Distance Learning: A Perspective from a Chaotic Household

It seems like years ago that we were in BC times…you know…Before Covid? On March 12, Ann Arbor Public Schools (along with most other schools across the country) announced they would be closing for three weeks. Three weeks! Okay…cool. I was pregnant with my fourth child in my third trimester running a business that was 100% in person. I could handle three weeks….right?! I made a ‘lesson plan’ and told myself every morning “you got this!” We all know how this story goes. 3 weeks turned into the end of April, then May, then through the 2020 school year, and now we are all living in TBD purgatory.

Spring learning was a disaster. As our amazing teachers struggled to adjust to remote learning, with only those three weeks to prepare, our children struggled with the mental adjustment. In my house, there were lots of tears….mostly by me…but also by my first grader. He refused to do his homework 90% of the time. There was no interaction with friends or even his teacher, and logging in to find his daily assignments was torture. Finally, one day I gave up fighting him. We ended up 3 weeks behind until my mom (a former 3rd grade teacher for 30+ years) came into town before I gave birth and got him caught up. There were many more tears…by both of them. I think he broke her.

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I spent the summer psyching myself up. It’s fine. Everything will be fine. I’m only trying to run a social group almost entirely online, I have a 2nd grader and an incoming kindergartner in public school, my preschooler’s school shut down entirely, and I have a newborn….I got this. It’ll be great! I’d tell myself as I ate an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup ice cream after my kids went to bed. September rolled around, and we all dove in.

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I know my experience may not be that of other people’s. I also recognize we are only about a month in and a lot can change. I know I am speaking from a place of privilege. I’m able to work from home and be present with my children all day to assist them. We don’t have to worry about where my children will get their next meal. We have a large enough house that they can spread out. My kids don’t have any learning disabilities. We are lucky. I know that. With that being said, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

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1. Lowered Expectations.

I trust the teachers to be able to handle my kids. I check in routinely to make sure the kids are paying attention, and I’ve let their teachers know to email me if they have any issues. Other than that, my elementary kids are on their own. I bought a Kindle Fire Kids for my preschooler and paid for a year of ABC Mouse, and when the big kids are remote learning on their computers, so is he. I pulled out all the swings and bouncy chairs for my baby, and he spends a lot of time being carried from one bouncer to another. At the end of the day, we are all still alive and unscathed. That's good enough for me.

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2. Teachers are Amazing.

I cannot say this enough. My children’s teachers are engaging, outgoing, kind, friendly, and most importantly: patient. They keep the kids excited; they take lots of breaks; they give the children grace, and most of all, they listen to their students and work extra hard to still make that connection. I’m in awe of these angels on Earth. If it were up to me, they’d all get a million dollar bonus this year.

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3. Breaks are a Necessity.

The first week was rough. My kids were so restless, and it was only half days. Even by day two, more breaks were added. Now we are almost a month in, and my kids are constantly wandering around for 5-20 mins on their breaks. At the off chance that the breaks line up, they are so excited to share their break-time together. There’s enough movement that even though the kids are on these computers all day, it’s really not bad.

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4. Technology is Helpful.

When smart home technology came out, I was against it. Why would we need something else listening in on us all day?! I’m not lazy, I can do all these things myself. By day 3 of this school year, I went from zero smart technology to 6 Amazon Alexa devices scattered all over my house. I use them All. Day. Long. Alexa, set a timer for 7 minutes. Alexa, set a reminder for the kids to head back upstairs at 12:27. Alexa, drop in kids’ room..You get the idea. Now if my kids need me they use these smart devices as an intercom system so we aren’t all yelling up and down hallways and floors all day. We are SO much more organized, and it takes a lot of the load off of me.

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5. It’s a Lot Harder than I Expected to NOT be Naked on Camera.

I make sure to be dressed before my kids log in every morning, yet somehow I’ve been topless multiple times in the background and may have even been totally naked in a mirror reflection…I’m praying the angle was wrong. My kids will decide to have a change of scenery and just carry their devices around including but not limited to: the kitchen, living room, my bedroom, and yes…the bathroom. We had to have a talk about how mom doesn’t want to be on camera if her boob is out to feed the baby and we need to not have the camera facing the bathroom door that you decide to open when mom is in the shower… “Turn your camera off” is a common phrase I utter as they come rushing into the bathroom. The struggle is real.

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6. Routine is Important.

We had about 6 months of zero real routine. We had a set bedtime, and I usually made lunch at the same time every day, but other than that it was a free for all. We were in survival mode. Now, our weekdays have a schedule. My kids know what is expected of them and by what time. Their school schedule is posted in multiple places around the house. I made a chart of monthly lunches to give my kindergartener a ‘hot lunch experience’ so they know what to expect. We have set weekly after school activities. Fighting is down, frustration has simmered and productivity is up.

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7. Learning Spaces are Best When Spread Apart.

In the spring, I had my 1st grader use my laptop on the kitchen table. He shared the space with me and his siblings ran around in the background making concentration impossible. This fall, I set up each child’s own learning space in a different room. They can close the door if it’s getting too loud, and they can move around their room throughout the day. When it gets chaotic, they can lock the door to keep their siblings out. While I have to drop in sometimes to ensure they’re listening (there’s a good chance I’ll find them playing games on their computers or even napping during lessons), for the most part they have their own space to focus and keep organized.

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8. I Set the Tone.

When I was frustrated with the learning back in the spring, so were they. When I complained about how I didn’t like the layout, they complained about doing the work. When I finally gave in and accepted our reality, it got a lot easier for all of us. Instead of sharing my concerns and anger over the situation, I raved to them about how fun wearing pjs to school at home would be. When they got sad about not getting a new backpack, I let them set up their own work spaces. When my daughter said she was sad she didn’t get to go to the physical school that she’d been anticipating for 3 years, I told her how lucky she is to be THE FIRST KINDERGARTEN CLASS EVER to be all virtual!! On a stressful day where I don’t want to ‘adult’ and juggling their schedules is hard for me, they complain and don’t want to be in school. If I’m noticing our day isn’t going smoothly, I take a step back and reset my attitude. It’s not 100% effective, but will salvage most days.

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9. Distance Learning is Actually Pretty Great.

I didn’t say I love it and prefer it over in person. I just don’t have time to complain about it anymore. I’m adapting. This is our current ‘normal’ and I’m embracing the positives. It’s great. It really is. We are so lucky to be in a situation that our children can still safely continue to learn. They seem happy in their classes. We don’t fight about logging in or doing homework. They even opt to do the daily ‘closing circle’ which isn’t mandatory. They talk about their new friends. They laugh together as they compare activities done with their shared teachers. Their technology proficiency has skyrocketed…my second grader has been giving me pointers on Zoom usage and my kindergartner can now log into all of her various apps and do assignments without my help. They aren’t getting the same social experience that they would normally, but at least they still get to see each other on screen. My heart ached for my kindergartner as she’s missing out on such an important year, but her teacher is making it so special that she isn’t missing it. I don’t have to deal with the daily pick up/drop off lines with crying kids strapped into their car seats waiting for their siblings. I get to be much more active in my children’s lives.

It’s okay. We will all be okay. My family is healthy. My children are still learning. My patience is growing (because it has to). Is it ideal? No! It’s out of our control so might as well embrace it. This is *hopefully* only temporary. You got this, mama. Stay strong.

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