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How to Survive Distance Learning, According to a Teacher

Laptop covered in Post-it notes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Twomeows_IS/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Welcome to my quarantine: The blankets are forts, the couch cushions are trampolines, and the puzzles are a modern art jumble on the living room floor. Each day, I juggle teaching my high school students online and supporting my own children’s education at home. My kids are young (one is 5, the other almost 2), so they do not have a significant amount of distance learning to complete each day for school. But, like all work-at-home parents right now, I am attempting the balancing act of maintaining their schedules, promoting their educational development, getting my work done, and, you know, paying attention to them.

My high school students have their own challenges. They’ve been pulled out of their routines and are stuck in their homes with comfortable beds and the internet. In my classroom, I break the period into manageable chunks of time, reminding them of due dates and helping them make progress on long-term papers and assignments. That structure is gone. It’s rough, and I know so many of us are in the same boat. I am here to help. Consider adopting these simple classroom strategies to help you stay organized during distance learning.

First, each student needs a dedicated space to work that is stocked with necessary supplies: plenty of paper, sharpened pencils, a charged Chromebook, and Post-it notes to jot down reminders, assignments, and due dates that their teacher mentions during Zoom sessions. This is not the time for your kids to be casually pulling up to a square of the messy kitchen table two minutes before they log on—we’re in it for the long haul. Having a learning workspace helps kids mentally differentiate when it’s time for school, and when it’s not. And they’ll be more calm and ready to learn, knowing when they sit down that they’re prepared for class. Even though my daughter is only in preschool, each night I clean up the play area in our living room and prepare her space (an old Ikea coffee table covered in marker) for “school” the next day. If you live in a compact apartment short on space, lap desks with a device ledge can be a good desk substitute.

It’s a huge adjustment for middle and high school students—who have assignments and deadlines from multiple classes—to receive information from teachers via online learning management systems, or even worse, via email. Weeklong assignments may fall off their radar by Tuesday. Daily assignments may be lost in the flurry of email communication. And that’s just for one kid. If you have multiple children, and your own work deadlines, who has what to do when and by what date starts to resemble that jigsaw on my floor—a big jumble in your mind.

A white board can be your saving grace. Hang a large white board in your kids’ work area and, depending on their age, use it to help them chart their various meetings and tasks, or do so for your entire family. You can post a checklist for the day or even a schedule for the entire week. Personally, I need to map out when I’m teaching, my husband’s and my respective meetings, my daughter’s dance class, FaceTime play dates, etc. Pro tip: Buy a set of different colored Expo markers and assign each family member their own color. Each night before bed, go over the next day’s schedule so that everyone is prepared and ready to get to work in the morning.

While I do use an electronic calendar, I find that a weekly paper planner is superior—I use one myself and I recommend them for my students. When you’re trying to get organized, there are too many distractions in a phone or laptop. Why use a paper planner and a white board? You might not need both, but for older kids taking multiple subjects with multiple teachers, a family white board probably won’t be large enough unless you convert an entire wall to white board (which you can do, but that might be overboard). A paper planner also allows for long-term planning. I realize it’s late in the school year to purchase a planner for 2019–20; you can print a template at home or even convert an old spiral notebook if your kiddo doesn’t mind drawing some lines.

Also: Whether you’re using a white board or a paper planner (or both!), don’t forget to schedule some breaks throughout the day. It’s not reasonable to expect elementary school children to work productively all day. In fact, middle and even high school students should be taking breaks as well. They all need free time to exercise, relax, and just play.

While some students are doing distance learning entirely online, many kids are still using lots and lots of paper. How do you organize all those worksheets and packets? A three-ring binder is the best way. I realize you already bought your kids school supplies at the beginning of the year, but I also know a lot of students left those supplies inside school buildings that are now closed. If you’re in that boat, get one binder with dividers for each subject. I prefer a three-inch binder for secondary school students, but it’s already April so you could probably get away with a two-inch binder. (One-inch binders are good for nothing. Do not buy.) Get one of these portable three-hole punches that you attach inside the binder so the kids can hole-punch and organize their own papers. Are you having to scan and upload the papers to share with the teacher? Put stickers on them after you’ve sent them. Do you really need to use stickers? No, you don’t. But they’re more fun than a check mark, and we could use every bit of fun we can get right now.

Headphones are not so much an organizational tool as they are a sanity tool. If you’re trying to work while one kid watches Khan Academy and the other enjoys Sesame Street, you’ll be glad for a set of headphones. A pair that comes with a microphone can be handy for Zoom meetings or assignments that require students to record their voices. For my preschooler, I use the kind that limit the volume to protect her little ears.

These tips may seem simple, but I promise you they work! It looks like most of us won’t be returning to school this year, so we can no longer live day by day. We need a plan. This is our plan. Good luck!