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My woefully inadequate attempt at homeschooling | COMMENTARY

Coronavirus has closed school buildings and students are distance learning on computers and tablets.
Coronavirus has closed school buildings and students are distance learning on computers and tablets. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

Twenty-eight years after slamming shut my final high school math book, I’ve had to relearn algebra, brush up on more than a bit of geometry and stumble through a review of complex fractions. And that was just last week.

You see, my kids came home after school on March 12 and haven’t left since, so, along with millions of parents around the country, I have suddenly and jarringly become a home-school teacher. Our dining room table has more computers on it than NASA Mission Control and yet no one seems to be able to find a charger anywhere in the house. One kid’s schoolwork is almost entirely online, the other’s appears to be several reams worth of worksheets that I have to scan at the end of each day and email to various teachers. I’m certain I have been caught in the background of more than one synchronous video lesson fumbling with the coffee maker in a T-shirt and boxers as one or both kids wander through the house carrying whatever device they happen to be using at the moment.

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These scenes are not unique to our house. I have received too many “OMG! Homeschool!” memes to believe I suffer alone. America’s education system was/is woefully unprepared for a long-term interruption. In the media, “continuity of learning” is the catchphrase-du-jour, with “online learning” close behind. However, there is almost zero consistency across schools, districts and states with respect to either. Some K-12 students have been supported throughout this time; their schools having had a remote learning plan in place before the onset of social distancing or being nimble enough to build a plane while flying it. Other students have had what amounts to a month of vacation with suggested supplemental online learning material from their schools but no accountable activity or assessed work.

Many states and districts remain “in discussion” about plans to continue teaching and learning weeks into campus closures. Some students live on the wrong side of the digital divide; some teachers are not familiar with the tools necessary for online learning; some parents are not able to successfully monitor students who have not previously been responsible for their own learning. It’s 2020. Wasn’t that date used as the favored goal post for every education endeavor between 2000 and 2019. Oops. You’d think we would have figured a little bit more of this out by now.

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Maybe it’s time for traditional schools to take a few cues from online schools. After all, they have been developing methods for educating students across the internet for more than 20 years. We can start with agreeing that throwing a bunch of activities at kids through their laptops or tablets is not the same thing as an online school? Assuming that everyone has enthusiastically nodded their head, what might we learn from intentionally designed online schools in this time of unintended remote learning?

They design their curriculum for the delivery method, not the other way around (so I don’t have to order three sets of printer ink per week). They provide a learning environment that is secure and can be monitored (so I don’t have to lurk over the shoulders of two kids who refuse to stop streaming Star Wars movies and playing games in multiple browser tabs). They offer remote technical assistance and troubleshooting (so, I don’t have to spend my evenings in user forums attempting to figure out why one of our computers works nicely with one online tool, but crashes at the mere thought of clicking on another). They recommend students work in chunks, actively develop class projects, and get up and move, often (so, I don’t get a bunch of bills from chiropractors).

Most importantly, online schools provide multiple touchpoints each day between teachers and students — synchronous classes, virtual office hours, texting, chatting, even a simple phone call. It is not enough to email assignments in the morning or populate a website with links to content. Students need to feel supported and cared for as individuals, even/especially those moody middle-schoolers. (You know who I’m talking about.)

Traditional schools don’t have to entirely reinvent the wheel. There are already schools that “do online” well and can model more than a few insightful lessons learned so your lift isn’t so heavy. Also, while my wife and I were our kids’ first teachers, it has become apparent over the past month that I, at least, am no longer qualified. Please send help.

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Jonathan Oglesby (oglesbyj@gmail.com) is an education consultant and strategic adviser based in Montgomery County, Maryland.

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