Community Perspective: A parental field guide for teaching at home

At the Jenkins household, learning time is both scheduled and spontaneous.

Community Perspective essay submitted by Brad Jenkins

“I think we should homeschool.”

I stared back at my wife, wondering what kind of practical joke she was playing on me.

“Really?” was I could muster, given that our two daughters, one in 4th grade and the other in 5th, were thriving in a school we adored and our preschool-aged son appeared to be on track to join them soon.

A confluence of events, though – too many to detail here – had my wife thinking about the diverse types of school options we have here in the Valley. Somehow, she had landed on the one we had consistently said we’d never do: teaching our children at home. 

So, in the fall of 2016, our kids joined about 1.7 million other children in the United States who learn at home. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic emptied schools and brought the learning home for the foreseeable future, I’m hearing parents ask many of the same questions and express some of the same anxieties I had when we started teaching at home.

All of my initial questions were about replicating the school environment in our home — transplanting a classroom into our basement den. I pictured my wife or me, depending on the subject, standing before a white board lecturing to our children as they sat in desks or at a table, engrossed with all the wisdom we would pour into their minds.

Amid these questions, we went to a homeschooling convention in Richmond, sponsored by the Home Educators Association of Virginia. (I hate to admit it now, but I expected to see a bunch of socially awkward people who were way smarter than me. I was surprised, though, at just how “normal” everyone was.) There, the questions multiplied, especially when we entered the convention center’s exhibit hall, where row upon row of hundreds of curriculum and resource companies had set up demonstrations of all you could do at home. There were traditional textbooks, rocks and minerals for science, online musical instruction videos, foreign-language options and more, Each was touted as a solution that would make our homeschooling experience simple and successful. 

I was overwhelmed, and I can only imagine parents who were thrust into the virtual-learning world with no warning must be, too. Around the time I started to wonder if we were making a huge mistake, my wife shared something she had heard during her homeschooling research, something that has become one of our mottos, and it’s something anyone who is teaching at home (even temporarily during this pandemic) should remember: “Homeschool is not school at home.”

What she was telling me was that we couldn’t model what we did at home on the traditional classroom setting from our children’s in-school days. It was one of those a-ha moments that lifted many of the unrealistic expectations I had created.

Early on, I saw our new motto in action. In those first days of homeschooling, I’d come home for lunch and the kids would be playing a game or running around outside. “Everyone is done with school,” my wife would tell me. “Already?” I’d say. “It’s just lunch time!”

I started to see that not every hour has to be filled with our view of traditional learning. While setting a schedule for each day is helpful, it’s also beneficial for us not to cling too tightly to the plan. Flexibility – something I’m still learning – has been a hallmark of homeschooling. Now, as our older children have gotten into middle and high school, we sometimes see them do schoolwork in the morning, take a long break in the afternoon and then work some more after dinner. This works for them, and so we let them run with it as they learn to manage their own time.

Even during breaks from lessons, children still learn. When our two oldest girls play “Star Wars” with their 1st-grader brother, complete with dress-up clothes and toy light sabers, or when they build a town out of blocks and create dialogue between their Lego figures, they are still learning. One time, my 7-year-old son correctly used the word “diabolical” in a sentence with me. I had never taught him that word, so I asked how he knew what it meant. “The girls told me,” he said. Don’t underestimate the power of creative play.

Homeschooling also has freed up time for us to spend time on the things that matter most to our family. For us, that includes faith and building character. We read the Bible and sing songs about our faith. We talk about what it means to forgive and love and be attentive to one another. All families have some thread that binds them together, and this bit of extra time at home offers opportunities to focus on them for a season.

Time together is a gift, of course, but it can also cause tension. Homeschooling is not easy, and there are days that test our patience. Our kids argue over who gets to play Mario on the Wii. They push back when we tell them to spend time reading. They’ll do the laundry — but with an attitude. And when my wife and I disagree over whose turn it is to walk the dog, our kids get a front-row seat. The messiness of life is on full display when you’re learning at home. One of our house rules, then, is “forgive quickly.” And the next one right after that is, “know you are loved.” Because when you love and forgive, you exhibit grace, and that is a key trait to build when you’re all together for days on end, especially in an uncertain time like we’re in now. 

Because of the inevitable tension, and because it can be physically and emotionally draining for everyone, we have an hour or two every day when we all take a breather. “It’s quiet time,” my wife will announce, usually around 1 or 2. Even though the kids know to expect it, quiet time is not always popular, but we stick to it for everyone’s sanity. During that time, everyone is in their own space, reading, playing quietly or (and this is usually the parents) napping.

When we first decided to homeschool, I would not have pictured it this way. It unnerved me a bit at first as I wondered whether our kids were actually learning anything. But I slowly realized that all of life is learning. 

Taking ordinary moments and turning them into teachable moments is helpful whether or not you homeschool. 

For instance, when we see the leaves of fall change into a brilliant orange on the massive tree in our neighbor’s yard, it sparks questions: What kind of tree is that? Why do the leaves turn that color? How did that tree grow so big? Now, as spring blooms all around us, we are surrounded by answers waiting to be uncovered.

We do math when we cook (because I need help multiplying those fractions when we’re doubling or tripling a recipe). We pile up library books every couple weeks. We dig online to find answers to things we don’t know and marvel at all this knowledge at our fingertips.

That’s especially helpful when you don’t know the answers, and for me that is especially true when my oldest is working on quadratic equations or reading ancient literature. “I don’t know, but let’s find out,” I have found, is a common phrase when you’re learning at home. 

When it feels like we’re in over our head, and it does more days than I’d like, we lean into another of our family rules, one that is helpful for all of us in this unusual time: Be patient. Not just with each other. But with yourself, too.

Brad Jenkins teaches in JMU’s School of Media Arts and Design.

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