COVID-era lessons from homeschool

Don’t be terrified. Be ready.


It’s fall, and schools are only partly open, while many parents are still working from home. And that means the possibility of homeschooling. If you’re hearing a horror movie soundtrack right now, that’s OK! Teaching from home can be a terrifying undertaking. But as a veteran homeschooler with a son who’s using the pandemic isolation to learn animation and practice his photography in Colorado, I’m offering some advice that may be useful. The main lesson: Customize for the circumstances. As parents, we can encourage, celebrate, support and fund with our tax dollars an educational system that operates flexibly, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.

The idea that one size fits all sounds absurd when you think about it. Customization is available for everything from jewelry to Spotify channels, from Instagram ads to license plates, from mudflaps on pickup trucks to toss pillows for your sofa. The only thing I own that’s labeled “One Size Fits All” is the striped summer caftan I wear around the house on laundry day. So why do we find the idea that education is customizable so shocking, so easy to reject or ridicule?

The author and her son, T. Amari, work together in the dining room at home in Colorado.
T. Amari & Roberto (Bear) Guerra / High Country News

Too many myths confound our thinking about homeschooling: It’s too easy, kids just run wild, they don’t get enough socialization, they don’t learn enough. But there’s nothing easy about being stuck at home with school-aged children, as we all now know. Still, kids should run wild sometimes, and we can socialize and teach our children, even in, maybe especially in, a pandemic. To make things easier —ha— I’ve made a list of nine lessons folks can adapt from homeschool practices, even if you don’t actually take the plunge and homeschool outright.

  1. Cultivate curiosity. Is your student all over the place with their interests? Allow your child to investigate everything! Alternatively, if they’re more apathetic, your student can use this time to figure out what they’re interested in and/or are good at. When my son was in high school, we looked into photography and game design. He was a rather apathetic teenager, but with those two subjects, he said: “Well, I don’t hate it.” I could work with that! Listening to your child is extremely important, and giving them many options and then pushing them toward those options can spark a lifelong interest; my son is still involved in both.
  2. Develop depth. Does your student tend to have a singular focus on one or two topics? Now is the perfect time to let them dive deeply into one or two subjects — to focus. This can ease anxiety and boost comprehension.
  3. Reconsider discipline. What about disobedience or disruptive behavior? The crime-and-punishment model doesn’t work for homeschooling. Many of the homeschooled students I spoke with mentioned a disciplinary model akin to restorative justice, where problematic behavior is discussed not behind closed doors, but in front of and with a group. No one heaps shame upon the victim, and the person causing harm is given the space to explain themselves and deliver an honest apology rooted in acknowledgment and action.
  4. What about students with learning differences, who need specialized support? That is where we as a society fail the most, in my opinion. My son, who has multiple disabilities, found more encouragement and engagement from online teachers and peers in his interest areas than he did in public school. Neither model was perfect, but learning at his own pace, and focusing on subjects that kept his interest, brought him much more joy. It gave him the chance to learn to express himself clearly, and to decide what he wanted to do with his life.
  5. Collaborate wisely. Are you lucky enough to have neighbors, family and friends you can depend on? You can do what some colleges (not to mention cetaceans) do, and organize pods to share resources with others. Avoid collaborating with folks who might undermine safety or educational goals. Collaboration might mean leading videoconference science experiments, or socially distant backyard gardening, or botany lessons with small-group trips to the botanical gardens. It might be a story written by all the students in your neighborhood via a shared online document. Be sure, in planning those fun activities, not to overburden a single person with hosting and organizing; share your time, labor and expertise evenly.
  6. Accept complexity. We each have our own ways of learning and absorbing new material. Some of us find ease and comfort in numbers and scientific inquiry. Others find delight in creative and imaginative pursuits. Still others learn kinetically — feeling closest to their highest selves when dancing, running or playing basketball. Local and state parks can be a free or low-cost way to take advantage of outdoor activity; maybe your middle-schoolers can invent new sports in an open field, or your elementary students can practice drawing pictures of your neighborhood mule deer. Then they can write about the process, encouraging critical thinking. Add a research element for high-schoolers as another way to acknowledge complexity. Building on single experiences deepens understanding.
  7. Indulge creative pursuits. Education as … indulgence? YES. Art, writing, film, music and theater are part of education. They teach critical thinking, empathy, dexterity and joy. What if kids actually enjoyed educating themselves? What if it’s actually practical right now to advocate for enjoyment, since everything else is so chaotic? Imagine that.
  8. Embrace solitude. This may sting for the extroverts among us, but solitude really isn’t that terrible. It invites self-reflection. And, perhaps, if socialization included more self-reflection, we’d have a kinder, more aware citizenry. We have an opportunity at this moment to prioritize safety and care, and we can extend that prioritization to educational structures — especially in cases where people are toxic, and with bullying at epidemic levels in public schools. Getting to know yourself away from other people can be one of the most valuable experiences life offers. Why shouldn’t we allow our children that luxury and safety?
  9. Imagine the future. We are in the middle of a global disaster. Cut these kids, and yourselves, some slack. Instead of worrying about whether they’ll “fall behind,” recognize that many, if not most of us, have already fallen behind. We can reframe our language of success. Right now, success might mean staying alive, and helping to keep others alive. And that is enough. Learning at home gives us the freedom to become more acquainted with what we love. And, right now, that might be the most practical thing we can do: to get to know our closest company, to develop ourselves in positive ways and to make staying at home more bearable.

Being willing to learn from what we don’t understand is a valuable life skill. And isn’t that what education is meant to do, give us the knowledge and skills we need to navigate life successfully? In a world where care and community-building are more necessary than ever, we can use this opportunity to model what that success can mean.

In a world where care and community-building are more necessary than ever, we can use this opportunity to model what that success can mean.

Throughout Colorado, we’ve had summer camp outbreaks of COVID-19, defiantly packed restaurants, and a persistent refusal by many residents to maintain physical distance or wear face coverings properly and consistently. Our behavior as a region and as a country ensures that the coronavirus won’t disappear anytime soon. With data showing that children and younger adults contribute greatly to community spread of the virus, responsible parents must — out of necessity and citizenship, if not kindness and consideration for others — educate themselves about the safest way to keep their children engaged in learning at home when in-person class isn’t possible.

The West is a unique frontier. We’ve had the pioneering myths of the region drilled into us, pioneering that unfortunately involved more harm than education. Our current circumstances, however, invite us to truly embrace a spirit of discovery, to energize and adapt. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel with our children’s education. We can look to customized ways of learning and creating community, and use tools that make sense for our current reality. Acknowledging and learning from established knowledge and solutions, I suspect, might hold lessons not just for students, but also for parents-as-teachers, and for the culture at large.

Khadijah Queen is an award-winning poet and writing professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and Regis University. Follow her on Twitter @authorKQ. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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