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Sam Chaltain: A Parent Guide to Home Learning During the Coronavirus

My fellow grown-ups:

Now that the End Days are upon us (kidding/not kidding) and your kids are out of school for the foreseeable future, how should you structure their time?

This is both a helpful and an unhelpful question.

It’s helpful because we’re all about to huddle indefinitely in close quarters. Whereas just a week ago, we were still snarfing down breakfast in the car to get to school on time, we’re now about to drown in a sudden deluge of the most precious (and scarce) feature of modern life: time. 

It makes sense, then, that we would want to schedule the uncertainty of this time away. And amidst the fear and anxiety of the current moment, there are few things as universally familiar as our shared assumptions about what one is supposed to do at school: 

45-minute class periods. Scripted lesson plans. The neat sequential order of a curricular march through time. 

Since school is highly structured, the thinking goes, one’s debut as a homeschooling parent should be the same. Worksheets. Assignments. Schedules. Tests!

On behalf of your children (and yourselves), I beg you — STOP.

In fact, over-structuring your children’s time at home will result in the worst possible outcome: a slapdash recreation of our most stereotypical assumptions about learning — which, not surprisingly, are not actually what kids need (or want) to learn.

As we now know from research (and our own lived experiences), learning is not passive, it’s not sequential, and it’s not neat or predictable. It’s emergent, and tactile, and contextual, and highly personalized.

So don’t think about recreating the images you have in your head of what school is supposed to look like, feel like, and do. Put away the worksheets, forget about the assignments, and let the perceived urgency of mastering the Three R’s slip gently from your white-knuckled grasp. Because the most important thing you can give your children during this period is not a crash course on their time tables; it’s your sustained attention and company.

Let me say that again.

The most important thing you can give your children is your sustained attention and company.

That being said, the wide open nature of these coming weeks need not feel like a daily process of reinventing the wheel. So try giving shape and intention to your days around these six endlessly-modifiable activities:

READ — Find a book that you’re interested in. Read it, preferably in front of your children. Help them find things to read that interest them. Don’t worry — and don’t be surprised — when the books they choose are not about fiscal policy or British history. Commit to reading together at some point each day, rather than scheduling the same daily reading time. And use your self-quarantine to, as a family, get hygge with it.

WATCH — Pick a wide range of movies, in a wide range of styles, that are both appropriate for your kids to watch but aren’t necessarily “kid movies” either (AFI’s list of the top 100 films of all time is a good place to start, or this list of 12 documentaries that will inspire kids to change the world). Watch them together, and then talk about them afterwards. Use your child’s natural fascination with all things screen-related to essentially set up an impromptu film course. 

Watch one a day. Make popcorn. Rinse. Repeat.

COOK — Make lots of meals together. Procrastibake. And when cooking, use these ten herbs, which help ward off viruses.

NOTICE — Use the slower, quieter pace of the coming weeks as a chance to deepen your level of attention to everything and everyone around you. As artist Jenny Odell writes in her must-read book, How to Do Nothing, “simple awareness is the seed of responsibility, and patterns of attention — what we choose to notice and what we do not — are how we render reality for ourselves.” 

The problem, as too many of us know all too well, is that the current way we pay attention is through the toxic filter of commercial social media, which has invaded our our lives so thoroughly that we use it to achieve the brief dopamine-fueled release of virtual likes, while the platforms themselves keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.

So let’s use this disruption of “business as usual” to pay closer attention to the things and people that surround us. “When the pattern of your attention has changed,” Odell explains, “you render your reality differently. You begin to move and act in a different kind of world.”

The acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton agrees. “Silence is not the absence of something,” he said. “It is the presence of everything.”

WALK — Bearing the above in mind — and although big crowds are a no-no — fresh air remains the cheapest, most effective and natural form of mood calibration there is. 

Better yet, don’t just walk around the block — take a walk into nature.

This has become a lost art for many of us — but it is especially absent in our children’s lives. “Within the space of a few decades,” writes Richard Louv in his classic book, Last Child in the Woods, “the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment — but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading.”

So let’s use this expanse of time to take nature walks together as often as possible, and let’s try to pay close attention — to what we notice, hear, wonder, and see — as we do.

UNPLUG — Most importantly, do all of the above without your phone in your hand. Don‘t text in the midst of the movie. Don’t take selfies on your walk to let the rest of us know what you’re doing. Don’t live-tweet the juiciest quotes from the book you’re reading. 

Just stand back, pay attention, be together, and see what you notice that your previous pace had prevented you from ever seeing before. “Escaping laterally toward each other,” Odell promises, “we might just find that everything we wanted is already here.”

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Sam Chaltain

Sam Chaltain is a DC-based writer and education activist. He works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create healthy, high-functioning learning environments.  Earlier in his career he taught high school English and History in the NYC public school systems and at a private...