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Our Family's 2020 School at Home Experience

We are some of the lucky ones, I guess. We chose to do school at home. I know there are many families who don't have a choice - they're forced into school at home or face-to-face, with few options in between.

But we feel very fortunate that our careers allow us some flexibility. My husband and I are both able to work from home - sort of. As a farmer, he makes his own schedule, and our kids can spend time with him during the day (but he puts in way more than 40 hours a week.)

Pre-pandemic, I commuted to an office everyday, but since March, I've managed my career in agricultural communications from the farm office above the garage.

Our three children, The Oldest (boy-12), The Middlest (boy-9), and The Littlest (girl-3) have been home since March as well. When school and daycare closed, we turned to our child-rearing "village" for help with childcare while we work. Grandmas, grandpas, aunties and uncles have all played an integral role is keeping our kids alive and well the past 6+ months. (Our kids are spoiled with love and attention...until January, they were the only grandchildren on both sides of the family.)

Even in "normal" times, our family village is in close contact. The farm is a family business and we all live near each other. However, a couple of our family members are high risk for complications from Covid, so we have taken a very cautious approach to social distancing.

The choices were basically:

1. Go to school, work and daycare, but avoid family.
2. See family, but avoid school, work and daycare.

We chose the latter.

Virtual School

Our local school district gave families a "virtual option" which is what we chose to do. Our boys are still enrolled in 6th and 4th grades, and they are still working with their teachers and classmates. Many schools in our area required that parents commit to distance learning for a certain time period (a quarter or semester) but our small district gave us complete flexibility. They let us know that we can switch to face-to-face at any time.

In addition to family flexibility, the district also allowed the teachers quite a bit of flexibility. For this reason, ours boys' days look very different from each other.

Synchronous Learning:

The 6th grader (The Oldest) takes part in "synchronous learning" most of the day. This means that he joins his classmates via video conference (Google meet) and watches his teachers and classes throughout the day. This seems to be working very well for him and the teachers. The Oldest is very bright and a classic "good student." He pays attention and does his work. The only challenge is his sarcastic, know-it-all attitude. :)

In between instruction, The Oldest does his assignments and turns them in via Google Classroom, or by taking a picture and emailing it to his teacher. His school day starts at 8:25 and finishes around 2:45, with plenty of time in between for him to relax. He also does a band lesson via Google Classroom once a week.

Asynchronous Learning:

While synchronous learning has worked well for The Oldest, I'm fairly certain it would be a disaster for the 4th grader (The Middlest.)

The Middlest is very bright, like his brother, but he is not the classic "good student." He has trouble concentrating and gets easily overwhelmed. He absolutely detests following other people's schedules and likes to have a lot of freedom and flexibility in his day. There are definitely times of day that work better for him to sustain his concentration, and times of day that just aren't as productive. He takes after his momma this way. :)

Luckily, he gets to do more "asynchronous learning." He has two Google Meets each week (after school) with his teacher and the other virtual learners. Once a week, he joins the whole class via Google Meet for a math game.

For the rest of his work, his teacher prepares a weekly schedule of assignments and youtube videos to watch. We transfer the assignments to his planner and work on them in the afternoons and evenings. He prefers to have a grown up near him while he works, so my husband, the grandmas and I have all taken turns at one time or another, but I am the main person who keeps him on track.

How it's going:

We face some of the same challenges other families are facing right now, and to be honest, there are tears, fights, and days when I think, "We cannot do this again tomorrow."

But there are also days when I'm absolutely positive we made the right decision. I'm spending more time with The Oldest than I have in years, even if most of that time is spent with both of us on different video conferences in the same room. And The Middlest is slowly but surely gaining independence and improving his attitude as time goes on.

One of the biggest challenges has been how to allow our kids to play with their friends. We have limited outdoor playdates, and we have allowed some technology, like Messenger Kids that keeps them in touch with their friends. We have also filled in the gaps with family.

Overall, I believe that we made the right decision for our family and our children will not suffer in any way. Our boys are old enough to understand the choices we have made, and thankfully, have kept a positive attitude.

Pros and Cons of Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

After 8 full weeks of distance learning, here's my evaluation:

Pros of Synchronous Learning:

  • It's a lot less work for the grown-up at home. As long as The Oldest shows up for his class and does his work, there's very little we have to do. I refer to myself as the "studyhall advisor."
  • Teachers can get more immediate feedback from the students and find out how they're doing. My son's teachers do a good job of involving the "virtual" kids in their classroom discussions, having them hold up a white-board with answers on it to quickly check their learning, and the students get to go over assignments in real time with their teachers. This helps the teachers adjust their instruction if needed.
  • It is more structured for students who like or need that format.

Cons of Synchronous Learning:

  • Some students might have more trouble paying attention.
  • For kids who aren't used to adhering to a strict schedule at home, it can be a big adjustment.
  • There are new distractions like other kids' pets or family members in the background.
  • Unless your children/students are very independent, it probably does not work for families whose grown-ups work outside the home during school hours.

Pros of Asynchronous Learning:

  • It allows flexibility for the child's and family's schedule. All school work could be done in the evenings or even on the weekends.

Cons of Asynchronous Learning:

  • It's a lot MORE work for the grown-up at home for younger students or students who are not very self-directed or self-motivated.
  • Teachers don't get to assess and evaluate as they go. Since they can't see the students' reactions to their lessons and assignments, they may not realize if a student is struggling (or how severe that struggle is.)
  • It is really easy to fall behind. Ask me how I know. :)

Tips and Tools for Success

I shared some of these on Instagram and Facebook recently, but I think it's worth sharing them again:
  1. Invest in some gear. A wireless mouse, wireless keyboard and comfortable headphones are vital, especially for synchronous, online instruction.
  2. Communicate, communicate, communicate with your childrens' teachers if things are not going well. Ask them about reasonable time expectations, how much support your children should require on their assignments, and anything else that you're struggling with. Be sure to let them know what's going well, too!
  3. If you have a reluctant student and the flexibility to do so, start with the easiest assignments each day. You want to get some motivation and momentum going, and this can really help.
  4. Teach your kids to use a planner. We started this about three weeks ago for The Middlest and it has made a huge difference.

Have questions? Want to talk through a challenge?

As a parent and former teacher, I have experience in both worlds. I'm happy to help you out! Whether you want to talk through organization strategies, appropriate expectations for your kids, or how to word an email to a teacher, send me a message and I'll do my best to help you out!

In the meantime, be sure to check out the School at Home Podcast to find out how other parents are handling virtual, hybrid, or distance learning.

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