By Gloria Ellis
As we moved into the new school year, my family, like many others, faced some difficult decisions. For us, the easy part was deciding to continue working and schooling from home; we are more than capable and quite content to maintain distance during this health crisis. The challenging part was deciding which learning programs we should plan to use in educating our two daughters, ages 14 and 7.
THE GOOD FORTUNE
Happy to Work and Learn from Home
Here’s where we are very lucky- for one thing, my husband and I are both able to work from home without a substantial income loss. We know we are very fortunate in this. Secondly, we are lucky enough to live with my father on his property. Though we live in a small guest house, our living situation means that we have sufficient outdoor space for the girls to run, play, and explore. Unlike many other families, staying at home has not been a challenge for us either financially or in terms of physical space, at least outdoors. Additionally, both my husband and I have work schedules that are flexible and allow for plenty of time for us to spend together, with our children, and alone, taking turns being responsible for the children. We’ve also raised our children to be independent enough that they are comfortable and happy playing, either together or by themselves, when at home. Finally, the years we spent supporting our children’s academic and behavioral development have paid off. They are both academically advanced and they are already accustomed to expectations for sharing a small space as a family, such as waiting patiently for someone to be off a phone call, cleaning up after yourself or others (to help out), initiating projects, and following routines. This has helped us get into a good flow fairly easily once we made the decisions about how we wanted this school year to look.
For our eldest daughter, Micaela, the years she spent in the small group learning environment addressing her many academic, language, and social challenges, had prepared her well for the realities of an online, independent-study program. The question was, which program to choose. There are many great online high-school programs out there, and we spent several weeks this summer researching a number of them.
For our youngest daughter, she is now advanced in her reading, writing, math, and communication skills, so we felt that she could really benefit from any type of home program. However, we wanted to be sure she was expanding her critical thinking and problem solving skills rather than simply consuming information. So, we set out to determine the best curriculum and school-day format for meeting those goals.
ADHD, Autism, and Limited Space
Despite the many fortunes that have aided us in facing the confusion that is education in 2020, there are some specific challenges we knew we would have to navigate in planning the school year for our family. First off, both of our daughters struggle with ADHD, and every educational choice we make needs to factor this in. They’ve never been educated in a traditional school environment; both started with Montessori and then moved to our small private school in Ojai to further advance their skills. To be honest, I think it would have really stifled and depressed them if we had ever put them in traditional school settings. Traditional classrooms can often be unkind to children with ADHD, even bright and inquisitive ones such as my girls. My husband can attest to this from his own personal experience, which ultimately led him to drop out of school as a teenager.
Furthermore, our eldest daughter was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, and we’ve spent many of the intervening years working extensively with therapists and educators to help her overcome her challenges with sensory processing, language, socialization, and communication.
Other challenges we’ve had to navigate in making our educational choices this year include a small living space; our small home includes two bedrooms and one bathroom, and it is now home, office, and school for four people. We’ve had to seriously consider and plan for where and when each of us can work, relax, and play without interfering with each other’s focus on individual goals and responsibilities.
Scheduling, Setup, and Curriculum
First, we needed to create a schedule that allowed everyone to have a solid balance of school or work, physical activity, family time, and alone time. Since I do not have a home office, figuring out where and when I would hold online client sessions and meetings, and sticking to those hours, was the first priority. Of course, my schedule depended on the rest of my staff and all of our clients’ plans, so it took awhile. Things seemed to be constantly changing up until the first day of school, and my family adapted.
Finally, we were able to commit to work/school time from 9:00 to 12:00 every day, followed by two hours of family time where we schedule lunch and physical activity together. At 2:00, I return to work while my husband does gardening and outdoor projects with the kids. Finally, from 3:00 to 5:00, the kids are each doing their own thing, which may include electronics, such as FaceTime with friends, watching TV shows, and playing Minecraft, or any other activity they choose, as long as it is quiet and does not require adult facilitation. This allows me that time to complete my workday and my husband that time to himself- working, taking care of household tasks, or preparing for the next day. At 5:00 we have the rest of the evening to spend together, however we choose. For my family, solid scheduling has been the most critical part of finding peace during this crazy time!
Next, we needed to make sure we had appropriate space for the girls to learn while I was working. We considered and reconsidered various setups. Again, our home is not large and the girls share a bedroom. The living room opens to the dining area which opens to the kitchen, so there is no space to set up a home office. So, our mission was to design a setup that would allow their three hours of class time to take place, and my three hours of work time to take place, without any need to interrupt each other!
We decided to set the dining area up as my office, which meant my family could not be in the kitchen or living room during morning work hours from 9:00 to 12:00. Their snack bin and water bottles would need to be accessible from their own work space every day, without fail. The bathroom is between the bedrooms, so that is not an issue, and the back door can be used to go in and out of the house without disrupting my student sessions. However, they needed their study materials set up and they definitely couldn’t be sharing a classroom if either was to have any chance at focus. So, we organized Micaela’s desk and bookcase in their bedroom and set her up to study there, quietly and independently, each morning. We then bought a couple of small bookshelves and turned Daisy’s little outdoor playhouse into a school room where she and Jon could work each morning. We made sure both girls had good computers and solid internet connections, which, in addition to Micaela’s chromebook, involved increasing our Verizon plan data limits and purchasing an iPad mini, with data, for Daisy. Finally, we stocked all of our individual spaces with the books and supplies we would need throughout the morning so that we would be ready to tackle our own work without disrupting each other!
After we spend lunch and P.E. time together as a family, Jon and the girls work in the garden, which allows me some time for uninterrupted afternoon meetings. Then, when they come in at 3:00, they have free time each day, during which they can play or watch videos on their electronic devices. This gives me time to finish up my work day and Jon some time to focus on his individual work and other necessary tasks. Though the girls usually spend this time in their room or outside, this time is much more flexible than the morning hours, so I expect the occasional interruption or loud noise. As a result, I avoid scheduling any critical meetings or student sessions between 3:00 and 5:00 and focus on other aspects of my work.
In addition to a solid schedule and work/school space setup, finding the right educational resources is obviously one of the most important parts of our schooling plan. For our eldest daughter, we knew we needed a particular fit. We wanted her to be able to work independently through a challenging, high-school curriculum. We also needed a program that was affordable and accredited, since she plans to go to college. These were essential components. Knowing our daughter and her learning style, we also needed to find a program that did not have vastly different expectations and learning or assessment formats for each of her high-school classes. As a student with autism, she does well with predictability, structure, and clear expectations. A typical high-school experience that includes six different courses, different teachers, different expectations, and different rules would not be a good fit for her. Online programs that we investigated would need to have some consistency in the presentation of information and the format of assessment for her to be able to work through it independently.
Micaela’s independence is one of the most critical components of the highschool program we were looking for because we had spent so many years gradually preparing her, skill by skill, to live and work independently. We did not want to lose ground or damage our relationship with her by hovering and prodding at a time when she needs her space and independence the most. It was a scary prospect, but we were optimistic that we could find the right fit.
We started by looking for comprehensive online high schools that offer accredited courses and college prep. A google search, and a few lists compiled by others over the years, gave us a solid starting point. In researching these we found that costs can vary greatly; online high schools seem to range in cost from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars per year. We immediately eliminated programs that were over $10,000 a year. We hoped that we could find one for far less, since $10,000 is still beyond our current means, but we knew that we would have to find a way to pay for the right program, if it came to that. We also eliminated programs that did not offer accredited courses. Additionally, we looked at, but ultimately eliminated, any program that had an expectation of synchronous learning in a group, or regular teacher meetings scheduled at specific times. While these options might be great for many families, we know that our daughter works best on her own schedule and with direct communication with a teacher, outside of a group setting. To avoid adding stress to our lives, we were looking for a program that could be done fully online, supported by a teacher, at Micaela’s own pace.
From the programs that remained, which included International Virtual Learning Academy, the Keystone School, Laurel Springs School, Whitmore Online Highschool, and several online high schools associated with Universities (University of Missouri, BYU, University of Nebraska, and Indiana State University), we registered to attend a few virtual open houses with Micaela. This was a very important part of our decision making process, and I would strongly recommend that families looking for the right online school attend an open house and/or take advantage of any free, online demo lessons. These tools can provide a solid picture of what your child’s experience with the program will be like in a way that goes far beyond simply reading about a program.
For us, we felt comfortable with all the programs we viewed, but felt an immediate sense of connection with Whitmore when we attended their virtual open house. It had almost everything we were looking for and complemented those features with an easy-to-use platform and an extremely student-centered and welcoming overall atmosphere. We really liked the fact that Whitmore recommends students take only three courses at a time in order to focus more thoroughly and move more quickly through each of them. We felt that this would be a much better fit for Micaela rather than juggling multiple classes. Also, the program is fully online, but each course is directed by a separate teacher. Assignments are not computer scored, rather, each teacher gives assignments and provides online feedback on each of Micaela’s written submissions. Therefore, we really felt that three courses at a time was appropriate for a young person with attention issues and a need for familiarity and structure. Under this format, Micaela would have a much greater opportunity to get to know and understand her individual teachers’ expectations, build rapport with each of them, and delve more fully into each of her courses. Finally, Whitmore’s mastery-based system means that Micaela receives feedback on improving her responses and can resubmit assignments until they are completely correct rather than receiving a poor score and simply moving into the next assignment. This system aligns very well with our own beliefs about learning and means that her learning experience is always very positive and not at all defeating, as can often be the case with challenging high-school courses. The icing on the cake is that their program costs less than $2,000 per year and, along with weekly reports, we receive an email notice, and can login to view her work, every time Micaela submits an assignment and every time a teacher provides feedback. This allows her the independence she needs and gives us the ability to monitor her progress without hovering.
We were pretty sure we would be enrolling Micaela at Whitmore, but when it actually came down to making our final choice, we read online reviews. After reading the positive praise from teachers and students for the care, education, and high level of communication with teachers and administrators that could be expected at Whitmore, our choice was easy! Furthermore, our experience with this program in the weeks since has exceeded our already high expectations.
With Micaela’s high-school program chosen, we next needed a clear learning plan for our seven-year-old daughter. Again, a lot of effort has gone into her education to date, so we’re fortunate that, with the present challenges, Daisy already possesses strong skills in many areas. Montessori tapped into her creativity and confidence while her experience at our school in Ojai advanced her academic skills and taught her a decent level of academic discipline. As a result, I felt that we could focus this year on applying her already strong skills to following her interests in learning. We could have chosen an online school for her as well, but we felt that, unlike Micaela (who’s getting ready for college), Daisy would benefit most from a second-grade learning program that focused on flexibility and fun! With this in mind, my husband took on the task of supporting her learning from 9:00 to 12:00 each day, and we registered our family as a homeschool with the state.
Math is not my husband’s strong suit, and Daisy is advanced in this area, so we decided on ALEKS, an online math program that we like, which offers good comprehensive third-grade math topics, practice questions, explanations, and immediate feedback. My husband supports her through her work in this program each day and does not have to worry about which topics to teach and how to teach them.
For other subjects, we chose to have Daisy and Jon test out the online Homeschool Solutions program we’re developing at Lighthouse, which consolidates various web resources into activities that support parents and children learning together in different units of study. They’ve started the school year learning about Native American history, literature, and art as well as studying the earth’s oceans for science.
At first, we designed a daily schedule that was based on my own learning and teaching style- specific subjects on specific days and at specific times, with classes switching every 45 minutes or so. Within a few days, it became clear that my structured and scheduled way of approaching things was not going to work for my ADHD husband and child. They really don’t work best sticking to a path and moving along it at a quick pace; they need to meander and enjoy some topics in far greater depths and explore the side roads that they find interesting!
The initial daily schedule
- 9:00 to 9:45 – Math
- 9:45 to 10:15 – Snack and Play
- 10:15 to 11:00 – Language Arts
- 11:00 to 12:00 – History or Science (depending on the day)
- 12:00 to 12:30 – Lunch
- 12:30 to 1:30- P.E. or Garden (depending on the day)
- 1:30 to 2:30 – Art or Music (depending on the day)
- 2:30 to 3:00- Spanish
The quickly revised schedule for M-Th
- 9:00 to 9:45 – Math
- 9:45 to 11:15 – Whichever Subject (snack whenever)
- 11:15 to 12:00 – Writing (about whichever subject)
- 12:00 to 2:00 – Family Lunch and P.E.
- 2:00 to 3:00 – Outdoor Projects and Garden
Fridays are now reserved for art projects and field trips, often with a fellow homeschooling family with two girls Daisy’s age!
It took a good 2 to 3 weeks of exploring different schedules and feeling out which worked best before we landed on this much more flexible daily schedule for Daisy and Jon. While it probably wouldn’t work well if I were Daisy’s daily teacher, because I work best with a lot of planning and structure, it works perfectly for my husband, who is much more comfortable with ambiguity. Since my youngest daughter does not experience any specific learning challenges, beyond attention difficulties, we consider most of her learning enrichment at this stage and we have no worries about her falling behind. This has helped take any pressure off of my husband and allows them to explore different topics in really fun and meaningful ways. They use the Homeschool Solutions units we’ve designed at Lighthouse as the foundation for exploring topics and activities, but further enhance it with projects involving cooking, gardening, exploring with the microscope, watching documentaries together, and selecting books for family reading in the evening.
Each day, I receive email submissions, dictated by Daisy, about what she learned with her dad that morning. Guided by the activity submission form included in the Homeschool Solutions program, she shares a summary of her learning, connects it to things she’s learned in the past, and reflects on her personal feelings about what she’s learned. I usually print the form out for her to read aloud to me at lunch time, and she shows me the handwritten reflections, poems, stories, and art that accompanied the day’s activities. These all get hole-punched and put into her large school binder, in the section for the corresponding subject. Finally, my husband uses the printable weekly time log that we’ve included with the Homeschool Solutions program to document their daily activities and the time they spend in different subjects. These go in her binder as well, as a homeschool learning record for the state, if ever needed. The cool thing about the submission form and the time log is the fact that all of their activities related to learning can be included- field trips to the beach, documentaries, gardening, and family reading are included as learning activities that are just as valid and valuable as the time spent on her math course and in reading about early America. Their entire homeschooling program makes for fluid, fun, and enriching daily learning experiences that are still structured within a time-frame and are well documented!
With some planning, a good understanding of our daughters’ present learning needs, and a fair amount of flexibility, we’ve arrived at a comfortable learning program for each of our daughters. This school year will look different for every family, but below are some tips that I believe all families who are working through home-based education right now, should consider!
Tips for Successful Home-Based Education
As you can see, we considered many factors when designing a home-based learning program that works for our family in the current situation. Consider these tips for successful work and school from home; they might work for you as well!
#1 Reflect on, and factor in, your children’s needs along with your own. Do your children need a lot of support, or can they work independently. What are their learning styles? When are you available to support them? How much support can you tap into from other adults? Don’t forget to preserve your personal time for the sake of your mental health; you do not need to be everything to everyone, nor should you try!
#2 Set a clear routine or schedule for your family that includes learning and work time, play time, family time, and independent time for everyone. Post or share your schedule so that everyone can follow it and, after ironing out any wrinkles, stick to it!
#3 Establish well-stocked, comfortable work spaces for everyone. Study areas should be welcoming and contain all the necessary materials for active learning so that greater independence can be established and you, as the parent, do not need to be constantly on call for problem solving. Your children can take ownership of their learning and their leisure time if the tools are readily available!
#4 Select learning programs and resources that match the needs of your family. When making your choices, consider such factors as your children’s learning levels, your preference for pencil-paper vs. computer-based activities, your desire for secular vs. religious materials, and your children’s levels of independence.
#5 Have an abundance of approved activities that can fully engage your children when you are unavailable! This is especially important if you work from home, however it is equally important for those moments that you designate as essential down-time for yourself. Create a bin of independent art projects. Queue up approved documentaries on Netflix. Download educational apps onto the iPad. Subscribe to a few educational online programs such as Britannica School, Kids Discover, or IXL. Your children should have easy access to these parent-approved resources so that you can be worry free at times when they need to be occupied with independent activities!