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Virtual Learning Update: Tips and Early Adjustments

We are two and a half weeks into this 100% virtual learning school year, and I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised how well it is going. The teachers have been utterly fantastic, and the boys have been resilient and unfazed through it all. I realize not everyone will have or is having the same positive experience, but for us, at least, it has been fine.

Actually, I think my social butterfly does better in this virtual environment because he’s not distracted during class. He’s actually getting his classwork finished quickly instead of it piling up on him.

A few weeks ago I shared how we were preparing the kids for virtual learning. Here are some of the adjustments and new practices we adopted since then.

Get Outside Frequently

We get outside every morning before class for at least 15 minutes. We take a walk or play tag or red light, green light. It’s not a long stretch of time, but while the weather is nice I want to get them moving a bit before sitting in front of a computer for most of the day.

The boys have an hour for lunch, so I send them outside for “recess” after they eat while I clean up. After school, I encourage more outside time so they can run around and stretch their legs. We have to take advantage of the nice weather while it lasts.

Set Reminders

I mentioned previously how my husband and I are working in shifts so we get some focused work time each day. That’s still working well, but I’ve started using the kids’ magnetic drawing board to note for them who is “on duty” at the time. So, before I head for my office at 10am, I erase “Mom” from the board and write “Dad.”

I also updated our Alexa. She is no longer providing five minute warnings that class is about to start. Instead, two minutes before class officially starts she announces that class is starting now. This gets my kids into panic mode and back to the computer in time (after a quick drink or potty break or any of the other myriad of things they should have been doing during break).

Use Video

Our school district isn’t requiring the use of video for a variety of reasons, but I require my kids to have them on. They don’t always like to when they are bored, but I want the teacher to have this visual feedback. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to teach to a bunch of blank and (oftentimes muted) screens.

Stay Outside the Room Where It Happens

Don’t try to be like Aaron Burr. #HamiltonJoke

Strive to stay out of the room where the kids are “in school.” If they don’t see me, they don’t tend to “need” my help so much. I stay within earshot, but that’s it. They know where all of their classes are online, there are books by their desks, and paper and art supplies galore are nearby. They don’t usually need me unless there is a technology question, which is only a couple of times within a two-hour window now.

Put Irregular Events on Work Calendars

Both boys have a variety of weekly classes with the librarian, guidance counselor, or special services that are outside of the typical school day schedule. I’ve put all of these on my work calendar (marked as private) and my husband’s calendar so we remember to check to see if the boys logged in like they are supposed to do.

That’s about it for now! We’re at this 100% virtual situation until at least November, so we’re going to make the best of it. Staying positive has helped the adults and kids maintain their sanity. Please let me know if you have any other tips! I’ll take all of the help we can get.

Posted in Blog

Considerations When Preparing Elementary Students for Virtual Learning

Virtual school is about to start for us after Labor Day, so I’ve been spending a fair amount of time thinking about how we’re going to make our 100% virtual school work for a kindergartener and second grader and two parents attempting to simultaneously work from home. Here’s my plan. (Let’s revisit this post in six weeks and laugh at how naive I may be here.)

Give Each Student Their Own Space to Limit Distractions

We are lucky to have a formal dining room available (that we’re obviously not using right now) that we can spare for the kids learning space. I’ve rearranged the furniture in there multiple times since COVID started to adjust to our needs, and we recently did so again to prepare for full-time virtual school. Since both kids will be on video conferences most of the school day (!!!), they needed to have separated spaces.

I arranged it so each kid essentially has their own “cubicle” with an old school student desk (thank you in-laws for the great gift provided pre-2020). They have been able to customize them how they like by picking where exactly to place their desks, setting up their laptops, picking out supplies, etc.

To help them (and my husband and I) stay focused, we’ve posted their schedules and other info they need to have handy next to their desks. I also wrote a note of encouragement for each boy that is posted as well.

Allow for Adjustments Based on Activity

Our kids are going to be taking all types of classes in this space, including reading, writing, physical education, and music. I attempted to consider this when creating the space by:

  • Providing a table nearby for the kids to rest the laptop on if they have to write or use other materials at their desks. Their desk space isn’t particularly big, so this is our workaround.
  • Leaving at least some empty space around the desk to allow for jumping around. I’m expecting there to be some movement breaks throughout the day, so they need space to move around.
  • Placing age appropriate books within arm’s reach of the desk. I’m sure the kids are going to be directed to digital libraries, which mine will likely favor, but I want them to have the option to pick up a paper book if they want it.
  • Having an art space in the room for them to do messy projects. I’m really hoping the school doesn’t go in this direction, but we’re prepared with an ever-covered table in the room just in case.

Foster Independence

My husband and I are going to try and get as much work done as possible during actual business hours this Fall, so we need the kids to be independent. We are not going to sit next to them throughout the day. I would go insane, and I don’t think the kids will need it. We’ll be on call if they need us though. My husband and I am fostering their independence in a few ways.

First, just like in the regular classroom, the boys each have their own pencil box that they stocked with pencils, crayons, glue sticks, scissors, and other commonly used items. They keep these in the storage space under their desks. I want them empowered to find and use the supplies they need to get their work done.

Second, we have them practice using their technology, particularly Mr. 4 year old because it’s all new to him. He has been practicing logging into his computer, using the mouse, and finding his virtual classroom. I should have him practice using headphones too.

Third, we will have established routines. Only certain scheduled breaks will be designated as snack time. I will give the kids ideas of things to do during longer unscheduled breaks by setting out puzzles, Play Doh, or LEGOs. Alexa is set up to provide reminders five minutes before each scheduled break ends. I’m going to be flexible here and adapt our routines as needed as the year unfolds.

Lastly, I incorporated common words seen in directions into our “mommy school” activities over the summer (e.g., words like write, circle, add, subtract, answer, complete, etc.). We did this because I wanted Mr. 7 year old to be independent enough to read the directions for his assignments without always asking his teacher or us what he needs to do.

Set Expectations

We’ve started talking with the boys now about what this school year is going to look like and how different is going to be. We’ve begun conversations about the need to listen to the teacher, have fun, and get your work done while you’re in school. There have been conversations about how mommy and daddy will be working while they’re at school and what that means for them.

The boys are still sharing a space, and we’ve made it clear that school happens in the dining room. I think we’re going to be stricter this Fall about school happening in that space to help compartmentalize when to work and when to play. This may be one of those things that I laugh about in six weeks because I’m not sure if it will work or end up being helpful.

Plan to Adapt

I know I’ll go into the school year with a much better mindset if I anticipate that the plan will change. We will all learn a lot as a family regarding what works for our professional, family, and school lives, and we’ll make tweaks and be better for it. This growth mindset will be the key to our survival.

As my bestie always reminds me after I call her fretting about something school related, we do hard things. We got this. And you know what, so do our kids because we will lead the way.

Posted in Blog

The Power of Song in Teaching Children to Memorize Emergency Information

My kids have amazing memories when it comes to remembering song lyrics. Mr. 7 year old picked up many of the Hamilton song lyrics before we even saw the musical on Disney+ by listening to a friend sing, and both boys have impressively learned the elements of the periodic table this way.

So, when I wanted to teach Mr. 4 year old and Mr. 7 year old my cell phone number, I needed a song. I turned to 867-5309/Jenny. It has largely worked! Mr. 7 year old picked it up in a day, and he apparently has already shared my phone number with friends so I can schedule him for future playdates! Ha! Mr. 4 year old is really close to getting it right consistently too.

And then it recently came to my attention that my children don’t yet know how to spell their last name. Whoops! I mean, it is a bit long, but it’s manageable. I went in search of another song and found that the Mickey Mouse song works perfectly. This Preschool Express site has a bunch of song options, depending on what name you’re looking to spell.

As an instructional designer and someone who creates educational products, I’ve long known that learning tricks like this are effective, but it never gets old to see it work in practice.

Photo by Eric Ayon on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

My Daily Inner Monologue Regarding Back to School

I have been postponing writing anything about the 2020-2021 school year on here because I just don’t want to think about it. Funny enough, though, it’s all I seem to be thinking about these days. Just ask my husband. I’m driving him crazy.

Our county schools have opted for 100% virtual education for at least the start of the 2020-2021 school year. I will avoid giving my opinion on the politics of this choice. Our family is privileged enough to make virtual learning work. I fully acknowledge there is no good solution to making sure our elementary-aged children are well educated while keeping everyone healthy.

Last Spring’s online classes for the kids didn’t go particularly well. Our public school district botched the rollout and couldn’t get technology issues easily resolved. There is a lot of pressure on the schools to “get it right” for the Fall, and I’m anxious about it. There’s a greater expectation for kids to be online during the day and the sample schedule I’ve seen have the kids busy during much of the normal school day. I have no idea how we’re going to keep two young kids focused on graded schoolwork and Zoom classes while my husband and I work from home, even with our two-hour shifts.

I’m again so thankful for my employer who allows us to make our own hours. But, I still need to be available for my team members and clients throughout the day. And, I really don’t want to be waking up before dawn and working after the kids’ bedtime for an undetermined number of months just so I can sit beside my kindergartener to make sure he’s paying attention during circle time. I CAN do this, yes, but it sounds miserable for all involved and not terribly educational.

I’m trying to keep our options open for next year, but I’m running out of time. I’m considering homeschooling one or both of the kids so they can at least entertain themselves or go to some sort of daycare for the remaining portions of the day. It’s a full-year commitment though, and I’m hopeful the younger elementary kids will get back into a classroom sooner rather than later.

There are some private schools that are going back full time, but I’m pretty convinced that they will end up being told to close for at least a portion of the year. Then, we’d be paying for a private school and still be back to virtual teaching.

I’ve researching “podding” (geesh, what a word) but haven’t seriously explored it. The ones that have tutors and teachers leading them, understandably so, are EXPENSIVE. The whole pod movement seems to be figuring itself out. Nothing is clear cut, which makes me hesitate and avoid wading into the water. For instance, if I’m paying for a tutor to come to my house two days a week and a neighbor’s house three days a week, how do you handle payment, taxes, insurance? Ugh, forget it!! I don’t have the time and energy to get into all of that.

For now, the kids are going back to public school, even though it is going to be virtual. As long as the official school day schedule isn’t crazy, we’ll probably stay with the public school. My big concern is that the kids don’t go back to the classroom at all this year, because then I would have wished we homeschooled, but I can’t know what’s going to happen. It’s the nature of a pandemic. At least the school board is saying they want K-2 back into the school once it is feasible.

I keep telling myself to breathe. One day at a time. These “grades” the kids are going to get don’t really matter. They will learn what they need to learn because I will focus on the fundamentals with them at home like we’ve been doing since March 13, 2020 – the day “the world turned upside down.” (Look! A Hamilton reference! I’m driving my husband crazy with those too.)

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Ways I Hid Learning in Kid-Approved Activities

Our school district has made classwork available for the kids since after Spring Break and throughout the summer. I’m very appreciative of the educational support, but less for the worksheets and more for the learning objectives. I use those to figure out what topics to incorporate. I have been looking for ways to integrate key concepts from PreK and 1st grade into our daily fun as a way to spend time together. It’s all part of my strategy to get them sick of spending time with me so I can work later in the day. Here are some of our favorites.

Writing Journal

We started with a blank journal where the kids could write about whatever they please, but I quickly learned that my now rising second grader performs better with more direction. To help with this, I wrote prompts at the top of each page. “What makes a good friend?” “What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Draw it.” “If Batman and the Hulk battled each other, who would win?”

Flashlight Word Search

I printed flashcards of sight words and other vocabulary the kids are learning and hid them around their bedroom, turned off the lights, and had my little ones hunt for them. Once they found one using a flashlight, they had to read it to me.

Mr. 4 year old was really into this one.

Math Jump

I want the kids to be able to solve basic addition and subtraction problems quickly to help with higher-level math in the future. To practice, I give them two minutes to answer questions and get across the room. For each right answer, they take a step forward. For each wrong answer, they step back. You have to beat the clock, not your brother. This one was a huge hit!

Sight Word Toss

I used chalk to write a dozens of sight words on the driveway, then gave each kid a bean bag. They had to toss the bag onto a word, read it correctly, and then they’d earn points. They tracked their points in chalk on their claimed part of the driveway. By the end of it, Mr. 7 year old was adding his own words to the game board, so he was practicing writing and spelling too.

Nerf Blaster Phonics

I’ve played this game several times a couple of ways, and it is often requested. Basically, I put sticky notes on the wall and directed the boys to find what I said and blast it. Sometimes I ask them to find a particular letter, a letter based on a given sound, letter blends, or whole words.

Blasting alone is award enough. No need to award points with this game.

Find My Errors

Mr. 7 year old loves this one! I write a couple of sentences and purposefully make mistakes that he has to find. I misspell words, forget to capitalize, or use the wrong punctuation. It’s something about finding mom’s mistakes that makes this really intriguing, I guess.

LEGO Challenges

Mr. 4 year old has done this one several times independently. I give them their LEGO bin and present them with a challenge. My favorite one was when I had Mr. 4 year old build a tower taller than his water bottle that holds a plastic egg. He technically met the requirement by adding a skinny pillar on the tower to push it over the height requirement.

The angle is off here, but his orange and white pillar pushes his truck over the minimum height requirement.

Don’t be fooled though. We don’t do these activities every day, and there is PLENTY of screen time built into each day so we can survive conference calls and work emergencies. These activities were just the favorites we’ve played over the last four months.

Posted in Blog

“You Do You” – My Motto for the Latest (and Every) Parenting War

I see it starting now: another great debate for parents to fall into camps regarding how to “best” raise their children. When schools starting closing a couple of weeks ago, it started. There have been articles all over my newsfeeds claiming how parents should approach homeschooling their kids during the coronavirus shutdown.

One side of the divide is to just focus on play and not worry about educational activities. Teachers are professionals, and they will catch students up when they return to school. Focus on making family memories and having kids feel safe and emotionally secure during this turbulent time. Academics will come later.

The other side of the spectrum includes a focus on academics. There are articles advocating color-coded schedules, sharing lesson plans, and talking about the benefits of creating academic structure. These parents have scoured the Internet for educational activities to keep their children on track academically. They may come across as too rigid and inflexible during this unprecedented time.

I just want to put this out there now, before the flames of this debate ignite, that parents need to do what works for them. Find what your normal looks like right now. We’re all battling different needs, ranging from the needs of others (kids/parents/employees/employers/etc.) to our needs (don’t forget about yourself).

Ultimately, come up with something that works for you and your family. Give yourself some grace. Recognize that what may work for you this week isn’t necessary going to work for you in a month. Try to roll with it.

I think many of these articles touting how to handle this situation are trying to offer support. If you’re overwhelming yourself searching for ways to educate your kids or up late at night thinking of ways to teach Timmy how to grasp common core math, then cut yourself some slack. On the other hand, if you’re unsure of what you can do to support your kids so they’re not watching TV or playing video games all day every day, there are articles offering ideas and schedules for your consideration.

Although my personality certainly leads toward structure in an effort to save my sanity, I’m trying to be flexible and follow my children’s needs. I typically work in some activity or lesson (requiring very little prep and low stress) with my kids sometime between 8am and 10am every Monday through Friday. (Support from my kids’ schools is now rolling in and supplementing whatever I plan for the day.) One day this week Mr. 4-year-old wouldn’t have it. He took off to build a train track instead. I let him go, called it a STEM activity, and focused on supporting Mr. 7-year-old one-on-one instead. Last Friday, I wanted my house cleaned. It’s irrational and not REALLY necessary, but I wanted it done. So, we spent 30 minutes working on schoolwork and then worked as a team to tackle the cleaning to-dos.

Ultimately, each day I’m trying to focus on being present with the kids sneaking educational activities into play. I’m trying to take Mr. 7-year-old’s advice that he wrote on our driveway earlier this week: HAVE FUN! I think, from the kids’ perspectives anyway, that it’s working. Mr. 7-year-old notes in his homeschool journal almost every day that he’s happy. That’s success enough for me right now.

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Odds and Evens

Mr. 4 year old asked this week, “If Daddy wants to play with me and you want me to help you with work, would you cut me in half?” Such a wacky, but innocently sweet, question from my little man. (We’ll gloss over that daddy is perceived as the fun one and I’m the one working around the house.)

It’s not unusual to have these dilemmas about sharing in our household though, whether that’s who gets the treasured “truck spoon” pictured above or who gets to open the garage door. Cutting a person or object in half is rarely the answer.

I don’t have room in my brain to remember if big brother got the blue cup last time or not. I don’t know whose turn it is (and I frankly don’t care), so I solved the issue with a simple rule. Odd days of the month are for Mr. 7 year old and even days are for Mr. 4 year old. Now the kids don’t argue over whose turn it is. Instead, they see that they disagree on something and ask what day it is. The victor celebrates the win while the other pouts but quickly moves on. (And, bonus, my kids quickly learned about even and odd numbers!)

You may be thinking, “That’s great, Stephanie, but you are favoring odd days. Many months have 31 days, giving Mr. 7 year old more days than Mr. 4 year old.” Nope! The 31st (and Feb 29 this year) are mommy and daddy’s days. We get to open the garage door those days.

So there.

Nanny nanny boo boo.