Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
Does it matter if my kids sit at a desk to do their online schoolwork? They are in fourth and fifth grade. I’ve noticed they like to move around to different rooms during the “school” day at home, usually to different cozy spots—snuggled up with the dog, or propped up on a bunch of pillows in bed, etc. I check on them often; I know they are working and (mostly) on task, wherever they work. Overall our online learning experience has been more positive than many I hear about, so my instinct is that we are OK working this way. And one of my kids has specifically said being cozy while she works is something she likes about online school. But from a teacher’s perspective, is it a problem? Do I need to make them sit at a desk and work in a more conventional setup?
—Sit Up and Concentrate!
Dear Sit Up,
Good news! This is one thing about distance learning that you need not be concerned about at all. I firmly believe that the locations where your children choose to complete their studies are utterly irrelevant to their learning, and most teachers I know feel the same way.
Classrooms have changed dramatically since you and I attended school. Students are afforded many more options today, ranging from traditional desks, standing desks, and desks designed to allow students to sit on the floor, to a multitude of seating options, including chairs, stools, large inflatable balls, balance discs, beanbag chairs, and more.
In fact, the sign of excellent teaching is a classroom where kids move around the space throughout the day, collaborating with peers, meeting one on one and in small groups with their teacher, and finding quiet corners to complete assignments.
The days of straight rows of desks and quiet children with their backs straight and hands folded atop their desks are over, and happily so. As long as your children are learning, afford them the freedom to work where they are most comfortable.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
My fourth and fifth graders are out of school indefinitely, like so many other kids are. I’m working from home, and my job keeps me busy eight to 10 hours a day. I take breaks when I can, but I have to keep the breaks few and short. Lunch is a whirlwind.
The problem I’m facing is that my kids’ school assigns so much work that we can’t keep up with it. It’s not the difficulty—it’s the volume. We’re up until 10 regularly, just trying to keep up, even though I’ve already opted out of some of the work. (I just have my work computer, which the kids can’t use, so I’ve had to opt out of all online assignments so far.)
We’re exhausted and sad, and every night we’re turning in multiple assignments to the teachers via email photo attachments. I’ve emailed the teachers and the principal. Several of the teachers said they understand, but for whatever reasons, possibly not within their control, it’s getting worse, not better. One said we can have an extra day or two to turn things in, but the work piles up even more that way. We’re looking at a full day of schoolwork this Saturday just to catch up from this week.
I’m thinking of not making them do every assignment anymore, maybe just three or four subjects per day, and not making up the things we skip. I don’t want them to be held back next school year, but I feel like a lousy parent making them live like this. Any suggestions you may have would be much appreciated!
Dear Overwhelmed Mom,
This is ridiculous! I grant you permission to put the breaks on this at once.
To be sure, I have sympathy for the teachers and the school. We are all in uncharted territory. But you and your children don’t need to be up until 10 pm. every night emailing assignments. Nor should you be spending all of Saturday getting caught up.
It’s possible the kids are taking a long time to complete assignments because they are doing them independently while you work from home, for which I do not fault you! The kids might be more productive if the three of you make a schedule for them to follow in which they spend a chunk of time focused on work and then have a break for free time. Knowing there’s a break coming can help kids use their time better.
That said, I wholeheartedly endorse not making them do everything. I know this sounds bad, but you need to consider the well-being of your family and your kids’ (and your) mental health. What is the school really going to do if there are some assignments your kids do not complete? I cannot believe you are the only family in this boat. In fact, I’d bet there are kids at your school who aren’t doing any schoolwork at all. Are they all getting held back? Doubtful. Online learning puts a larger onus of responsibility on kids themselves, and on parents (if and when they’re available), which means there are serious equity issues at play. While this situation is extremely difficult and frustrating for those of us who have to somehow work from home while simultaneously caring for our children, there are families with much more significant challenges. Imagine what this is like for the children of essential workers who are gone most of the day, or children with parents who do not speak English, or children who do not have computers at home. Or, heaven forbid, children whose parents get COVID-19.
As a teacher, I know firsthand that we are doing our best to meet these challenges head-on, but there are certainly families who will fall through the cracks. Is it equitable to retain these children in their current grade level for not completing distance learning assignments? No, of course not. And doing so would open districts up to litigation. I cannot say with certainty that your kids won’t be penalized for not completing all of the work, but I find it extremely unlikely.
My guess at what’s happening with your particular situation is that the teachers are as miserable as you are but are reluctant to put into writing any criticism of how these lesson plans are playing out. If you’re interested in finding out more, you could speak to the teachers by phone and I think you’ll get a more honest assessment of what’s happening. As I said, this is new for all of us, and it may be that the school needs a bit more time—and some feedback—to create a workable system.
So do the best you can. Don’t let this make your family miserable. I encourage you and fellow parents to advocate for a more manageable workload. My school is using these guiding principles from Alison Yang as we venture into distance learning. I also found these guidelines helpful for determining the amount of time kids should spend on academic work based on their grade level.
I know these are difficult times. Hang in there!
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
My kindergartener has been slow to take to reading. I wasn’t concerned at first, and neither was his teacher. Now that I am his teacher for the foreseeable future, I’m wondering how to proceed. We don’t seem to be making progress on the reading lessons I’m doing with him. The way he mixes up some letters, the way he’ll write the words he knows incorrectly, like c-t-a instead of c-a-t, and the way he guesses after sounding a word out make me wonder if he has dyslexia.
How should I go about home schooling? He is a high-energy little guy, with a serious streak of stubbornness, so I don’t want to force things. I’m considering a home school reading program so he can (hopefully) get caught up with his peers, but then I think maybe he’s not ready yet and we should just read together and play with letter sounds.
Help! I love reading so badly, and I want that for him. I know he is aware that he can’t read like his friends at school do and it breaks my heart.
—Suddenly I’m a Kindergarten Teacher!
Hey there, SIaKT,
Many of us are feeling like being home together presents an opportunity to teach our children something new, or to read or play together. And it’s great that you want to get him excited about reading. While I understand your concerns, I personally think it’s far too early to worry about your son having dyslexia. It’s perfectly normal for kids to transpose letters and numbers like this at his age, and even well into first grade. I’d recommend keeping an eye on it over the next year or so. If it doesn’t improve by then, you can consult with his teacher about whether you should have him tested.
In the meantime, though, I have a few ideas for what you can do to help him learn to read better. Some solid phonics instruction should help him. Phonics will help him understand the sounds of smaller letter groups (or “chunks” as we call them) and will ultimately improve his reading capabilities. There are several online services that can provide this type of instruction, such as ABCmouse, and many of them are free during COVID-19 school closures.
Your instincts to play with letter sounds are spot on. The more fun you make the experience, the more engaged he’ll be. You could try something like writing letter chunks on shaving cream spread out on a cookie sheet.
Finally, I’d also recommend reading to him at least 30 minutes a day. Watching adults read plays a big part in how children learn to read, and the more exposure he has to you reading aloud, the better his practice will be. I hope this helps and happy reading!
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
The other day, I happened to walk into the room when my son was in a Zoom lecture for his high school U.S. history class, and I was disturbed to find that the class was talking about the USS Liberty. I expected the teacher to calmly but firmly explain to the students that the USS Liberty attack was accidental, to ensure that the students don’t develop any anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. But instead, I actually heard this teacher say that Secretary of State Dean Rusk believed the attack to be intentional. I told my wife, who is Jewish, and she was livid. We are both very concerned about the rise of hate speech in Trump’s America, especially since our son is half-Jewish and trans. The other parents, however, don’t seem to share our concern. We’ve already called some friends of ours who have children at this high school and most of them seem indifferent. One parent even sounded happy that the children were being given “all the facts” they need to reach “informed conclusions” about the USS Liberty. What can we do to raise awareness about the dangers of anti-Semitism and other hate in our school community during the coronavirus epidemic?
—A Pandemic Is No Excuse for Hate
Dear No Excuse,
You’re right to be concerned about hate speech in Trump’s America, since people certainly do seem emboldened by his hateful rhetoric. You’ve probably heard the statistic that counties that hold Trump rallies see a 226 percent rise in hate crimes. Closer examination of the study reveals that it’s actually more nuanced than that—it’s that counties that hold Trump rallies have a 226 percent higher rate of hate crimes than that of counties with similar demographics. Either way, it’s important to speak up when you hear something concerning.
I think a conversation with your son’s teacher might be in order … but maybe not the one you’re envisioning. History teachers teach facts, obviously, but in my view, they also have an obligation to engage in discussions of cause and effect, action and consequence, driving forces, and objective vs. subjective truth. As for the USS Liberty, in the cursory research I did to write this letter, it seems there is a controversy. I know teachers are pressed for time to get through content, especially now, but a lecture seems like the least effective way to study this incident. “The official report said accident—however, the secretary of state said nuh-uh” doesn’t capture the complexities involved in the bombing. This incident seems like a great opportunity for students to research primary sources, discuss political and personal motivations, and engage in deep, respectful debate, and it’s too bad your son’s teacher didn’t take an opportunity to do that. Please note, I’m not advocating bothsidesism, which is a logical fallacy that has no place in the classroom. For example, Nazis are objectively bad, but time is spent, with reason, to discuss how the Nazi philosophy came to take hold in Europe. After all, if a history teacher doesn’t talk about why people acted the way they did, they can’t expect students to recognize patterns that might lead to the same catastrophic results in the future.
Of course, I’m not a historian or a history teacher, so please take what I say with a grain of salt. But I do think there’s enough here for you to reach out to your child’s teacher and to have a very general conversation with them about how they view their role. You could share what you learned about the USS Liberty incident and ask their thoughts. And do approach it as an inquiry. Try to keep your hackles down. It’s likely you and the teacher are on the same side.
What else can you do to raise awareness of hate speech in your school community? Keep engaging with your kid and other parents about it. Speak your mind. As Rep. John Lewis said, “Make good trouble.”
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
More Advice From Slate:
My son is 6. Among other things, he loves fairies, unicorns, stories about girls, and the color pink. The other night my son couldn’t sleep because he really wants to read a unicorn book at school but doesn’t want his friends to laugh at him. Should I ask his teacher to step in and try to teach these kids that your gender doesn’t have to determine what you like?
Correction, April 30, 2020: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misattributed a byline to Carrie Bauer instead of Katie Holbrook.
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