Posted in Bartlett Academy

Overcoming Past Barriers

You’ve likely read here and/or heard from others about the failures that plagued education in the spring of 2020. The nation was quarantining (read: shut down) for weeks. We’re still in various phases of re-opening nationwide. In March 2020, students that had been attending in-person instruction were now at home with expectations of continuing their learning virtually. This was a real struggle on a number of levels; not all students had access to internet and technologies to attend school remotely, some children were left home with little to no supervision as essential employees reported to work, lesson plans hadn’t been designed for remote learning and teachers had to adapt quickly. The list of gaps and opportunities seemed endless.

As we look ahead to the incoming school year we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t reflect on the pain points that detracted from a successful remote learning experience in the spring and plan for those now.

In this blog post I’m going to detail the 3 pain points from the spring semester that still resonate with me months later, and share our mitigation strategies such that we don’t make the same mistakes again.

  1. Meetings – As the primary educator in our new homeschool scenario I’m going to write this opportunity from my point of view. It’s common for me to work more than 40 hours each week. I’ve worked from home for years. I manage projects where teams are spread geographically across the U.S. Because of my remote work status, phone calls and video conferencing are how I collaborate and get the job done. In the spring my children were in preschool and 1st grade. While both know what an iPad is and how to navigate it – one requires help to enter the passcode as he’s yet to learn his numbers and neither were able to log-in and participate in their daily Zoom meetings without my constant reminders of the time, reminding them where the mute/un-mute buttons were, how to raise their hand, how to turn the camera around and actually aim it at the project/work they were to show, etc. My son would get bored and just walk away from the iPad while his class was still meeting or worse interrupt the class telling a poopy butt joke. 
    The times for my children’s daily Zoom calls seemed to always be when I had another conference call or video meeting where I did a majority of the speaking. As such I was unable to help my kids navigate their meetings or even encourage them to stay and pay attention in their meeting for the duration – after 2 weeks we stopped even trying to attend any school-related Zoom meetings. 
    If I had told my employer or any of our other partners that I needed to reschedule my meetings because I had to help my kids with school – well, I can’t even imagine that scenario because I get paid to do my job – not teach – and so in my daily professional priority setting – my work came first. When would I have even offered to reschedule the meetings to? My kids are home ALL DAY EVERY DAY. I’ll also add that I’ve spent the past decade of my professional career creating a reputation for being able to reliably manage and deliver high quality outcomes on multi-million dollar federal contracts. I refuse to mar my professional reputation or give up my job because as a working woman who happens to also have kids I’m being defaulted into a position I didn’t ask for, nor was trained for, nor was/is being paid for. 
    Solution: I don’t know that I call it a solution, but at least as this new school year approaches companies, including mine, are recognizing that many employees are being called on to once again support remote education for their students. Organizations have advanced notice that this is happening and can offer support where able, but the expectation is that the job still gets done. Of course it is because without the work getting done the jobs are gone. In the spring, the pandemic in effect brought our entire nation to a halt – everything was in such turmoil that I clung to the things I knew and had control over. I know how to do my job. My job motivates me. I have control over the level of work I deliver and I know my efforts are appreciated. I cannot with any straight face say those same things about my parenting or teaching abilities. 
    This overlap of my work/mom/teacher lives is a primary reason why we chose homeschooling this year. When I saw that our school system was requiring 4 hours of synchronous (via live videoconferencing) and 2 hours of asynchronous learning each day – that’s 6 hours of an 8+ hour work day. With homeschooling I control the schedule and can therefore set better boundaries for myself and my children such that we all meet our milestones for the next year and keep what little sanity we have left. 
  2. Philosophy – As remote learning became a reality for my first grader specifically it became increasingly clear to me how much busy work she’s being given each day. For example, each week she had to write 10 sentences in Spanish. After she wrote them she’d read them and when I asked for her to tell me what they translate into in English – she couldn’t or wouldn’t, but I didn’t have the skills to know what they were either so I couldn’t ask the right questions to prompt her. We did 2 check-ins with her teachers whose feedback to us was that they didn’t want a picture of Madison’s completed work, but a video showing her process. So now I’m also a movie producer or vlogger??? No.
    It was at this juncture that my perspective shifted on the value of the public education we were receiving. I don’t want a “check the box” curricula. I want to know that you know that she’s mastered the competencies and skills being covered. Me showing you a video of her actually writing a sentence that she doesn’t comprehend does nothing for her. It’s busy work. We quit doing it. She writes our grocery list and other things every week so I know she knows how to write. 
    Solution: With the homeschool option chosen we will choose a curricula and delivery model that allows me to assess that not only can my children read and write, but that they comprehend what they’re reading or being told. I can nurture their curiosity in asking and answering all of the questions. I can cultivate independent learners and thinkers.
  3. Environment – Quite literally over the course of one random weekend in March my kids transitioned home unannounced. They didn’t get to tell their teachers or friends bye. Their teachers weren’t able to communicate expectations for what would happen when we went home. All my 5 and 6 year old kids knew was that they didn’t have school any more – YAY!!! 
    I’ve been told I’m wrong, but I don’t believe otherwise – kids have a mental mapping for the rules and expectations based on environment. We all do. My kids know that when they get out of my car and start walking into school that they are to have their book bag and lunch. They know where to hang those things in their classrooms, to wash their hands before they sit down at their desks, to talk with inside voices, to share and respect their teachers, peers, etc. At home, they know not to watch TV until they’ve done their homework. They know to disguise their cheetos as carrots so mommy doesn’t realize what’s they’re actually eating. I kid. Kind of. But there are very different rules of engagement at home vs. at school. Now our children are needing to navigate different rules of engagement for home and school without leaving home. 
    They don’t have peers unless they have siblings and this may be one of only two times when I say that it’s awesome our kids are so close in age. They are peers and need to know how to encourage, respect, listen to and communicate with each other. They are also siblings prone to fighting, arguing, petty sarcasm and general taunting. They’re also with each other 24/7/365 right now and it’s a lot of emotions – I’m not going to lie. 
    Then there’s me. I have a pretty great relationship with my kids. They love me. They are still at the age where they both seek me out for validation, referee, regular kisses and snuggles. They don’t know me as their teacher who ensures their work gets done, grades their work, gives them tests, and stops them from eating all of the snacks in the pantry on Monday. In the spring, we were just doing what needed to be done to stay safe, sane and moving forward. Now this has become a way of life and “mom” is now a dual role and one that I’m sure will take some getting used to as the new school year starts. 
    I understand that you may think I’m overreacting on this one, but my relationship with my kids (my daughter specifically) really suffered in the spring. We yelled more. We cried more. It was a bad place for both of us with me enforcing the prescribed curriculum the school passed down. I won’t go down that road again.
    Solution: As we’ve navigated even creating this homeschool concept for this year, our kids have been involved in every step. They were in the car when we named it. They told me what they thought would be “fun” and what their favorite things about school were and weren’t. They helped me create the rules that we’ll operate under this year. Madison’s said that she wants to teach Cole some of the Kindergarten stuff. Cole committed to teaching Madison how to clean her room. They know they’ll be homeschooled. They know that I’m their teacher. They know they have their desk space and supplies they are to manage. They know that mommy still gets to work and we can have conversations about what that looks like day-to-day and respect that we all have “work” to do. They know they can’t just watch YouTube all day. Unlike the spring and what the public school system is planning for fall – they are part of this solution which I’m hopeful will add to how successful we’ll find this academic year to have been. 

I realize this academic year against the backdrop of a pandemic and their mom serving dual roles as parent and teacher won’t be easy and the schedule won’t always get followed. Some days will be a dumpster fire. Some days will be amazing. 

Unlike in the spring I’m better prepared and able to flex for the unknown. I mean at this point with COVID-19, murder hornets, hurricanes, earthquakes, Saharan dust storms – I mean it’s all unknown. But this plan was crafted through complete transparency across our family. We can create boundaries that allow us to be successful in all things and I’m holding on to the fact that our family dynamic will be stronger for having lived through this literally all in the same boat with no life jackets or life rafts – just each other and a shared vision for the future.

Posted in Bartlett Academy

Open Letter to Madison’s School

I wrote the following letter to Madison’s first grade English and Spanish teachers and her principal on May 6 after having reached a tipping point in how much failure I was willing to accept as a mom, employee and wife. I remember crying as I wrote this letter. Breaking under the weight of too many expectations and not enough time in the day to get them all done. Failure after failure. Failures started out small – missing a Zoom call with her class here and there because I was in a meeting. Then one day a teacher called my husband who was in the operating room at the hospital asking if everything was okay with me because assignments weren’t being turned in. That was my tipping point. I was tired and this quite frankly pissed me off.

In follow-up to this open letter, I did speak with her principal and teachers on the phone and we all ended our call with a general understanding that as mom’s there was only so much that we could do. Additional one-on-one Zoom meetings weren’t the answer because I didn’t have time to work more meetings into already full work days. Having people over to our house to tutor Madison one-on-one wasn’t an answer because with my husband being an essential employee – we are always at high risk for being exposed to COVID and I didn’t want to subject anyone else to that. I rested in the fact that I was doing all I could and I had to let go of the things I didn’t value enough to prioritize and move forward. 

Open Letter to Madison’s principal and teachers

Good evening,

I hope you’re having a wonderful week and know that we appreciate all you do to support Madison and the entire school community. After significant reflection over the past few weeks I feel compelled to reach out and provide feedback on our current remote learning situation. Prior to reading the following please know that my comments are in no way meant to be personal or imply that we are not receiving adequate support, but rather to transparently share what we’re experiencing and have you help me understand where I need to focus my energies. You all are wonderful and I say the following with the utmost respect for what you do and how this pandemic has impacted the world.

Our family has been self-quarantining since March 12 when Madison was diagnosed with the flu. This was right around the time that COVID-19 was becoming a reality for how we live and schools were subsequently closed the following week. My husband and I stay committed to our children’s continued education amidst this quarantine. We have Madison who is in first grade and her brother, Cole, who is a rising Kindergartner. During the first few weeks of quarantine, we read and focused on learning that coincided with what they experience here at home each day. We purchased pre-K and 1st grade workbooks from Barnes and Noble and subscribed to ABC Mouse to help support us because we both work full time. Examples of work we did include: we created a disaster preparedness plan for our new house talking about natural disasters and fires and how we evacuate our home in the event of an emergency. We talked about how we call 911, knowing our new address, mommy and daddy’s phone numbers, etc. Madison’s been learning to play piano and we sent some really cool art we did with water guns and watercolors to Mr. Yancey. Madison was really sad she missed seeing the chicks hatch this spring and so we had painted lady caterpillars delivered to our home and watched their progress over 20 days from caterpillar to chrysalises to butterflies and journaled their life cycle. We discussed money and time. We did a community service project on Earth Day walking our neighborhood and picking up trash – logging our efforts with Keep Charlotte Beautiful. We’ve been learning fractions by baking in the kitchen. Essentially we were working those big blocks of essential content from communications received from the school into our day-to-day activities including values our family deem important like social responsibility.

My husband is a CRNA and has been going into the hospital working more hours than normal in light of this pandemic and I work on multiple government projects focused on COVID response. Our work was not interrupted during this pandemic but rather increased in response. Last week my husband took a week off of work and was able to catch Madison up on 2 weeks of required school work and ensured she got onto the meetings established for her class. This week my husband is back to work and I’m constantly aware of how my workload directly impacts Madison’s inability to complete required work being sent home by the school and I’m not able to get her up on the class meetings when I’m often on video conference calls at the same time. She missed today’s call with Ms. J’s class for example. Madison is unable to stay focused on writing her sentences, watching her videos, doing the work when I’m working. I’m not able to give her blocks of my undivided attention during the work day especially now as our nation begins multi-phased approaches for re-opening and all the things that two kids at home require like lunch, time outside, etc. School work is just not happening this week during the day, and when my husband and I get off of work we have little energy left to motivate our 6 year old to want to do school work before bed. Not an excuse, but reality for us right now. 

I spent a significant amount of time this morning before the kids woke up reflecting on the past few weeks since Madison’s school work became required. I feel like I’m not able to continue with learning as we were earlier in this quarantine because its not following the prescribed assignments laid out in the weekly packets. We are all hyper frustrated just trying to check the box on each day’s assignments. Our language as a family has become very transactional. We are focused more on just checking the box than actually ensuring she’s getting value from the work she’s doing. Yesterday she finished writing her sentences in Spanish for this week and I asked her if she could tell me what the sentences meant and her response was a simple “no.” That’s not valuable. I understand that our current circumstances aren’t ideal and none of us planned for this, but for my family – we don’t do something just for the sake of doing it – we do it because there’s value for someone else or for us. I don’t feel like she’s getting value from some of the prescribed assignments and that’s likely a result of us not being able to take the work a step further ensuring she understands what she’s writing or spend the time to ask her questions about the monuments and help her understand why those people were memorialized in a way that she understands their impact. 

I know you want to ensure she’s getting the work that she would have been getting in the classroom, but outside the context of your classrooms many of the assignment’s concepts aren’t landing. This is why what you do in the classroom is so important and irreplaceable. I’ll also add that these kids (just like us) have a mental mapping of expectations based on their environment. Madison knows that at school there are certain rules and expectations that you all ensure she abides by. At home our infrastructure is relaxed to give our kids a break from the rigidity they experience in the classroom. We’ve had a really hard time reconstructing her perception of home as a place of structure and extended periods of learning.

As I look ahead to the final weeks of this school year I’d like to know what the barriers are to Madison getting promoted to 2nd grade so we can focus on those.

As an individual I’m an overachiever and my love language is words of affirmation and I tell you this because as a mom, as an impromptu teacher of two, and as an employee focused on this pandemic every day – I am overwhelmed and stressed out. As a mom I don’t want an unintended outcome of this quarantine being Madison’s failure to advance to 2nd grade because of my failures to juggle it all. As a teacher I want to ensure she’s doing meaningful work and that the value of the assignments lands in a way she understands. As someone working full time I need to not have one more thing to manage in addition to this pandemic. As a self-aware human being I know that I can’t be everything to everyone all the time especially now when I’m being called on to do more, be more in each pillar of my life and I’m done with the guilt associated with my perception of failure at every turn. We yell more. Our tempers are shorter. It’s not fun for anyone. Again, this isn’t anything for you to fix, but rather me trying to give insight into what’s happening here. I welcome any feedback or insights you have and if you think there is a different audience for my message please share and/or tell me who I should send this to. 

I appreciate you reading this and look forward to hearing what barriers, if any, prevent Madison from being promoted to 2nd grade as that’s my main impetus for this message. You’re amazing and I’m so thankful for you.

All my best,
Emily

Posted in Bartlett Academy

Spring Semester 2020 – Disaster

As the 2019-2020 school year started to ramp down, COVID-19 started to ramp up in the US. Madison got sick with the flu mid-March 2020 and was home starting March 12. By Monday of the following week (March 16) schools were closing and my kids were home indefinitely. 

As you’ve likely read in the Welcome page, my husband and I work full time and bringing a then pre-schooler and 1st grader home and supporting their education had a very steep learning curve. Babysitters were scarce as folks started to quarantine – fearful of getting the virus. We had just moved into a new house at the end of December 2019. Our new house has a pool (thank goodness!) and the winter was mild so we spent a bunch of time enjoying the pool. We were also able to work Madison’s curricula into my day-to-day priorities and it was fun. When we baked muffins for breakfast we talked about fractions. We caught and released a lot of toads, frogs and turtles, and got the opportunity to discuss ecosystems and habitats for various animals that live around our new home. When we had to go to the store we discussed the value of money – how much money we had, the price of the items we had in our cart, want versus need, etc. We did science experiments and art projects. We even spent one morning walking through our new home talking about emergencies and planning our evacuation route and talking about how we would get out of our house if we were stuck on the second floor, reciting our new address, and discussing what would happen if they ever had to call 911. It was fun and it wasn’t “work,” but valuable real world learning nonetheless.

After spring break our school system required weekly packets to be completed. Packets for first grade covered math, reading, writing and Spanish. Madison was in a dual language program and as such her math and reading were in Spanish. I don’t speak, read or write Spanish and we had a tutor we would call on occasionally, but to be honest it was a nightmare to coordinate with my work schedule. I found myself trying to squeeze in half a worksheet between meetings and when I was free my daughter didn’t want to do school work. We fought so much as we failed to balance the need for her to get her work done and multiple deadlines I faced at work. Our language became too transactional – you can’t do this until you do that, I’ll give you this if you complete that, etc. I yelled a lot as my kids would play (or more often fight) and I feared my colleagues could hear them through video and teleconferencing. 

I felt like I was failing at everything every day.

That lasted until early May and after 3 weeks of not being able to attend all of the Zoom meetings, not getting all of the required work done, working nearly around the clock on multiple project-related deadlines at work – I quit. I took inventory of where I felt like I was failing – every where. What my priorities were – my relationship with my children, maintaining my employment, and getting some sleep. I quit my teaching job. We did no other required work after May 6. In my next blog I’ll post my open letter to Madison’s principal and both her English and Spanish teachers. 

Looking ahead to the 20-21 school year, yes, I’m apprehensive about being able to balance expectations and workloads for school, work, family, life – but I feel better about it because we’re making decisions now that put us in control. Rather than submitting to “leaders” in our community who don’t have to live our life, we are taking our children out of the public school system and are committed to creating Kindergarten and 2nd grade curricula that keep our children on track (if not ahead) with educational milestones. We believe our plan for homeschooling allows us to get back to working education into the life we live rather than trying to live any life outside of all of the required school work (~6 hours per day per the public school system) for elementary school-aged children.