Give yourself ‘grace’ — and 7 other tips from teachers to homeschooling families

Ask five teachers about their expectations for students during extended school closures and they turn around the question.

Instead of worrying about completing school assignments, the teachers advised parents to “do what you can.” 

For parents trying to keep their children from languishing at home, learning at the kitchen table can feel anything but simple. There’s the confusion of Google Classroom to-do lists, paper packets of reading and math, and e-mails with activity suggestions, plus the stress, for many, of juggling children and jobs amid the fear and unpredictability of a worldwide pandemic. 

But there are some ways families can troubleshoot common issues. With help from Golden Apple Illinois, Educators For Excellence, and Teach Plus Illinois, Chalkbeat Chicago convened a panel of five top-flight Illinois educators to talk about how parents can make homeschool better, not lose their minds, and maybe — just maybe — teach their kids a thing or two. 

Here are eight pieces of advice teachers have for parents (and scroll down to find a recorded version of the conversation).  

Families should set realistic expectations for themselves.

Even professional educators acknowledge the difficulty of teaching their own children. It’s different for many parents to suddenly be thrust into the role of chief educator, and it’s nearly impossible to replicate the camaraderie of a classroom and friends.

“You’re not expected to take on the role of a teacher,” said Artemis Kolovos, a special education instructor at Budlong Elementary on the Northwest Side, who said she’s encouraging families in her classroom to provide structure for their kids and address their emotional needs first. “You’re not expected to have expertise in math or science that their regular teacher would.”

“It’s OK to, as a family, give yourself some grace and realize that the home is not a classroom,” said Shayla Ewing, an English and drama teacher at Pekin Community High School in central Illinois.

Start with a schedule. 

Kolovos said that, for her 8-year-old, she needed to make a structured schedule. “I think that was helpful because he was able to check off the assignments he completed throughout the day. It helped him to stay focused, know what’s coming up next, and balance online time and workbook time,” Kolovos said.

For parents trying to build a schedule from scratch, teachers said don’t try to mirror the classroom schedule. “It’s OK if your schedule might look a little bit different,” Ewing said.

Ease in to the day with an activity geared toward social emotional health.

How is your child feeling? Ewing says that it’s important to acknowledge that students, teachers, and educators are experiencing trauma as school closures have ripped them away from their communities. 

Journaling is fine, Ewing said. Or, “It’s OK to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to switch this lesson today and take care of my kids and my own emotional needs right now.’ At the end of the day, it is always more important than whatever academic assignment is on the screen or on paper.” 

Carla Jones, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Cook Elementary on the South Side, said she recently spoke to one parent who was struggling to get her student to do classwork. The parent, who was feeling exhausted, told Jones, “At that point I paused and said, ‘This can wait, but let’s talk about how you’re doing.’”

For parents who might need some guidance on how to have these conversations or a suggestion for an activity that might help tap into how a child feels, teachers recommended wideopenschools.orgs emotional well-being page, which offers several resources.

Mix up the format. 

Think in short time blocks, and mix up the variety of activities and incentives to keep students engaged, teachers said. 

Bryan Meeker, a science teacher at Garcia High School on the Southwest Side, said it helps to vary assignments throughout the day. 

“So, it’s not just all writing, maybe it’s writing and then a skit. Or make it into a song or do a drawing of it, or we build something else that tries to keep it interesting. It’s tough on parents to develop a curriculum on the spot and it’s tough for students to buy into that when they’re at home and they’d rather just, you know, be gaming or napping.”

One thing families can do is consider incorporating a simple science experiment. Meeker recommends the website Science Bob for experiments that can be done at home.

Don’t neglect the arts or physical activity.                                           

Even as schools send home lists of activities geared toward reading and math, Ewing recommended families incorporate the fine arts into the day.

“A lot of my students enjoy improv comedy,” Ewing said. “I give them prompts and then I have students film a short scene with their family. When it comes to movement, my students are totally into the TikTok dances right now.”

Teachers also suggested taking time to read or write poetry, taking a virtual trip to the museum or the opera, or even visiting the Facebook site of a zoo or aquarium that is staging animal meet-and-greets daily. 

Teachers and parents alike also stressed the importance of frequent movement. Participants on the Thursday call recommended the kids’ movement app GoNoodle, which has a phone and desktop applications and gives kids the option of a dance break or brief yoga or even fitness games. 

One kindergarten teacher in the audience said she’s encouraging her families to get outside and go on scavenger hunts inside or outside. “Take a rainbow scavenger hunt,” she said, which seeks items for each color of the rainbow. 

One easy lesson: Ask kids to show what they’ve learned. 

Kids love video and applications like TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube. One thing parents can do is ask them to make a video of something they have learned. 

When all else fails, head to the kitchen. 

Cooking requires measurement, understanding fractions, reading recipes, even creativity — if children are challenged to add flair to tried-and-true recipes — teachers said. Cooking basically offers a bundle of curriculum in one activity. 

“I think cooking is a really nice way to get the younger kids involved. Our Mandarin teacher at the school has been giving simple cooking recipes. She asks students to put their own twist on it with their family and have them post the pictures. That has gotten a really nice response. It’s a great way to be creative with your family,” Kosolov said.

Plus, making a meal together checks off another item on the to-do list during the day: lunch. 

Remember that everyone is on the same team. 

If you haven’t connected with your teacher yet, try that for a start. Many are sympathizing with parents trying to juggle work and learning — and may be doing it, too.
“You’re not alone, we got your back,” said Emmanuel Del Rio, a high school math teacher at Kenwood Academy in Chicago.