the Core Knowledge Series’ “What Your ___ Grader Needs to Know.” I prefer the pre-Common Core versions, which can be had for a few bucks online and are in just about every library.
To keep up your kids’ math skills, Kumon offers effective and relatively cheap self-instructing workbooks that target weak areas and are better than the Common Core math your kids are getting in everyday instruction. You can pick them by topic, grade, or both to target your kid’s needs. Toss that into your daily Morning Time schedule or schooling checklist and budget about 15 minutes per day for it.
3. The Third Most Important Factor Is Organization
Among other things, parents are the CEOs of their homes. If you are haphazard and disorganized, it’s pretty likely your kids will be too. Situations reflect leadership, and you are the leader.
So if you want your child to make the most of this unexpected break, it’s up to you to proactively make that happen. You will need some basic self-management skills, and if you don’t have them, fake it ’til you make it. Write out a list of what might be useful ways to spend your child’s break time, talk them over with your spouse and prioritize them, then gather the resources you need for your first several priorities, and dive in.
This “brainstorm, cull, then execute” plan of action is a good fit for helping you get into Morning Time, if that’s what you choose to do. If your children’s school is sending them online lessons, you can do them right after Morning Time organizes your thoughts and begins the day on a bright footing.
4. You Can’t Go Wrong Reading Good Books
An excellent way to keep your children’s brains going is simply to assign them classic children’s literature, which they probably aren’t getting much of in their public school anyway, as the emphasis now is on modern and often preachy reading, and schools and textbooks often excerpt rather than reading books whole.
Classic literature is better, as it has more complex ideas and language and good fiction has been shown to develop character and interpersonal skills. Plus reading classic works will make your children conversant with their cultural heritage and the rest of the educated world.
My newly revised list of classic books for kids 3-7 includes four pages of classic book recommendations that are good as family readalouds for all ages or read-alones for kids ages 8-12. If you want to look at a much longer list of books, this one by John Senior is an excellent place to start (although a good number are out of print). It’s divided by age from preschool through adult.
I don’t recommend the “Great Books Foundation” advertised at the bottom of that page, though — plenty of their stuff is good but enough of it is not that I can’t recommend them wholly. Stick to the Senior list and you’ll have enough to read with your kids for the rest of your lives.
For advanced middle and high school-age students, the book lists and introductions in “The Well-Educated Mind” are superb as well.
5. Try A School Detox
If you do have a resistant child, one who is not doing well in school, or one who is burned out by academics, this unplanned spring break would be an excellent time to do a school reset. Forget Morning Time, or pare it down to some quality family read-aloud time, do the minimum required by your child’s school online, and just spend quality time together. Pass down or discover together some hobbies, such as crocheting, needlework, woodworking, sculpting, hiking, cooking, or sewing.
In her book “Rethinking School,” Susan Wise Bauer discusses the usefulness of this kind of school reset for kids who are not fitting well into the dominant education model. She also gives good suggestions about how to skillfully accomplish it. It can help kids let go of their fears and their misconceptions about how stupid or incapable they are, and help re-establish a relationship with their parents that is really key for parents to draw on when needed to get the child “over the hump” of some life difficulty.
Just about all of us could use at least a little bit of that.
6. A Library Card Can Be Better Than a School
People who switch from public school to homeschooling or to a well-managed private school learn almost immediately that public school typically wastes half of a child’s time there. Managing unruly students, passing out papers, make-work, iPad problems, testing, and other administrative mass management practices waste a lot of time. Kids notice, and it dulls their personalities and brains.
So if you are just freaked out that you are going to fail at this, take a big breath. Millions of normal parents just like you teach their own kids every day, and those kids have better academic, social, and psychological outcomes than their public-schooled peers. That’s because the average public school bar is so low that any decent person focused on one or a few kids can beat it.
I do think, based on research and experience, that an excellent school generally offers a superior education than the average homeschool experience can. That’s why I helped start one. But my husband and my risk calculation included what we call the “feral child” option. We judged that if the school didn’t take off, our kids would be better left to run around outside and fed piles of library books. In other words, if we couldn’t get the best option, our worst fallback was still better than being in a conventional school.
So take heart. Your worst-case scenario might not really turn out to be that your kids stay home for two or three weeks and do nothing but read a bunch of library books. It might be that after two or three weeks you have to send them back to schools that on average do a worse job than an untrained parent can.