by Erin Okuno
Returning to school this year will look and feel different than it has in the past. Gone are some of the rituals: pictures in front of the school sign, hunting for homeroom teachers’ classrooms, reunions with classmates. This year, students in Seattle and many South King County districts will be returning to school at home through remote/distance learning.
To help people prepare for the new school year, I asked teachers what they want parents and caregivers to know as we get ready for virtual learning. And by “parents,” I mean caregivers who are parenting, not just the traditional definition of parents.
Communicate with teachers — Parents are a child’s first teacher, and an important partner in supporting at-home learning. Liz Jose, a teacher at Washington Middle School, said she heard “I didn’t do the homework,” a lot from her students this past spring. But the full story is deeper and more complicated. With virtual learning, Jose wants to ensure she’s teaching the whole child, not just a box on a screen.
Teachers want to know how their lessons are landing, since teaching via remote/virtual learning provides much less feedback when students become faces in boxes on a screen. If a student is frustrated or confused by a lesson, please reach out and communicate with teachers. The teacher may be able to help reexplain the lesson or problem-solve.
Advocate for your students — KT Raschko, an elementary school teacher on Beacon Hill, encourages parents to advocate for students whether around tech support, relationship building, motivation, or social-emotional needs. Remember that teachers can sometimes lend support. Teachers are often more than willing to help solve an individual student’s unique problems.
As a parent of a grade schooler, I was able to benefit from this as well. During the spring, after school abruptly ended, my kid was understandably upset and throwing tantrums. She missed her friends, mourned unfinished art projects abandoned at school, and didn’t want to do schoolwork at home. I mentioned to her teacher how she talked about missing her ad hoc comic club, a group of second graders who liked Dog Man and Captain Underpants graphic novels. Her teacher organized a virtual comic club and this became a weekly highlight. I told her teacher it was like watching a plant come back to life with a little sun and water.
Some educators can also help to support families with non-academic needs as well. Often, schools have family support workers, social workers, or counselors. These staff members can help families secure essentials such as food, housing resources, and technology support.
Take care of mental health needs — Along with advocating for your student, monitor your child’s mental health. Catherine Brown, an assistant principal, reminds parents to be aware of how depression and anxiety show up. If you believe this is happening to your youth, advocate for services, don’t just think it will blow over or resolve on its own. Communicate with your school’s staff about how to connect to mental health services.
Steve Zwolak, affectionately known as “Mr. Z,” an early childhood expert at the LUME Institute and Executive Director of University City Children’s Center in St. Louis, Missouri, encourages parents and educators to create authentic ways of connecting. Social distancing shouldn’t become emotional distancing. Children are social beings and learn from each other — they need to feel safe expressing emotions and learning to work through them.
Assigning kids tasks can also help when they’re learning from home. Beacon Hill International School second and third grade teacher Rebecca Chase-Chen said in her classroom, students have jobs that help them learn responsibility and feel like they are part of the class. Kids can do “jobs” at home as well. These might include helping with the laundry, clearing the table, or keeping their learning area tidy. Chase-Chen said that it’s important to clearly teach your child how to do the job and to try to keep it positive. In her class, they periodically rotate jobs to keep it fresh and interesting, which might be an option at home, too.
Have a schedule, rituals, and defined spaces — Keep a regular schedule for school days. Several educators recommend co-creating this schedule with your child. Kristin Trout, a high school English teacher, said she plans on using this opportunity to help her students practice more independent study and learning as they prepare for college.
For younger children, posting the schedule can help them feel more in control. Brianna Jackson, former Executive Director of Launch Learning, said children depend on consistency. Having a visual schedule with pictures and graphics (and talking to kids about it) can help younger children. Their worlds are already chaotic without a lot of control, so sharing decision-making helps children practice thinking and social/emotional learning skills. A review of the upcoming day with your child is a great chance for them to make sense of their emotions.
Having a defined space to do schoolwork can be helpful too. A clear, flat space, with no food or drinks where students can use a computer or do schoolwork can help children learn and keep computers from being accidentally damaged. For people who live in small spaces and need to share a kitchen table (or other common space) for schoolwork, it’s important to create a clear transition point. Sarah Lorimer, a South Seattle elementary school special education teacher, suggests having a school bin/box/backpack/bag that is used for at-home-school — and at the end of the school day putting it clearly away so children know they are done for the day.
Schedule, rituals, and clear learning spaces can also help to define boundaries and limits. Whether it’s limiting screen time, snacking, or asking questions, it is important to set reasonable boundaries. Some of these limits can be co-created with your children.
Know how your child learns — For young children, learning is a 3-D experience, according to Mr. Z — a tactile, hands-on activity that uses many of the senses. For instance, a lesson might include tasting a strawberry, drawing the strawberry, talking about the biology of a strawberry, mirroring a teacher writing the word “strawberry.” To support children learning at home it can be helpful to support these multimodal ways of learning. In older children it is also helpful to create different ways to learn, including discussion, reading, writing, and art.
Work together — A resounding request from teachers is to be patient with them. From early learning to higher education educators, they’re all trying to figure out new ways of operating. Nisha Daniels, a longtime elementary school teacher on Beacon Hill, put it best: “For many of us, this will be like the first year of teaching.” Their known routines and ways of teaching in a classroom are having to be adapted to online teaching and learning, and this has a learning curve for them as well.
One piece of advice for teachers and educators: remember that many parents want to help without being in your way. Parents are looking for ways to support you during this time. If you have projects and tasks that need help, please reach out to parents to help ease your burden. We’re all in this together.
- Exercise and Get Outside — Move, get outside, and exercise every day. Moving can also be incorporated into learning — science and math walks, journal writing outside, etc.
- Talk — Kids are naturally curious, and talking helps them make sense of the world and learn. Talk about feelings, family, nature, their school activities, friends, food, etc.
- Technology Care — Teach your child how to care for their technology (e.g. tablets, laptops, headphones, power cords, etc.). Teach them to keep these items off the floor, preferably out of their bedrooms, away from food and drinks, and away from pets. Create a dedicated safe space to store the tech: this can be a bin, drawer, space on a desk, etc. Dedicate one spot where the computer, power cord, mouse, headphones, etc. are always stored when not in use.
- Online Safety — Teach them how to stay safe online: don’t share personal information or passwords, and make sure their online profiles don’t give away too much personal information.
- Celebrate small things — Create small celebrations of milestones, such as finishing a midway project point, a paper, or project. This can help to break up the monotony of COVID-19 remote learning.
- Wearing clothes — Please make sure your child is dressed (i.e. wearing a top and bottom if they will stand) if they’re going to be on screen. If they aren’t dressed, turn the camera off.
- Don’t sit with your child during class calls — Elementary school and high school teachers said they don’t expect parents to sit with children during class lessons. Preschoolers may need a little more coaching, but check with your child’s teachers to see what the expectations are.
- Teachers don’t expect your child to be online all day — Many teachers understand online fatigue and “Zoom fatigue” (video-call fatigue). If you feel your child is hitting this point, communicate with the teacher.
- Don’t do your child’s schoolwork.
- Don’t expect your child to have perfect schoolwork — Teachers know they are learning.
Update, 9/10/20: Spanish and Chinese translations of this article are available on the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition website.
Erin Okuno is the executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), a coalition of community based organizations, schools, educators, community leaders, parents and caregivers, and concerned SE Seattle residents working to improve education for all children, especially those in SE Seattle and those farthest away from opportunities.
Photo is attributed to UNICEF Ethiopa under a Creative Commons No Derivs 2.0 license.