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School at Home: COVID and beyond

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Brittany and her three kids last April on the Rogue River in southern Oregon getting some much-needed “nature therapy” during the early onset of COVID-19. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRITTANY LADD

By Brittany L.M. Ladd EBS Contributor

Little did I know at the time, but the late night flight home from Dallas, Texas to Bend, Oregon on March 12 was to be my last air travel. Countries around the world were shutting down quickly in response to the novel coronavirus and I was in a hurry to get home to my family after spending the week in Dallas as a member of the American Montessori Society’s Emerging Leaders Fellowship program.

I was on pins and needles during the two flights, and I wanted nothing more than to be back home with my husband and three children. We had already canceled our spring break travel plans overseas, understanding that life as we had known it was quickly changing before our eyes.

By Monday, March 16, the state of Oregon declared a state of emergency and issued shelter-at-home orders. As it turned out, schools statewide would be shuttered throughout the remainder of the school year.

Fast forward nearly six months, and we all know a lot more about the novel coronavirus—COVID-19 as we understand it now. It has touched our lives in countless ways, and sadly, some of us may have lost a loved one or may have faced hardships in our family. Our hearts and minds have opened up to understand the scale and implications of a global pandemic. We have even acquired a whole new lexicon to go with it: social distancing, quarantines, PPE, antigens, etc.

My four-year old daughter works these words into her imaginative play sometimes, for example: social distancing her stuffed animals and making a mask for her baby doll to wear to the park.  Children are always so resilient—they learn, they adapt and they carry on.

But how else has COVID-19 affected our lives? For me, as an educator, the largest issue at hand is the way our children are experiencing learning as we continue to adapt educational offerings within the overarching health concerns of our society. Schools throughout the nation, and moreover the world, are working tirelessly to develop online learning platforms so that teachers can carry on their critical work with students, developing innovative methods to connect children and adults in ways that feel meaningful.

My family was unique in one sense: we were homeschoolers, and I had spent over a decade teaching my children from home in alignment with a Montessori philosophy and lifestyle. So where did that leave us educationally?

Like almost everyone I know, we actually spent about a month just adjusting. No major expectations were placed on anyone, neither the kids nor the adults. With so much uncertainty and anxiety—locally and globally—the most important thing for everyone’s sake felt like staying home together safely, and maintaining a strong sense of well-being, which meant no more work schedules, school schedules, after-school schedules, and limited exposure to friends and extended family.

It wasn’t easy for anyone, as we felt layers of disappointments on different levels. On the other hand, we were together, safe and stable, and for that I was deeply grateful. The long, quiet days were filled with cooking, books, games, more cooking, nature walks, movies … and more cooking.  

I came to realize in hindsight that the month of cocooning had been the important “pause” that we needed to equilibrate our personal and collective energy so that we could realign ourselves to the new norm. After the pause came the “pivot.” How would we choose to respond to COVID-19, educationally-speaking, going forward? It turned out to be easier than I had imagined. With some minor tweaks and adjustments to our well-established homeschool routine, we were able to carry on with a semblance of normalcy, albeit in a more casual, less-structured manner.

For my youngest child, she reported to me matter-of-factly that she actually liked being home with everyone all the time. She was three at the time, and to her not having to be anywhere other than home from sunup to sundown seemed like she had hit the jackpot. As the youngest, she was born into a full, active family and had until this point, spent a great deal of time on the go to the big kids’ afternoon activities and other family events.

She absolutely cherishes the home environment, which is one aspect of the Montessori philosophy. Her home is her world where she draws a great deal of meaning from her day-to-day, hands-on experiences. With nowhere to be and no outside activities scheduled, she had even more time for the things that were important to her. We spent hours and hours reading, playing, doing art projects and spending time in nature. She even eagerly helped me with all the extra cooking and housework. It was a chance to say “Yes!” to her wonderful ideas and simply to “Follow the Child,”—a Montessori mantra. In short, she was thrilled!

My middle child also expressed an overall satisfaction with stay-at-home learning. At 11-years old, she missed her friends and her special classes, but overall, the sentiment was that with extra time at home, the days became more open-ended allowing for a true child-directed schedule.  This shift left her feeling more rested and at ease, and she was at peace. I think this self-awareness is pretty amazing in today’s world where we tend to be always “doing,” with less emphasis on “being.”

She had finally received permission during this unique time to tap into a deeper sense of wellness. Here’s why this is interesting to me, from an educational standpoint: from this place of rest, she became newly invigorated toward her studies and was eager to complete her curriculum for the year. In fact, for the first time ever, she worked on several courses throughout the summer of her own volition with energy and excitement. It has been amazing to watch her grow and mature. Autonomy, choice and self-motivated, self-directed learning are all importants aspects of a Montessori education.

It was my oldest child who perhaps surprised me the most, though. While homeschooled throughout the elementary years, he had attended an independent middle school for the past two years. When his school closed and then introduced its online learning model for the spring, we realized that it wasn’t going to be a good fit to continue his education throughout the spring term.  Instead, he chose to jump back into homeschooling. He committed to finishing his math curriculum and from there we brainstormed a plan to ignite his passions for certain subjects again now that he had the time.

At first, he invested his energy completing his independent science research, which he submitted to the state science fair digitally since the in-person event was canceled. He worked tirelessly on the details and converted all of his work to a digital format. To his great surprise and joy, he won first place at the state science fair in his division. He also spent hours and hours reading for pleasure, and my favorite part was that he took a deep dive into photography. Finding an online instructor, as well as several other resources, he delved into the history, the art, the science and the modern applications of photography. He spent early mornings hiking to an eagle’s nest to photograph an eaglet. He stayed up all hours of the night taking star trail photos over mountain peaks. He built a website to showcase his photography. He is now researching ways to make a living as a photographer, and during all that time, he turned 14.

It was a strong reminder that teenagers also have a deep need for the gift of time and rest so that they can tap into their authentic selves and apply their talents to the world around them. We need to honor the whole child (and the whole adolescent) in our work as educators and trust them to show us what they desire from their education. We can collaborate with our learners to set goals and then facilitate their discovery of what ignites their passions. That is true Montessori education.

With the inevitable close of summer, the days grow shorter and the evening air is noticeably becoming cooler. When we turn the calendar to September, we will once again return to our daily homeschool routine and rhythms. My role changes from year to year with the growth and development of the kids. With my youngest—eager to learn all of her letters and begin reading and writing—we are setting up the home environment to meet those needs with the correct learning materials. We will spend a lot of time together with her Montessori lessons.

My middle child is riding horses again and is already gearing up to continue her education through a self-directed horse studies unit, weaving together many different areas of curriculum. She needs me by her side less and less these days as she practices and demonstrates increasing independence. I offer my services in the form of a guide, and we work together weekly to set goals and daily to review her work and progress.

My oldest child will be taking several online courses at the high school level this year. He is venturing into a new era of his education. While he doesn’t need as much help from me anymore, I will certainly be there to support him however he needs in the months ahead. And the kids know that I’m always available for the recommended twelve hugs per day or a cup of tea together when we need a break. It’s one of the perks of homeschooling!

In the end, my biggest takeaway from the last six months of doing life together day-in and day-out has been a return to the simplest pleasure: building deep relationships at home with the people I cherish. This is exactly the reason I got into the business of homeschooling all those years ago in the first place. I trusted that by building a life together, sharing our days and experiences as a family, I would not only be able to offer my children a unique education but also entrust them to become self-actualized humans: able to discover their truest selves and then, in turn, offer their gifts to the world. 

As this global pandemic continues, my hope is that all educators will strive to keep to this vision, which Maria Montessori expressed so beautifully: “The education that will lead the way to a new humanity has one end alone: leading the individual and the society to a higher state of development. The concept becomes clearer if we realize that mankind has to fulfill a collective mission on earth, a mission involving all of humanity and, therefore, each and every human being.”

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