So we’re teachers now?

That escalated WAY too quickly. 

Friday afternoon I was staggering into my son’s elementary school weighed down by trays of cookies in honor of his 9th birthday. A few hours later I found myself staring blankly at my husband with the realization that just like that – everything had changed. My home State of NY had closed schools “indefinitely” in hopes of reducing the spread of COVID-19. 

In the days, hours and minutes to follow an actual frenzy of communication was taking place amongst my friends and neighbors and especially the other parents in my district. We wondered what to do about work, where to get learning resources for our kids and if it was actually possible to train my friend Jill’s new puppy, a Yorkie-Poo named “Griflet” to wear a little backpack and deliver things like chocolate should we become further confined to our homes. Suddenly real life looked more like a bad TV show and I just wanted to change the channel. 

I’m not a teacher! How am I supposed to teach my kids?

We found ourselves collectively expressing our worries about health and finances, fear that our kids may end up backsliding or regressing while out of the classroom (not to mention where our next roll of toilet paper is coming from!) If you are like me, and most of the families we know the idea of waking up with this new level of responsibility feels like way too much.  I wanted to cry- but  I didn’t. Another friend of mine felt angry and I understood because let’s face it – parenting is hard enough under the best circumstances and none of us asked for this! We’re all doing double duty now.  We’re working and we’re teaching at the same time.  Now coming rapid-fire are web links, charts, apps, and videos, notifications flying in from all directions to “help” us to educate our kids during this unprecedented time. If you feel confused by all of this, if you feel like you are under attack,  if you pretty much hate it- I’m here to tell you that you are NOT alone. 

As adults, we’re feeling and fearing the impacts of school closures but it pretty quickly has become obvious to me that navigating the Coronavirus is hardest on our kids.  Everyday routines are shot, we’re all uptight and rightfully so, we’re distracted, serious and speaking in hushed voices about empty store shelves and future paychecks. Everything is canceled. They want to see their friends. They want recess, and the art show and swim club. 

Right now, the kids in your house don’t need standardized textbooks. They just need you.

Here in my house, I find my son seeking reassurance and much more of my time and attention. I see him looking for signs of normalcy, searching for humor quality time and snacks. (So many snacks!) 

I also started to see very clearly that I was NOT going to be able to do this. 

I just can’t do a full-time job from my home and provide a full day’s worth of classroom instruction at the same time. I can’t even get through setting up the accounts for all of the apps, and sites I’ve been pointed to nevermind sift through the books and links that have been presented to me to support his learning. 

Common core math looks like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to me and now my son needs my time and my patience more than ever. 

I can’t even find bread! I went to four local stores and couldn’t find it. Not anywhere. I sat in my car in the ghost town that used to be a thriving business district and I cried. 

Something needed to give. 

Then I remembered the words of my supervisor, Judy Koke, Deputy Director of the Institute for Learning Innovation. 

“Stacey! It’s okay to take a break!”

I also remembered that every summer break our children spend 2 whole months outside of school and somehow still manage to be okay. I headed home, washed my hands AGAIN and had my husband set up a game of Scrabble Junior. We sat down and we found ourselves starting to feel much more relaxed as we played. 

While we were at it, my son learned the word “Asymmetrical” so we discussed symmetry and shapes and as he built his own words, I realized he was not only having fun but practicing his spelling! The next day we played darts in the basement and he built on his math proficiency by keeping score for our family. 

In an effort to replace gym class, we rode our bikes and worked up an appetite while we discussed the power of simple machines and for dinner, we did an activity called “Pizza Geography”.  An activity shared with me by our Executive Director Dr. John H. Falk. (Thanks John!) He, along with Jamie Harms and Laurie Greenberg, had created this and dozens of other great family activities several years ago as part of the Smithsonian Family Learning Project. 

It’s as simple as shaping the pizza dough/crust into the shape of the city, state or country you want to talk about. You can get as detailed as you’d like using your own ingredients (cheeses, veggies, pepperoni) to add topography, landmarks or whatever else you’d like to include. 

In our case, our pizza was shaped like a boot as we talked about and eventually ate Louisiana. We added a research element and checked out cool facts about Louisiana after we had finished eating. It was fun, it was tasty, we all learned a few things and most of all, for a time, we felt normal! 

During our lifetime, ONLY 5% of our total learning takes place in a classroom.

The other 95% of lifetime learning occurs “informally” by way of what we at The Institute for Learning Innovation (ILI) like to call “Free-Choice Learning.” 

It’s the type of learning that takes place every day, in every country in the world. It isn’t new either. Cavemen did it when they needed to find new ways to meet their ever-changing needs. My colleagues at ILI have spent over 30 years studying free-choice learning, we talk about it every day – so why was I so afraid my son wouldn’t learn at home? I guess I was…and maybe still am a little intimated by the responsibility? But I shouldn’t be and neither should you. 

In families, this type of learning happens naturally all the time when we take our kids to zoos, science centers or museums but it also happens every single day at home as part of everyday life- in kitchens, backyards and often online!

It allows us to teach our children by spending time with them as we have always done and just as importantly- it’s effective! It can be achieved through conversation, demonstration, designated activities, physical activity and even play. If you think about it, you’ve been teaching your kids for years. How to eat, talk, ride a bike, tie shoelaces, use electronics, operate household equipment and all about the great outdoors – you were a teacher LONG before the Coronavirus forced our schools to close their doors. In fact, I’d argue (and research supports) that you are even the best teacher your child will ever have.

 This isn’t going to last forever, we can do this.

We’ll be back to work, the kids in our lives WILL go back to school and until then Free-Choice Learning has the power to keep our kids thinking, exploring, discovering and growing all while we spend time together in a time where being a family seems more important than ever. Paired with a few videos, apps and online programs that can be used when we need a break ourselves, we may all just make it through this in pretty good shape!

In the coming weeks as I succeed (and absolutely fail) at trying to navigate COVID-19 life in my own home, I hope you’ll connect with me while I dip into the wealth of knowledge available to me through my colleagues at The Institute for Learning Innovation and share ideas and evidence-based activities that may make this just a little easier on all of us as we do our best for the children we love the most. In the meantime, if anyone has any idea how to turn Griflet into a delivery dog please reach out.

Stacey Sheehan, Communications Manager/MOM

Posted Mar 23, 2020