We’re spiking with unnecessary anxiety that our kids are going to fall behind because of our current school mess. But as a public school teacher for the past three years, and a homeschooling mom of six kids before that, I promise that these March-June months will NOT delay your child’s learning.
Unless we push too hard.
Then we’re ruining everything.
So let’s not. Too many educators and parents are steered by myths that should be tossed out the window (and leave that window open–we need the fresh air).
Myth #1—children and teenagers learn at a steady and constant rate of progression.
Reality: Kids learn just as they grow—they shoot up rapidly, then plateau, then they burst again, then rest again, and with no predictability. Growth is exhausting work—physically, mentally, and emotionally. No student is ever “on task” every single day, all the time. Even my most ambitious AP Literature students will have days where they say, “Do I have to ‘poem’ today?”
One of my daughters struggled to read, weeping daily from age five until age eight, trying to sound out even simple words. Then one day it all “clicked,” and two months later she was reading Harry Potter, finishing the entire series before she was ten. She’s now a successful college student.
Every insightful parent and teacher will tell you that they see peaks and plateaus in their kids, and even in themselves. The “steady progress” we try to impose on students has never worked across the entire gamut of students, but only for a handful of children, which makes us think that if we just push hard enough, all of the students will fall into line.
No. That’s never, ever worked. Let’s abandon that faulty premise right now. Kids need routines, yes–but don’t expect methodical progress from creatures who are fundamentally irrational and still developing. (And when hormones kick in? Oh, heavens help us all.)
Myth #2—If we don’t consistently teach children, they’ll suffer. Skipping even one day will set them back.
Reality: If kids miss a day, or a week, or even a month or three, the long-term effects are negligible. Since children are learning in unpredictable stages of peaks and plateaus, nothing we as educators or parents do can change that.
When my adult children were teenagers and younger, we had a period of a couple of years where we moved four times around the country and added an eighth baby. Sometimes schooling was set aside for weeks, and even months. My kids still read books, created art, or explored the nature and history of new towns, and—with no interference from me—still learned.
Not formally, but naturally.
They chose what to discover, and that’s what they remember even years later: exploring new places and learning what they wanted to.
When we got back to “formal” learning, they were on track within a couple of weeks. How do I know? Because later these kids all entered school. Those attending public school for the first time in junior high were straight A students. Those who went to college (three skipped their senior years) all succeeded and graduated, or are on track to graduate.
Missing school, even skipping an entire year in some of my children’s cases, made no significant change to their ability to succeed.
Consider the missed time as a natural plateau, and allow kids to explore and learn naturally.
When they return in the fall, I predict most kids will be more than ready to run to the top of the peak, eager to see which of their friends are already there.
Myth #3—We have to make sure they finish the curriculum for this year.
Reality—Curricula are created by governmental or private entities who know nothing about your child, or, I would assert, even how children naturally develop. “Standards” are a collection of “that sounds effective” ideas that are quite often unrealistic, unnecessary, and/or just plain boring.
Kids should never be bored of education.
Learning is a natural part of their development—it’s hard-wired into their progression.
If kids are bored by “education,” we’re doing something seriously wrong.
Aristotle once said, “All [children] by nature desire knowledge.” We don’t have to force it, just allow it.
Governments and school boards set standards and teach incrementally for diagnostic and testing efforts, in an to attempt to educate large masses of students. But that’s never reflected the needs of kids, only of the evaluators.
(Blessedly, some of us get to teach in schools where the curriculum is left up to us; I’m extremely fortunate to teach at a school that says, “Do what you think would be most engaging for the students.”)
But ask any other teacher: Do you like the structured and scripted curriculum you’re directed to follow?
They will respond with, “No! I know what these kids need, because I’m with them every day. If only I could teach them what I see they really need!”
Parents concur. In fact, many parents roll their eyes at how and what their children are being taught and the homework they bring home, and wish all of that could change.
It can! Here’s our chance!
There’s no reason why the current curriculum MUST be completed. Most schools aren’t bothering with standardized testing, and many universities are waiving SAT/ACT requirements. The big testing monsters have been locked in a closet for the year.
(Here’s hoping they never get back out.)
In some regions, schools are no longer requiring grades, or aren’t penalizing students for struggling in classes, or are moving to a simple pass/fail assessment.
So while these testing and grading “monsters” have been removed from the equation, let’s truly experiment with education!
Parents, let kids learn what they want! If they want to do the homework pages, let them. If they don’t, forcing them to graph linear equations while holding their phones as hostage won’t actually teach them anything about math, but will teach them a great deal about your relationship with them.
Plato once wrote, “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds.” And “Nothing forced into a mind will be induced to stay there.”
In other words, we can’t force learning. We never have been able to, in thousands of years.
So let’s just accept that reality and let kids explore and learn what they want to, just for a few weeks.
Myth #4—But without constant homework and assignments, students will be unproductive and lose academic ground with their peers!
Reality—Remember that learning is a natural part of children’s growth. And I agree with Mark Twain that schooling often interferes with education. Our current form of mass education has never been the best for kids.
It’s like throwing a gallon of paint in a room. It’ll cover everything, but sloppily. Some walls may feel pretty good about themselves, but the couch is wondering what just happened to it, and the lamp will want to limp off to another room to cry.
Maddeningly, our education system still believes children are simple computers which function with the right data input, although every parent and educator in the country knows otherwise. Every decade we have reforms, and every result is still more factory-line education.
Here’s the hard truth: formal education is already unproductive, and has been for a hundred years. Kids filling out worksheets at home isn’t accomplishing much, if anything. Some parents are expressing extreme frustration, and so are their kids. We’re spinning wheels in the mud, making no progress but creating huge messes.
All that some families are learning is that they hate doing homework sheets together.
(And I’m sorry, but I’m teaching my 2nd grader how to carry the one and borrow the one.)
For the past month, the tenuously-structured education system has collapsed like a poorly-played game of Giant Jenga. Some people are still frantically trying to build back up that tower into some semblance of what they knew, and as the weeks drag on, their efforts seem even sadder.
But many others are quietly taking away planks and letting their kids use the boards as see-saws or catapults or bird houses.
Conscientious administrators are stepping back and noticing that now is not the time for a heavy hand and observations, but to let teachers and parents do what they’ve always wanted to do: nurture children.
Brave teachers are setting aside formal curricula and creating projects and activities that make sense in these times, and not money for curriculum developers. Some of us have reduced by 75% what we try to teach, distilling lessons and activities to the most essential parts, and discovering just how much fluff we can carve away.
Smart parents are taking what parts of the homework sent home makes sense for their families, and are watching their children with love and open minds to perceive what they need, and what they want to learn.
Parents are sharing videos of their children joyfully doing science experiments at home, or learning to change a tire on a car, or discover what all the tools in the shed can be used for, or how to run grandma’s sewing machine, or creep around in forests looking for signs of spring.
And children—if the adults in their lives are paying attention to them—will discover that the world, while closed off in many ways, is now suddenly opened in brand new ones.
This is a huge opportunity to change everything—for us and our kids and our country.
Let’s not blow it.
(My AP Lit class of 2019, happy students on the last day of class. My 2020 class never got to take a similar picture.)