What Education At Home Could Look Like; Reimagining Education

Many thanks to our partners Rhode Island Tutorial and Educational, for this helpful post written by Services Co-Director Halley Lavenstein.

Many thanks for RITES and Halley for allowing us to share her thoughts on School at Home.  For More from Halley, check out the following articles, sure to be helpful as school (in whatever format!) gets underway.

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COVID-19 and School

We are surrounded by many uncertainties in this time of COVID-19. So many ripple effects from the virus collide with each other and leave us stuck, or having to make difficult choices with potentially devastating consequences. As a parent, putting our kids in the direct line of exposure through school is a particularly difficult decision. Some parents might be feeling the pressure of lost instruction time already from this past school year. With troubling signs of increasing cases, rather than stamping this virus out, the fear and worry increases, too.

Ultimately, though, many parents may choose to send their kids back to school in person
because they think their children can’t afford to lose any more academic ground. Is this the
right way to think?

Real and Potential Problems

Yes, it is true. When our country went into lockdown, we had to shift to distance learning
quickly and there were many glitches and issues. For students without reliable access to
technology or those with learning differences, special needs, or other real-world insecurities, this transition was particularly difficult and didn’t serve these students well at all. The push to return to in-person school is particularly important for these children. Add to that parents’ need to return to work to keep their families together and healthy. If this can’t happen, because we have a surge in COVID-19 infections, or if a child or parent is just too scared of the consequences, what does that mean for their education? Will children back in the physical classroom actually be able to focus on lessons, without fear or distraction? Will teachers be able to focus on teaching or will they spend most of their time trying to keep kids following the rules of social distancing? Will they all be able to maintain the essential safety protocols at all times? Will schools continue to have all the resources they need at all times to make this work?

These are a lot of troubling questions without easy answers, and they lead to some pretty “out-of-the-box” thinking.

Rethinking the Focus and Purpose of School

We have placed a huge emphasis on our traditional school model and its importance. I am an educator – I clearly value a good, well-rounded education; however, what that means is
shifting…radically. In the grand scheme of things, at this moment of crisis on many fronts, is knowing the quadratic equation for a test right now or cramming for AP History what we should be focusing on? There is no question, every child is entitled to, and deserves, a good education. Every child should be able to make their way in the world, being able to read, to use money correctly, to live fully, and thrive. But this is an extraordinary opportunity, while we have all been forced to hit the “pause” button, to take stock of what’s important, essential, right now.

Resetting Priorities

The most important thing, above all else, is the physical and mental health of our children. For some, being able to “escape” into academic pursuits is a haven, away from the troubles of the outside world, and we don’t want to take that away, if at all possible. For others, school, as it has been structured, has been a true struggle. Add the online component, and it can become almost impossible. For those in between, school can be a chore at times, but it can also be a common focus and provide concrete goals. We have to be careful that those goals are practical and worthwhile. As we consider coming back together in school before COVID-19 has been tamed and contained, is this worth it? Or, should we think more about what else our children can learn out of school while we wait for COVID-19 to subside?

The Broken School System

We have put an artificial timeline together of when students should learn certain things. As the decades have progressed, this timeline has crept back earlier and earlier for these expectations. What first graders learned years ago is now expected of nursery school students. More and more has been crammed into each school year, so teachers are galloping through material to meet testing criteria, but they are leaving many more children behind as a result. The upshot is a country of kids who can’t read or do math well at all, despite more years of hacking away at it. The pressure has been mounting relentlessly, on teachers and students alike, but the rewards of the system we have been using aren’t being realized. Is COVID-19 the reset button we all needed?

The coronavirus has forced us to rethink education. A system that was already broken has been exposed. Parents who worried about their children’s progress before are now panicking because they know their kids will be even further behind if we try to pick up where we left off. Schools that struggled to provide the appropriate services for individualized education plans before the pandemic will have an even harder time of it as teachers opt-out, resources are strained or nonexistent, and the gap for these students widens. What can we do? Time is ticking.

Looking at Education Differently

Instead of racing to try and “catch up,” what if we slowed down instead? What if we relaxed a little and realized, it’s okay if our kids need to take a little longer to write and spell their names or understand the angles of a triangle or the themes of Charlotte’s Web? By rushing to get curricula done, we are sacrificing deeper understanding and true knowledge. At the rate we are going, our kids will have spent their lives in school, but truly learned very little. When they look back years from now, will they remember every little detail drilled into them about the Embargo Act (and all the other Acts passed), polynomials, the parts of a cell? (Before you start preparing your defenses, I concede students will remember more about what they end up using for their future careers and what draws them in specifically, and less about the things that don’t interest them.) More likely, our grown children will look back and remember that dinner conversation when we talked about the difference between protesting and looting, or the many times we baked together, with more and more responsibility handed over to the children as they grew (and eating the fruits of their labor with particular satisfaction or thinking about how they would tweak the recipe next time), or fixing a broken lawnmower together so they could earn their allowance after all and contribute directly to the smooth running of the household.

My point is, while neither parent nor child may realize or want to acknowledge it, parents can, should, and will be their children’s first and best teachers when it comes to making their way through life.

Our formal education is a “bonus.” It is the enrichment beyond the life lessons of home. For
that alone, it is valuable. If parents struggle with certain skills themselves, such as reading,
writing, or doing basic math, being able to learn these things from others is crucial. If parents need to focus on working to sustain their families, they may not have the time or ability to teach their kids formally at home. Our schools provide so much, in and out of the classroom.

But, we also have to recognize we are in a strange, unpredictable, dangerous time in our lives. We need to look very closely at our current priorities.

Shifting Focus

We have had the summer to figure out how to let kids be kids during a pandemic. Most likely, there have been very creative ways of “co-playing” and interacting, as well as entertaining, and learning. Children have felt the pressures of the disease around us. Will we add the pressure of being students again on top of that? What will be the consequences? Would it be better to find ways to learn about real-world necessities of this moment, such as how to sew an effective face mask or how to grow your own food, or read the COVID-19 warning signs plastered on every door? Can this be done at home? If parents can’t take this on, can students learn these things with online teachers or in some other creative way?

Reshaping the Future

I have asked a lot of questions, and there are few answers that work for everyone. As a parent, this is really an opportunity to reflect on what is most important for your child to learn, and where. This isn’t a “forever” decision – it’s a “right now” decision – and it is a fluid one. We as a society have a chance to rethink how, what, and when our children learn. It is a good time to stop, try and relax, and recognize there is a broader array and prioritization of things our kids can learn as we wait to find a safe way through the COVID-19 pandemic, and possibly beyond.

Halley Lavenstein, A.B. Literature and Society, Brown University, has been the
Co-Director of RITES since 2007, and has been the Site Director of the Hamilton
Summer program for well over a decade. She worked as a Reading Specialist at The
Hamilton School at Wheeler for many years, and is trained in several multisensory
teaching methods, such as Orton-Gillingham, Project Read, and Lindamood Bell. In
these various roles, she continues to consult with and serve as a liaison among families, schools, and other resources for special education, both locally and beyond. Halley is also involved in the local community as the Member Services Coordinator for Rhode Island Fencing Academy and Club (RIFAC). When she in not in these roles, she can be found taking/teaching Historic Longsword class, dancing/choreographing, knitting, reading a good book, or cooking while watching almost every Food Network program available.

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Brooke Rainville
Brooke has spent most of her life in Rhode Island, having grown up in Foster, and moving back to RI after high school in Foxboro, MA. Since becoming a foster parent in 2005, she has cared for 8 children with special needs. The first child placed in her home is now 22, and continues to both brighten and challenge her days. She is stepmom to two young children, who brighten and challenge her days in totally different ways. Brooke has worked with people with special needs for 17 years and currently works as a case manager for children with autism at a non-profit in Southeastern MA. She feels strongly that raising tiny, adorable beings up into functioning, kind, emotionally stable adults is hard, and we all, as mothers, aunts, stepmothers, foster mothers, friends, and grandmothers, have a role in making that easier for each other. Every child (and adult for that matter) we come into contact with will either be better or worse off for the experience, and we should take that seriously, while extending grace to those along with us on this journey. Brooke is passionate about serving others (although she sometimes struggles to do so cheerfully) and advocating for those who can not advocate for themselves. She loves Jesus, a well made gin and tonic, home renovation, and overlooking the dog hair on her floors.