A Guide for the Shutdown & Beyond.
Given that we are now all in this homeschooling thing together, I hope I can provide some support. Several friends have asked for advice in the past two weeks (some in a panic) how to make homeschooling work which has been thrust upon them. I am happy to share some ideas (with the caveat that they are totally biased toward my experience, my love of minimalism and my idyllic vision of learning). I have been at this for 3 years but in the education game for over 15. And I’m still figuring it out. Every day I am learning about how minds develop, how learning actually happens in the wild and how to reach the kids. I am building and demolishing curriculum, tweaking, tinkering, scrapping and trying new things. It is incredible and humbling. I realize that many things I’ve put in here are things you have already thought of and are already doing. If you find something here that may be useful. Try it. Remember, you are getting an opportunity to connect with your kids that you long for and dream of when the hustle and bustle of regular life doesn’t allow for even a moment’s pause. So enjoy it. You got this!
Let’s talk for a minute about what we want our kids to learn. What do we want our kids to be? Besides not falling behind, what do we really care about? What is this all about? This is a good exercise. The answers might be different depending on who you ask in the family, but think about it for a few minutes. Your conclusions might be something like: I want for my kids to be confident, capable, creative, conscientious, and curious; able to ask questions and seek many solutions; to be wild, wacky, out of the box thinkers; to know themselves and find their passions. Well, those are mine anyway. So apart from regular school subjects, which we’ll cover, what can I be doing to help foster this kind of development? They need to be able to ask questions, think flexibly, be free to create and make mistakes, be exposed to and explore a myriad of new and unique things/ideas. Write with their toes, invent new cake recipes, make messes, tinker with junk and recycling. So how do we get them to do this? I’m still working on it, but I have ideas. But we have to adhere to some real school stuff too because presumably the kids are headed back to the classroom someday and need the building blocks of education to help them.
If you have a kid who is happy to do worksheets, that’s great, but you want to make sure they get messy and creative too. You can find more on this later. If your kid cannot seem to complete anything unassisted, struggles to stay focused and/or wonders what the point of worksheets could possibly be, read on. (Frankly, I’m not sure what the point of them is either).
First, there are three main hard things about learning at home:
- The constant thought that maybe you’re not doing enough. It’s the dread of falling behind. For goodness sake, school takes up to 7 hours a day! How can that equate to the hour we are working on something while eating green m and ms and being pestered by the dog? You want the best for your kid, obviously, but the best is often less. Don’t fight with your kid about pages and pages of worksheets. Don’t overwhelm them. So here it is — You are doing enough. Your kid will not be impossibly behind.
- Learning is hard. Homework is a reinforcement of the day’s lesson (I.e. it’s already been taught). Anything you have been assigned to complete during this closure is new! And here’s the extra rub, cognitive development is not linear. Meaning, one day, your kid can seem to have mastered fraction addition and the next, the very same problem may feel completely unrecognizable. Frustrating? Yes. For everybody. Impossible? No. So be patient. Do not be surprised when this happens. New learning is tenuous at best and needs lots of reinforcement. Go over the basics again. Or drop it for the day and try again tomorrow. Hey, we’re all in this together so protect family unity.
- Managing being a parent (sometimes) and a teacher (sometimes) is hard. The relationship between learner and teacher is complex and all the more convoluted by the parent/child relationship. Imagine every time your kid writes down the answer to a math problem they are unsure about, they are saying “Here’s what I’ve got….please don’t think I’m stupid and stop loving me.” It’s intimidating, nerve wracking, and exposes the learner, they are completely vulnerable. More than anything, especially right now, your kid needs to feel loved, safe and listened to. Do everything you can to protect and nurture this. Certainly don’t wreck the chance to really connect as a family by being the demanding teacher or relentless overseer. Do this: when it is learning time (whatever time you’ve set aside), you are not a parent (shelve the “you can do it sweetie”). Also, you are not a teacher (unless you are a trained teacher, but still). So what are you? You are a facilitator/coach.
* A brief interjection about what a facilitator/coach is. A good facilitator is like a good interviewer (think Terry Gross), they keep things rolling and use their skill to pull pertinent information out of their interviewee. They also make the interviewee feel good, capable and confident. Your kid is the expert on the learning that goes on in their classroom. They know how they are supposed to approach the new math concept. (However you did it in school many years ago is going to be totally different than what they do now, trust me). Plus you may not even remember how to add unlike denominators or what an adverb is. Don’t fret, you aren’t the expert, they are. Let them take the lead and figure it out together. They just need help asking the right questions. And when you view yourself as not-in-charge, there’s way less pressure to be right. Learning should feel to the learner like they came up with it themselves.
As a facilitator you are going to:
- Help guide the schedule of events/tasks/problems
- Ask questions that allow your kid to think through what they are doing, why they chose to do it and where to go next
- Let your kid take the lead
Now for coaching. Equally important, a coach is a model, has utmost confidence in their players, knows their strengths, knows when to pull players out. And, coach and player are in it together. You’re on the same team!
As a coach you will:
- Be your kids ally and supporter
- Model how to think through problems
- Hold your kid to high expectations
- Know when to stop if things aren’t going well
- Work toward (and celebrate the success of) a common goal
Ok. Now for the real advice. Here’s how to make this school thing work. First off, get rid of any expectations that your kid can do this independently. No child below 6th grade (and most probably even after) can be expected to complete academic or intellectual work on their own. Nor will they get as much out of their endeavors as when you are there talking about it together. You’ll need to be there in an Active role. Also, no kid should be expected to do prescribed intellectual work for more than two hours a day. So you will be an active participant, but you won’t be doing it for an entire school day. We’re talking minimalism here. It’s about being efficient. Think about how much you could get done in 2 solid hours without distractions, meetings. This is the approach. Good thinking (with breaks and snacks) for two hours at most. Then play, imagination and making memories. That’s what gets to happen the rest of the day.
So how does learning happen? Here’s my boiled down version. Learning happens under two basic conditions: through expectation failure^1 and/or in the process of flow^2. The best environment for these conditions is creative and open ended. Brains learn when they have to work through surprise/ frustration that something isn’t working right. If the instance is one of wonder and curiosity, (i.e. the child wants to find the answer or root out the problem) then the opportunity is ripe for them to try something else or ponder further. Piaget called this idea “Disequilibrium” — essentially something not fitting within a person’s preexisting framework. The brain has to re-adapt to encompass the new, novel, unanticipated result. Important to note here is the idea that a child needs to experience (be actively involved in exploring an idea) for this type of learning to occur. The same is true for flow, described as a deep almost transcendental focus while doing something. I can think of it as a blissful time warp known as “in the bubble”. It’s a concentration so complete that your kid probably has no idea what else is going on around them, they are completely absorbed. This can happen creating and negotiating through narratives while playing with dolls or building a boat out of recycling or programming a computer game. If you’ve watched a toddler with a bucket of soapy bubbles, then you’ve probably seen flow in action.
These types of learning are not mutually exclusive and can live happily side by side. The crucial elements here are exploration (learning by actually doing something) and an optimal level of challenge, enough to be fully engaging but not so much as to require assistance to explore. So what kind of space can this be? It sounds difficult to curate. Except, unexpectedly delightful things happen when playing with ideas in an open, creative space where your kid can follow their interests. Here, a child will try something, see what happens, think “what if I do this?” and try something else. This cycle is iterative and incredibly important. When something fails, the brain says, “Huh, that’s strange” and then has to delve deeper to figure out what is different and why. Seymour Papert, a founder of using personally meaningful computation projects for children (“constructionism”), refers to this type of thinking as “grappling”^3 with problems. I love the image of that word. It’s not just in rich STEAM environments, but can be. Generally, a space with ample challenge and many possibilities is paramount. And more often than not, both kinds of learning can happen there at once.
So, get the worksheets done (or parts of them, read on) and then set to creating environments where the “fun” stuff of learning can happen. This is the exciting part of being out of school (for them) and getting to be part of the process (for you).
Nuts and bolts. Now what?
What do we do with this whole learning adventure?
First set up a time of day you are going to “school” and a place where “school” happens. This does not need to be fancy or hard. Your kids can do well together in the same space, especially if they might be encouraged to help each other. If they get in each others’ way, give them a little space. The kitchen table can work (provided you’re not standing there on your phone). An office also works. School has lots of hustle and bustle so a couple kids at the kitchen table with the tea kettle going should be ok. They will need some pencils, erasers, plenty of scratch paper and the books/papers from their school. (If you have nothing from school to work on and need curriculum help, I have ideas on that too, but not here). They do not need immediate or continuous access to a computer unless they have something specific to do on it (like an online class). The kitchen table is also nice because it’s probably light and bright and one can presumably snack there. Snacks are key. Some kids do really well sitting on a carpet with their work splayed around them, that’s Montessori style. If you are ok down there too, then go for it. I don’t feel like kids must sit at a desk to be successful. Some might. Many don’t. See what works. It also helps if you are engaged in doing some type of “work” but are able to look over and help when needed. That way everyone is doing work. Nobody wants to be stared at while they think through problems. Yours could be writing in a journal, reading a book, writing a list/scheduling. Whatever you’re doing, just don’t do it on a phone.
So you’re ready to start. Sometimes the transition to doing school is tricky. All of the sudden everyone is supposed to switch roles in the family and do this thing. I’ve found the transition works best if we physically move. So every day we “walk to school”. We all get our shoes and jackets on and we literally walk around the trail back to our house, about 10 minutes. This sounds hokey but it helps all of us reset and get focused. We get a little fresh air and a bit of exercise and we all feel better and ready. Given the current circumstances, walking might not be feasible, but maybe a jog around the house or something similar.
Now finally, you’re at it. Here are. 9 Ideas for Surviving and Thriving at Minimalist Homeschool:
- Read aloud. If you do nothing else for the next 5 weeks, do this. Being read to is the most lovely, centering, caring thing that exists. Do it over coffee in the morning. Then you can be satisfied that you have already contributed immensely to your kids’ learning! Or do it in the downtime in the afternoon. Doesn’t matter when. The only rule is choose a family book that is interesting for you and them. This goes for picture books too. Here are some family reads that I love (in order from youngest age appropriate up):
- Dory Fantasmagory (4+)
- The Penderwicks series (age 5+)
- The Vanderbeekers series (5+)
- Land of Stories (6+)
- The Secret Garden (6+)
- Mysterious Benedict Society (6+)
- Because of Winn Dixie (6+)
- Harry Potter (obviously)
- Percy Jackson (7+)
- The Phantom Tollbooth (7+)
- A Wrinkle in Time (7+)
(Note: most or all of these books have orphan children because parents have died — especially right now, censor these parts while you read if you have sensitive children)
- The Boy Who Harnessed. the Wind (6+)
- Elon Musk (6+)
- Ben Franklin: an American life (skip over the salacious parts, that dirty old man…) (7+)
- Hidden Figures (7+)
- Omnivore’s Dilemma (dense as all get out but a good read for starting interesting/important conversations about what we should eat) (9+)
- Hamilton (Ron Chernow) (8+)
- National Geographic Emotions
- National Geographic The Brain
- Your Body: a guide for occupants (bill bryson) — haven’t read yet but on the list
(Don’t underestimate what your kids will find interesting. Notice that many of these are about amazing innovators and/or thinkers. They are inspirational and fascinating. They are adult books but your kids will most probably get a lot out of them. Censor with abandon offensive language and any ridiculousness you find inappropriate.)
While we’re at it. If you need some time to work or down time (you do), do books on tape. Or podcasts. The brain does an incredible amount of processing and imagining while listening to good quality stuff. A few I like:
- Brains On (science podcast)
- How I Built This (grown up podcast about innovators and their ideas/companies)
- Winnie the Pooh (books on tape read by the dame Judy dench and other esteemed English actors. Make sure you get these ones. They are excellent.)
- Harry Potter (books on tape. You can really listen to these over and over again.
2. Slow down.
This is a reminder that you have lots of hours in the day now and nowhere to be. So take a deep breath and enjoy the slowness. Give your kids the gift of time. Linger over breakfast, take an hour to make dinner because the kids are “helping”, give them time and space to discover and play. Don’t get to that math sheet today? No problem.
3. Organize just a bit.
I love to play it by ear and go with the flow but it is a good idea to have a bit of structure. Make a checklist for the day for your kid (maybe for yourself too). *Get them involved in this process if they can handle it. Every moment should not be planned (it isn’t actual school for goodness sake) but an idea about what is expected is good. Be specific. Let your kids decide what order to do things in but have a “school time” set aside. I suggest morning. Remember, no more than 2 hours if they are less than 6th grade. Middle school kids may have more stuff and more capacity to continue as long as you have plenty of breaks and snacks on deck. Breaks mean exercise and if possible fresh air. Do them often. If your kid is heads down into something then you be the judge of how long and how much / but remember the important work of learning happens in imagination and creativity too. So stop your kid from doing the whole dang workbook if you have to so they get messy and play some. If you have more than one kid, do school together and work with one while the others do something with relative independence (knowing they will still need your help sometimes). The checklist should be succinct and include only traditional school stuff ( i.e. meet the teacher’s needs). It will look something like:
- Math worksheet divide decimals
- 2x play math facts game
- Grammar lesson 6.2
- Spelling — write all words down
- Journal — 5 sentences
- Read — one chapter of book
- 2 lessons Duolingo Spanish
Notice there are no time limits. You want your kid to get the work done at their own pace. And to know exactly what work is expected. Time is an arbitrary divider used by schools because they have to be efficient and have so many students to keep shuffling about. If you don’t get it all done in a reasonable two hours, then punt. Don’t come back later that day and please please don’t assign homework. Oh man. Just get to it tomorrow.
4. Pick 3.
This is the saving the family harmony principle. There is no scientific reason why your kid should have to do 10, 15, 29 of the same math problem. It is excessive and redundant. *The exception here is anything your kid should have automaticity with — like times tables — those need to be worked often and plenty. But generally, you want your kid to show mastery not be bored or frustrated to tears. You don’t need the teacher to be impressed with how much work you accomplished. In fact, if you want to ignore all the school work that was sent home then I can get behind that too. A perfectly reasonable decision. But let’s say you want to do some or feel a pressing need to visit all of the work sent home. No one can be motivated by the 47th fraction problem. So take the worksheet and pick 3 problems from every new section. Make one early, one middle and one near the end (they are usually in ascending order of difficulty). If it’s a totally new concept, do one with your kid (they take the lead and you help your kid figure out how the teacher would want it done. Ask questions. Don’t provide answers.) then have them do the three you picked out. Use a roll of some dice to choose which ones if that works better, then you had no hand in picking. When your kid is finished or needs help, ask questions that let them illustrate how they did the problem and where they got stuck. They walk you through the solving process or, if they can’t, then you walk yourself through the thought process. This sounds like, “Ok, I see you have written 6 x 8 and then it looks like you drew six groups of eight stars. Is that right? Ok. So then you…..” This helps elucidate the problem solving process for your kid. If all three problems they did are correct, move on to the next section. If not, ask your kid how they feel about the concept given that you just worked through the problems together and come back to the same section of problems the next day (choose three new ones). After three problems it’s probably time for a break. Roll a die and have your kids do that many something; cartwheels, runs around the house, push ups, etc). Then come back to the next task. This goes for reading comprehension tasks, grammar worksheets etc. The beauty here is that you have space and time to be active in between thinking sessions. Lots of quick breaks getting the heart rate up is a great idea.
5. Know when to say when.
If it isn’t working (I.e. there are lots of tears or everyone is losing their patience or things are just too hard or there’s something great you should be doing instead) then stop. If you are feeling like you are ready to resort to bribery, that also means you should stop. Don’t do it. You can do it tomorrow. This is not giving up, this is smart.
6. We Wonder Day.
One “school” day per week change the game entirely. That means no work as prescribed the other days. On this day you do only cool stuff. We use Wednesdays because it’s a nice break and sounds so good with “we wonder”. So on this day we look at all the questions the kids have written down from the week and figure out the answers. This means googling stuff, reading stuff, puzzling through ideas and watching some videos online. It lasts no more than two hours. This also means that during the week when the kids ask questions which I really want them to do, I can tell them to write them down in the we wonder notebook or on the chalkboard wall and know that we will get them answered. But not right now. The bonus to them thinking and questioning is they are also writing! For the parent of a reluctant writer, this is a win. It’s a fun and relaxing day for all. Sometimes there’s time for a board game in there too. Or time to work on a science experiment or project we haven’t gotten to. The point is that it’s a school day to look forward to. So school’s not always tedious, not always hard, not always predictable, not always the same.
STEAM is science, technology, engineering, art and math. (Notice the art, that’s important). So here’s the great thing. Once you are done with the prescribed school stuff, you can do the fun stuff you always thought would be so cool. For me, that usually means creative, sciency, artsy stuff. It’s getting messy. Every kid can be inspired and creative with the cool ideas and environments out there (or already in your house). I have a degree in this so bare with me. Here are some ideas or reminders of things to try (remember promoting creativity and flow -and if there’s a little surprise or working through the unexpected in there too that’s an extra bonus). These ideas are all about playing. Playing is the key. Watch your kid get innovative, engrossed and excited (you can participate too). They are learning all the while!!!
Low Tech/No Tech STEAM Ideas:
- Non Newtonian Solids. Mix water and cornstarch and drops of different food coloring— play with resulting glop. (All ages)
- Zipline. Set up a string zip line in the house. Have a competition to see who can get a penny to fly down the line fastest and with the most flair using the contents of the junk drawer, sewing box and recycling bin. (All ages)
- Egg drop challenge. Use hard boiled eggs. Everyone creates an egg case and tosses their egg down a flight of stairs or off the balcony. Talk about what works/ doesn’t and try again. (All ages)
- Marshmallow structures. Use marshmallows or left over soft candy and heaps of toothpicks. Who can build the tallest structure? What makes a strong structure? Eat all results. (All ages)
- Floating. Make boats out of the recycling and junk drawer contents. Whose holds the most coins before sinking? (All ages)
- Design. Can you make a dress/shirt/skirt out of the recycling, tape, left over fabric bits, feathers, whatever you can find? Have a fashion show. (All ages)
- Think of more. You get the idea.
High Tech STEAM:
You’ll have to purchase something or acquire something online for these. But it is so worth it. Google the items. Most can be bought on sparkfun.com or amazon or adafruit.com
- Squishy circuits. $35-$75 (3+) Amazon. This is basically playdoh with electronics. So totally cool. My 10 year old loves them too. Learn basics about circuits and make cool creatures. Totally open ended. Be prepared to make some simple salt dough and/or resistance dough.
- Hour of code. (5–13) Free. This is straight up coding. It’s not STEAM per se but does expose kids to programming so they can move on to other stuff. A great way to introduce coding to young kids. Many have done it in school. Go to hourofcode.org and pick out a module (there are lots). Kids can go through them pretty much independently so you don’t need to be an expert.
- Scratch. (5–13+) Free. Go to scratch.mit.edu. Download. MIT’s media lab developed a programming language that uses drag and drop units to make things super simple. If your kid can read, they can code. I recommend downloading it and letting your kids play and figure it out for a bit. Lots of tutorials too. They can look at the code for someone’s uploaded project and try to make sense of it. Play if-I-change-this-one-thing/number-what-changes game. Or you can purchase scratch cards on amazon to lead your kid through an entire super fun course in computer science. This is best used for making video games!
- Ada Fruit Circuit Playground Express (or educators) Kit— $99 (important! comes as a cute blue lunch box so buy that one) (6–18+) Adafruit.com. This is our new favorite thing. Imagine being able to make your own remote control boat, robot, door alarm, game show buzzer, indoor plant monitor, interactive pet, interactive art, etc. It is not cheap but has infinite possibilities. If you sent your kid to a technology camp or after school program, they very well might use this. Recommended as the only circuit board you’ll ever need by our robot building, maker, technology guru family friend. And the kit comes with 2 boards so two kids can work on things simultaneously and then create a really cool project using both together. You essentially program an electronic circuit board using a free online programming environment called makecode.org. The language is drag and drop (basically exactly what you used in Scratch). Download it onto the board and watch it go. Included is a rainbow of lights, light sensor, motors, motion sensors, buzzers, temperature sensors, buttons etc. Endless coolness. You might need two. Just sayin’. Lots of project tutorials on their site. You do not need to know how to program or how to make robots to use this. Just go for it. The advantages of the ada fruit is the easy programming environment and its versatility and robustness. The drawbacks are that the tutorials are not always as super straight forward. Extra bonus: get a picture book about Ada Lovelace the inventor of computer science (a woman!).
- Lilypad Arduino. $30 — $70+ (5+) Amazon or sparkfun.com. Much like the ada fruit but more geared toward the kid who doesn’t see themselves as a computer person. It’s the world of electronic textiles. Make a sweatshirt that can sense temperature and lights up with a red led heart design when you get overheated. Or one that when you press a button in your sleeve, lights a turn signal on your back (For biking of course). Create a stuffie with a beating heart. You can create wearable art with this kit. The adafruit does everything the lily pad can do and more but there’s a certain artistic ethos to the lily pad that makes it really speak to some people. You’ll sew circuits and program. Amazing. Also lots of tutorials. The programming language is a little more obtuse than adafruit. Sew Electric is a great book I highly recommend that leads you through a series of great projects written by the inventor Leah Buechley (I highly recommend watching one of her talks online with your kids) who is so cool and a woman. So support that. The lilypad sewable starter kit on Amazon would be good for the young set (5–8). The lilypad Protosnap plus kit has everything you need (7–18) (on Amazon and spark fun). The advantages to the lilypad are its aesthetic appeal and the Sew Electric book of amazing tutorials. The drawbacks are it’s more obtuse programming environment (it takes some figuring out, but you can do it) and it has fewer sensors and such included.
8. Finally. Do some experiments. This is a time for your kid to come up with crazy ideas (within the confining parameters of life right now) and for you to say yes. You’re making memories right now. Hopefully in a few years you’ll hear something like “remember that month when we had to stay home all day and we got to make marshmallow shooters and eat all the marshmallows for dinner? That was so cool.” Yup, all learning. Here are some final thoughts and ideas for homebound fun/learning for your kids:
- Grow something. (Seeds, beans, jars/ziplock bags, water, sunlight) What grows and why?
- Take something apart. (The old toaster, printer, etc) What does all this stuff do? Can you put it back together? Don’t plug in.
- Learn something new. — even better if you learn it with them (Crocheting, sewing, knitting, Indian cooking, origami)
- Build something. (A book shelf, clock, iPhone stand) Use some power tools with an adult.
- Bake something. (Muffins, cake, pancakes) This is a time to figure out why does baking soda work? Does baking powder do the same thing? Let’s find out. What about no eggs? Many eggs? Test some theories and eat the results.
- Nurture something. (Mason bees -Turn This Book Into a Beehive, caterpillars that turn into butterflies — kit on Amazon)
- Get creative. (Make a giant fort in the living room or pitch the tent and roast marshmallows over a candle)
These ideas are all ripe for learning. And they all count as part of homeschooling.
9. Listen. Just listen to your kid. This is the final and most important point. Your kid will let you know what is working and what isn’t. They will tell you their fears and interests and delights. They just need the time and space to do it. So make sure you are giving them both. And make adjustments together.
Good luck. Follow your instincts. You know your kid and your family better than anyone. Do what works for you. Make some memories. Stay safe. You can do this. Your kids will thank you.
^1 Expectation Failure is a concept founded by Roger Schank. Read more: Schank, Roger C. (1995) What We Learn When We Learn by Doing. (Technical Report No. 60). Northwestern University, Institute for Learning Sciences.
^2 Flow was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. For more, read his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990). Or watch his ted talk Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_flow_the_secret_to_happiness
^3 For more on Seymour Papert, watch this super short excerpt https://youtu.be/IhEovwWiniY and then read Mindstorms (1980).