Back to school or learning pod, every parent’s choice is reasonable

I don’t think my behavior should be characterized as doom-scrolling, but I do subscribe toand read dailytwo of the major American newspapers as well as a handful of magazines. I prefer my news* to be well-researched, fact-checked, and professionally edited, thank you!

Recently, everywhere I look, I’m confronted by angry, polarized debate creating artificial binary positions on the particulars of education in the COVID-19 era.

In person learning is too dangerous! Remote learning is useless! Both positions are flawed…

“In person learning is too dangerous!”

“Remote learning is useless!

Both positions are flawed because real life is nuanced. What works for one child—or one family, or one community—can’t be arbitrarily exported to someone else’s situation because there are meaningful differences between cases.

school supplies - 1Some teachers aren’t at particularly high risk for complications from the novel coronavirus, and want to get back into classrooms quickly. By all means, let’s put those educators to work in communities where infection rates make that a sensible solution. Other teachers have pre-existing conditions or would prefer to teach remotely: there’s an audience for that modality, too.

I have yet to see any analysis comparing the number of teachers who’d like to get back inside schools with the number of families who desire the same for their kids. What if all this finger pointing is for nothing and those numbers align naturally in most communities? Shouldn’t someone put a modicum of effort into asking such a straightforward question that could solve so many problems?

Remote education worked well for some students. Learning outside of a large, “industrial school” setting was the dominant mode of education for most people prior to the past century. It’s ridiculous to pretend that there is only one path from ignorance to wisdom; all of human history argues otherwise.

Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10I’ve read articles bemoaning the selfishness of (rich) parents forming COVID-19 learning pods instead of sending their kids back to public schools. At the same time, many (mostly urban) schools don’t have enough physical space to safely host all of their pupils in a socially distanced manner.

It strikes me as obvious that the removal of some kids—admittedly, those whose families can afford to pay private tutors or take time away from work to teach their own themselves—from over-crowded conditions will only improve the odds against infection-via-density for those who remain.

Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

It flat out sucks that we have yet to find a way to offer any semblance of an equal opportunity for an excellent education to all students regardless of color, creed, or zip code, but reducing each pupil’s risk of contracting COVID-19 in his or her classroom is a more straightforward problem to solve.

Since this is literally a matter of life or death, I think we should start with the low hanging fruit of smaller class sizes by whatever means possible. Some skilled educators may be lured by wealthy families’ ability to pay for private tuition, but few go into teaching for the money, so I suspect most passionate teachers will remain in the system where they chose to work.

Some families have no option but to send their kids back to classrooms. They depend upon this one and only form of state-sponsored child care in America in order to work, earning a paycheck, but also contributing their labor to benefit society. Their kids deserve to be the first children back at school in person. I willingly cede the seats my kids could rightfully occupy to children who need them more.

The children of essential workers and kids who live with food insecurity should have first dibs on in person instruction this year. This isn’t about getting the most back for every penny I spent in taxes, it’s about doing the right thing at a tumultuous time.

lunch box on kitchen counter

Lunchbox, ready for school.

It is pathetic that many of our schools are in poor repair and lack modern HVAC systems or windows that open. It is ridiculous how many young bodies we squeeze into rooms designed for far fewer. It is outrageous that millions of our children depend upon meals served at school for essential nutrition.

None of that is right, but all of it is true. I will continue to advocate for better schooling for every kid at every opportunity I see, but I’m not going to ignore reality when lives are at risk. Neither choice is pure merit, but neither choice deserves scorn.

The choice that works for your family this year is good enough. Do what works. Kids can learn in many ways and from many sources, especially when they see their parents carefully making thoughtful choices on their behalf.

Children play amongst colorful leaves on a sunny autumn dayKids are resilient. Thank God! Most of the kids will be all right. That’s the best we can do in the face of a viral adversary that has killed 171,787 Americans as of August 29, 2020.

For the moment, the best I can offer my community is to keep my kids away from public spaces to alleviate the pressure of a pandemic on the strained resources of our health and education systems.

I’m doing my best, like so many other parents. Frankly, we should all give ourselves a break, because our best really is good enough for now. Instead of blaming each other for making different choices, let’s all focus on meeting the needs of our own kids, each in our own ordinary, reasonable way.

I voted Election sticker - 1Highly paid elected officials in D.C. and other capitals deserve the pressure and expectation of doing more, because they are the ones who dropped this particular ball. Give them the blame they’ve earned. The U.S.A. is failing in its attempt to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, but it isn’t for lack of effort on the part of average American parents.

* It’s true that I added the New York Times to my paid subscriptions only after COVID-19 started sweeping the world, but I’d been on the verge of the upgrade purchase for almost a year. I think this is where I give a shout out to the Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Wired magazine, and The Economist for edu-taining me through a pandemic, right? 

It was my growing reliance on NYT Cooking recipes during the early phase of sheltering-in-place (with hit-and-miss grocery deliveries) that finally prompted me to input my credit card number.

According to this NY Times article from September 4, 2020, 40% of parents have chosen remote learning instead of taking advantage of the hybrid or in person options offered in that city.

As a mother who has home schooled one of her children for over seven years, my experience was that customizing my own plan for my own child was far easier than implementing the adapted curriculum dictated by my other kid’s school that was unprepared for the sudden need for remote learning last spring. American parents have the right to educate their own children as they see fit, so declaring as a home educating parent is an alternative for those whose kids responded poorly to their schools’ offerings.

In 2018, 29.7 million children received free or reduced-cost lunch daily per the USDA

Bluetooth keyboard: Logitech K780 liberates a writer on the move

If I hadn’t purchased a Bluetooth keyboard, this blog would have about 30% of its current content. My preferred portable input device is a Logitech K780 model.

I bought mine from Amazon about a year ago when I began writing regularly for my blog. I quickly realized that hand discomfort was my limiting factor for writing long form content away from my desk with an iPad. I paid $75 then; today’s price is several dollars less.

keyboard in use - 1

My Logitech K780 keyboard in use on a lap desk

The dedicated keys for switching almost instantaneously between three devices are a major factor in my enjoyment of this particular keyboard. Those are the three white keys at the upper left of the K780 in the photo above.

Because I experience arthritis pain and stiffness in my fingers and wrists, tapping on a touchscreen while holding a device can be difficult, excruciating, or even impossible.

If I have my keyboard out, I use it to enter even short, simple text messages into my Android Blu R1 phone. Using the Logitech K780 is that much more comfortable for me.

keyboard Logitech bluetooth K780 - 5

Slim, but for the hump

Two other functions made the K780 the best keyboard for me:

  1. I prefer a keyboard with a numeric keypad for efficient data entry, and
  2. the indented slot simultaneously holds phones and tablets in place while I work.

That first one won’t matter to many users. If you don’t use the number pad on your current keyboard often or ever!, then by all means choose a smaller, lighter Bluetooth keyboard for your use on the go.*

Logitech offers the K380 model which has one touch device switching, like my K780, but without the built-in stand, or the K480, with stand, but using a fussy-looking dial instead of a keystroke to change devices. I haven’t tried either of those.

The little ledge that holds a device, however, will likely appeal to many users. Imagine a small, parallelogram-shaped valley parallel to your top row of keyboard keys, and you’ll have the form of this feature on the Logitech K780. It works well, supporting even a full sized iPad without a wobble on flat surfaces.

What makes this work exceedingly well for me is the full width keyboard (remember that numeric pad!) that leaves room for an iPad Pro—inside its thin, folio style case—as well as two cell phones. Not only can I swap which device I desire to control in an instant with the press of a physical button, but I also have that same device in view without juggling electronics.

Because we’ve talked about how well I juggle these days, right? My arthritis makes me drop things frequently as well as causing pain.

Continue reading

Welcome back to school; I miss you while you’re there!

I dislike sending my little guy back to school on the day after Labor Day. In direct contradiction to the nonsense spouted in television commercials, not all parents cheer to have their kids out of the house.

If I were selfish, I would educate both of my children at home, to suit my personality and my interests. I send the younger one to school instead because it suits his.

I miss our long, quiet summer mornings. There’s time for us, then, to sit down together over breakfast. I miss saying yes to late night stargazing and other adventures because there’s no need to worry about a busy schedule.

I miss DS2‘s good company around the house during the day. He’s blessed with great wit and a loving temperament. He’s generous with his hugs.

I am excited to begin the new school session with DS1 here at home. He studies year ’round, but our schedule changes to a different pattern every September, December, January, and June. This choice is energizing, and keeps subjects feeling fresh.

DS1 is a pleasure to keep at home with me. We’re both fairly introverted, so we often work quietly, side by side. Quietly, that is, until one of us gets excited about a project or idea. Continue reading

Poring over pre-algebra textbooks to appease my non-math anxiety

I read six math textbooks yesterday from cover to cover, and I perused at least half a dozen more.

Math books textbook Laundry

Observe that the clean laundry was folded onto one of the stacks of textbooks, because it had to be done, but there was no energy left to move any of these objects elsewhere around the house

Why would I do such a thing? It’s because I’m feeling unprepared for pre-algebra. That’s making me anxious.

Wait, what?!?

I’ve said it before, but I’ve also learned that I must repeat it: I’m a lady who is good at math.

And, I’m going on about that again because I’m undertaking something new.  My current anxiety hinges on my ability to impart my knowledge of, and suitable appreciation for, the application of math… to someone else’s child.

A friend and her daughter are going to learn at home this year, like DS1 and I (and millions of other American kids) do. In addition to offering general advice, and pointing my friend toward excellent textbooks and home school collaboratives, I’ve agreed to help the girl by teaching Pre-Algebra.

As usual, when my friend floated this idea a year ago, I enthusiastically agreed. I offered encouragement, pointed out the pitfalls of which I’m aware, and sent her a steady stream of supporting research for whatever it was we talked about while all of this was theoretical.

It’s pretty fair to call me an enthusiast. In what area of interest? Well, whatever might be my fascination of the moment. I’m a serial enthusiast, and my intellectual appetite often exceeds my physical stamina.

Also, I work a project until I’m thoroughly exhausted; then I walk away* depleted. And I do walk away. It’s common for me to return to areas of interest after these desertions, but I don’t take them all up again.

My interest in a subject rarely subsides, but my activity in that given area rarely draws a shallow curve or a sensible straight line of steady progress. Jagged peaks and desolate valleys do a better job of depicting my levels of effort over time.

You can see it on my blog. I’ve considered composing posts and spacing them out on a sensible schedule of distributed areas of interest, but… I don’t really want to. Because, when I’m obsessed with camping equipment, or studying German, or maximizing minivan efficiency for a road trip, or the vital importance of true mastery of algebraic concepts, that is what I want to talk about, almost exclusively

until the next month, when I move on to the next thing. It’s fair to describe me as somewhat obsessive. I also accept the label of dilettante.

Which brings me back around to what I’ve done. I’ve hitched a young lady’s wagon to my erratic star, and it’s making me nervous.

I’m not a math teacher. I’m only marginally reliable. What have I done?

And yet…

…my young friend, whom I’ll call The Scholar, is exhibiting patterns I expected from the story I heard about her school experience. I gave her a series of pre- and post-tests from my various textbooks, and here’s what I uncovered:

  • She sees a novel problem, and she’s inclined to shut down. She sees each one as an opportunity to be judged a failure, not a chance to learn a new way to answer her own questions in the future.
  • She was given rules to memorize for calculating answers, but no explanation for why such rules work (or has no recollection of the explanations.) Math is a set of magical black boxes she’s supposed to carry around forever, weighing her down instead of providing tools she can use to accomplish much more with less effort.
  • She asks me if her answer is “bad.” She means, “incorrect,” but her feelings are out of alignment with the scale of the mistake.

When The Scholar asked if her math was “bad,” I pointed out that she wasn’t spitting on babies and kicking puppies. Making a mistake means she didn’t know what to do, or she didn’t do it right all the way to the logical conclusion. Incorrect? Yes. In pre-algebra, we are actively seeking convergent answers! But this is not a moral failing.

Life is full of emotionally fraught situations that put us through a wringer. Math isn’t one of them. Either we know how to proceed, or we learn—or look up—what to do. This should actually be a carefree process in the realm of feelings. This is purely intellectual.

The bad feelings here are a result of prior training. I think this is what happens when math is taught by someone with a phobia who doesn’t love, or at least appreciate, the subject.

So I’m not a math teacher, but I’m going to take a swing at this. Based upon the evidence I’ve gathered from my sheaf of pre-tests, my influence is likely improve the situation. It’s possible that it already has.

You see, one instruction I’d given The Scholar was to please indicate near each test section any strong reactions provoked by the content. A lot of those she recorded were negative. But a few problems were annotated, “fun!” That’s heartening to see, and it surprised her mom.

It’s been a long time since The Scholar enjoyed any element of her math education. We’re definitely going to include some of these “fun” puzzles in her upcoming assignments. All computational skills practice will benefit her. Puzzles and well-designed apps can offer her skills practice with less pain.

I could go on at even greater length about the positive qualities of the math curricula I’ve been perusing. As you can see from my photos, we own more than one set of elementary texts. I couldn’t even lay hands upon DS1‘s pre-algebra book (publisher Art of Problem Solving‘s Prealgebra) for my photo shoot. He and his grandfather were still busy with it and couldn’t be bothered to give it up on my (frivolous) account.

Math books textbook Life of Fred

Life of Fred

For a child who’s learned to hate math, I can’t recommend strongly enough a perusal of Life of Fred (Stanley Schmidt’s utterly unconventional collection) and/or the comic-book formatted Beast Academy series (another contribution from Art of Problem Solving.)

Math books textbook BA

Beast Academy

It doesn’t matter if the stated age range is “beneath you.” These books are fun to read, and I’d guess even most educated adults would learn something new about a subject they consider mastered by spending time with them. I did.

Upon reflection, I’m really grateful that my latest project will give me another turn through the workaday skills of pre-algebraic math, and in the company of a bright and unconventional kid like The Scholar.

I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.

 

*Perhaps sometimes better described as: I fall down and lie at rest and let the subject move away on its own.

Home education as a radical act

You* have the right to educate your own children.

Did you realize that?

It can be a source of paralyzing terror to even the most highly educated modern American, but teaching one’s children at home is the right and privilege of every parent.

I wouldn’t recommend availing oneself of this right, however, unless one feels called to the challenge. Teaching your children is a challenge. Let no blog or expert tell you otherwise! But, if you undertake this task, it may be the most important thing you ever do. If your child is doing fine, s/he might do even better in a personalized mix of classes designed à la carte. If your child is failing within the system, you may not have a better option than the radical one to educate your child at home.

radical adjective rad·i·cal \ˈra-di-kəl\

a :  very different from the usual or traditional :  extreme

b :  favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions

c :  associated with political views, practices, and policies of extreme change

d :  advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs the radical right

I’m not a zealot on the subject of home education. I have two kids, one enrolled in school, and one who learns at home. Both of my children attended preschool and kindergarten. We never sought to keep them away from other people; we aren’t hiding at home to avoid the realities of the diverse and populous world.

My son learns at home because it works for him. He is learning, and, unlike when he left school, he is thriving. He is an introvert, so his social needs are easily met with his group classes and private meet-ups outside of typical school hours. He is also a logical thinker, and a practical sort. He realized in early elementary school that it was quicker and more efficient to get schoolwork done without the distraction of other kids. He would rather spend time with his peers when he’s free to interact with them, getting his academic work done in privacy and peace.

Real life and the professional world allow for this kind of personalization in a way that modern institutionalized schooling does not. Some jobs involve constant contact and communication (sales); some jobs demand a tolerance for solitude (working on a oil rig, say, or in a fire lookout tower); the vast majority of jobs fall somewhere in between.

There’s nothing novel about the fact that human beings are individuals with unique characteristics and strengths. The strange conceit is the Industrial Age school that insists every square peg insert itself into its identical round hole; if the peg doesn’t fit, it is the peg that has failed. The hole bears no responsibility for its failure to be round!

People who believe schools, as they are today, are the only way to educate children would do well to note that the common institutional school is at most a few hundred years old. Human beings were finding ways to educate children, including providing formal academic instruction, for thousands of years before that. This is a beautiful illustration of Maslow’s hammer: every problem looks like a nail when your only tool is a hammer.

Emphatically, and with gusto, let me state that I believe in education, and a rigorous, fairly traditional education at that. The standards my kids are expected to meet before we set them free into adulthood include:

  • mastery of written and verbal communication in their native tongue,
  • mathematics sufficient to succeed as 21st century professionals,
  • ability to communicate in at least one foreign language,
  • competence with a musical instrument,
  • knowledge of history and human accomplishments,
  • knowledge of and practical experience with science,
  • study of philosophy and its application to logical/critical thinking,
  • proficient use of and ability to program computers,
  • and physical health and self-care.

We study year-round, and we consistently exceed the hours of instruction mandated by our state, but this doesn’t define our success as home scholars/educators. We are successful because we are giving this child the support he needs to maximize his own potential, academically and personally.

My child learns, for the most part, because he’s excited and motivated to do so. His success is his own. While we, as parents, asserted our authority to define the required goals to be worked toward if he wants to continue learning at home, how he reaches these goals is a process in which the child is an equal participant.

Evaluations, tests, and school structures are mere tools to be employed toward the real goal: the education of our children. Every discussion should bear this in mind; every policy should be crafted to serve the actual needs of our children. It’s shocking how rare this is in practice.

If your child isn’t learning—if s/he isn’t receiving the education s/he needs—consider undertaking to provide it yourself, and be willing to work outside the status quo until you accomplish what your child needs. Systemic failure to endow children with the tools they need to be successful adults and citizens is a threat to the fabric of our republic and the health of the individual.

Have you personally had to address this threat? How are you meeting your child’s educational needs? Have you had to take radical steps to meet them?

*Americans