Here we go again.
This is the prevailing sentiment in millions of homes these days as many families gear up for what likely will amount to another semester of virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.
For most of these families, the online learning they endured this spring was passable at best, the result of schools and school districts scrambling to adapt their respective face-to-face curricula for the online environment.
This time around, it seems everyone is determined to make the experience better all around.
For students, this could mean fewer boring Zoom calls, more engaging lessons and opportunities to build camaraderie with new classmates. For parents, it could mean less of an expectation to play the role of proctor or facilitator, and more flexibility to be able to focus on their own jobs. For teachers, the new approach hopefully will translate into a greater ability to educate instead of taming technology.
Of course, none of this can happen in a vacuum; even the busiest parents have to take steps to put their families in a position to succeed. Here, then, are seven tips for making the fall semester of virtual learning better than the spring.
Organize, organize, organize
Considering all the chaos that unfolds daily in your home, order is your friend. For Rachel Rosenthal, organizational expert and owner of Rachel and Company, a professional organizing company near Washington, D.C., this means creating a designated space for everything — particularly with the help of new organizational vessels and custom labeling devices to help do the job.
“When a child’s physical surroundings are organized it enables them to do better work,” she wrote in a recent email. “I believe that physical organization leads to mental organization, and that organization is a key component to ensuring virtual school is more productive in the fall than it was in the spring.”
Rosenthal suggested that parents empower kids to create individualized and independent workspaces that are free of clutter and distraction, even if it’s not a separate room. Some of the most useful organizational tools to achieve this objective, she noted, include paper bins, cord keepers, shelves for notebooks and cups for loose markers and crayons.
She added that parents should try not to micromanage an organizing job; instead she recommended that parents provide kids with the tools and the space to arrange things the way they see fit.
“Organization is a way of life and not a one-time event,” she said.
Post a schedule
One way to keep kids organized throughout the day: Posting a schedule so kids know what’s next.
This is precisely what most teachers do, especially those who spend their days educating students under the age of 10.
Marguerite Hagan, a first grade teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal Day School in Tampa, Florida, said that she and her colleagues usually post a schedule at the front of their classrooms — most commonly on a dry erase board. The teachers then go over the schedule every morning so kids know what to expect. Hagan and her colleagues also leave the schedule up so kids can refer to it throughout the day. She advised that parents do the same sort of thing at home.
“Kids love to know what their day looks like at a glance,” she said. For children who can’t read yet, she said it’s a good idea to use images or drawings to depict the lessons of the day. Math, for instance, might be represented by an abacus, while reading can be represented by a book.
“The key is routine and structure,” she said.
Designate a learning area
Another option for helping virtual learners stay organized: Building a new workspace entirely from scratch.
For some parents, this might mean creating a nook or alcove in a spare bedroom. For Sharon and Justin Florentine, parents of a 9-year-old in Abington, Pennsylvania, the answer was converting a free-standing shed in the backyard into a classroom.
The 15-by-30-foot structure was built in 2017 as a home for Justin’s woodworking hobby. It’s separate from the main house and has its own electricity, but otherwise was not finished until this summer. That’s when Justin bought a do-it-yourself spray-foam insulation kit and did all the insulation, framing and drywalling himself. The family added a portable room air conditioner to keep things cool.
When school is in session and virtual learning begins, Sharon Florentine said her son can either log on to Wi-Fi from the main house or connect via a hard-wired Ethernet port.
“(Our son) is way more comfortable with this approach,” she said, noting that he has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. “For the most part, he thrives at virtual/remote school, and when we told him there would be the option to do virtual school again this fall, he said, ‘Cool! I like that better anyway.’”
Communicate with teachers
One of the most popular memes running around the internet this spring depicted a mom walking around a park and talking to herself, with the caption: “Parent-teacher conference.”
The gag roasted an important aspect of virtual learning: communication.
While many parents struggled to connect with teachers in the spring, most experts agreed that parents and teachers should remain in regular contact this fall to understand expectations and make sure that kids don’t fall behind. Randy Kulman, a child psychologist based in Wakefield, Rhode Island, said these communications can take any form: email, text messages, phone calls or private videoconferences on Zoom or Google Meeting.
“Kids are responsible, but parents can do a much better job of getting schoolwork information directly from teachers,” said Kulman, author of “The Gaming Overload Workbook.” “This constant dialogue will eliminate confusion and help everyone succeed.”
Communication is particularly important at certain schools and in certain districts. Take the Onondaga Nation School, the only school on a Native American reservation south of Syracuse, New York.
This school comprises kindergarten through eighth grades and has 134 students, all native. Principal Simone Gonyea, a member of the Onondaga Snipe Clan and an alumnus of the school, said that many of her students come from homes with limited connectivity, necessitating that parents and teachers communicate so teachers know what they need to do to get students online.
“We tell our parents, ‘If you are feeling overwhelmed, you need to let us know,’” Gonyea said. “We want to help all families connect and support their children in their educational paths. We are looking to help them resolve the (connectivity) situation or get new technology all together.”
Supplement the curriculum
Most school curricula are designed to teach kids just what the state requires them to learn. For parents who want to leverage the flexibility of virtual learning to put their children in a position to learn more than this bare minimum, there are several potential supplements.
First are online classes. These extracurricular studies can be one-offs or multiweek explorations. Students can sign up through local two- and four-year colleges, or their families can pay to take courses from an online provider such as Outschool. This company touts more than 50,000 course options on its website, with choices including Harry Potter “potions” chemistry class and another on cat anatomy taught by a veterinarian.
There are other places to turn, too. Kids who love math might be drawn to Prodigy, a free challenge-style game that quizzes kids of all ages on numbers, shapes and measurement.
For younger children, there’s Vooks, a company with a digital library of read-aloud animated children’s books. Patty Duncan, education specialist with the Portland, Oregon-based company, said each video is between three and nine minutes long. Narrators include Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, James Earl Jones and more.
“Many kids in the United States don’t have access to books, so (Vooks) works to combat that with a product that’s really easy for them to get into,” Duncan said. “Our videos bring vocabulary and stories to life.”
Another great way to keep kids engaged throughout a day of virtual learning is to get them outside.
Author Richard Louv extolled the virtues of this philosophy in his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods.” Since then, several companies have decided to trade in the kind of expertise Louv doled out.
One, named Tinkergarten, is based in Northampton, Massachusetts, and bills itself as a family guide to purposeful outdoor play. Co-founder Meghan Fitzgerald said one of the easiest ways to motivate kids to spend more time outside is to build open-air play centers for them.
“Mud kitchens and art centers — these can make a huge difference,” she said. “Any place where kids can create and let their imaginations run wild are going to be the kinds of places they want to be.”
MJ Korpela, certainly can agree with this statement.
Korpela is family services manager at the Jeremiah Program of Austin, a nonprofit that supports single mothers in and around Austin, Texas. It’s a good idea, Korpela said, to balance stationary activities such as sitting through a virtual class lesson with opportunities for youngsters to move their bodies and experience new things through their senses, like using measuring cups in the sink.
“Kids between 3 and 5 should only be expected to pay attention for about 15 minutes, younger children for 10 minutes or less,” Korpela wrote in a recent email. “Their job at this age is to make connections between themselves and the world around them, using all five senses.”
Create a family mission statement
Perhaps the best way to keep kids and parents focused on the goals of virtual learning for the fall is to create a mission statement for the entire family.
This sort of boilerplate helps families understand what to prioritize throughout the virtual learning experience and how to show up for each other, said Dr. Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, chief innovation officer at BetterUp, a professional coaching platform based in San Francisco. She added that a conversation about this statement begins with questions about the kinds of practices that are important to your family, the things your family wants to do more of and the things your family doesn’t like at all.
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“The point of having these conversations is to get people to start to talk about what they think is important to the family,” Kellerman said. “Once you’ve established that baseline, you can start asking if there’s additional work to do to shape the overall sense of purpose.”
Put differently, think of the process of creating a mission statement like the process of creating a vision board. Both emphasize establishing goals. How close your family gets to achieving them is up to you.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Northern California.