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Perspective | Magazine

Parents, you can’t replace teachers while homeschooling. But you can do this

Even though there’s no way you can teach the curriculum, you can do something even more valuable for your kids.

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I have a secret to share with parents and guardians who are worried about homeschooling kids during the pandemic.

When classroom teachers like me are out for the day, we don’t trust substitutes to deliver our normal educational content. Instead, we leave written instructions for the students directly, or we tell the sub to put on a movie.

Guess what? You are now the long-term substitutes. And, quite frankly, you are not capable of teaching the entire normal curriculum. So please: Stop worrying about trying to accomplish the impossible.

What you can do is strengthen the skills your children need in order to thrive when they go back to school. Students who are good readers tend to do better than their peers. Time spent learning research skills, engaging in critical thinking, problem solving, and focusing on one task for longer periods of time will give students a leg up when they return. Probably the biggest complaint we hear from students in middle school and high school is that they do not see how the things we ask them to learn have any relevance in their own lives. They tell me that after they graduate high school, they will never read another poem, never use algebra, and never need to know the date when Abraham Lincoln was shot.

Parents can show kids that much of what they study can be applied in the real world (OK, kids might have a point about the date of Lincoln’s assassination). Children might even have a little fun learning something new during this challenging and confusing time. Here are a few ideas to try at home.

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1. Read, read, read

If you do nothing else but read to young children—or set aside time for older students to read on their own — that will be more valuable than attempting to teach any Common Core standard. Students who were read to often when they were little are more likely to read for pleasure. And if they read for pleasure, they do much better in school in all subject areas.

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Students who read novels have much higher emotional intelligence, which helps them cope with stress, make friends more easily, and learn from mistakes. Kids who read well can sit still longer and concentrate on a single task for more time than their peers.

Parents of young children can ask the grandparents to read a book aloud over FaceTime or Zoom. And don’t forget to check out the list of children’s audiobooks that Audible has made available for free during the pandemic.

2. Teach family history

Every year, I set aside several days for each student to use tools like Ancestry.com to trace their own lineage back to major events in American history. Some have ancestors who fought in the American Revolution, while others are the children of immigrants. Some students trace a relative to a name on a manifest of a slave ship. The most profound learning experience of the year happens in those first few days as students stop thinking about getting the date right on the test and start thinking: What was the world like for my ancestor? Don’t bother teaching from a history book at home. Go on a voyage of self-discovery and send your kids back to school excited about history class.

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3. Make math and science interesting

Start with something simple, like making Kool-Aid, says Katie Clark, a middle school math and science teacher at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland, Maine. Teach fractions by increasing the recipe by one-third, or only mixing seven-eighths of the package. Add a science component by using different ratios of mix to water and “experiment” to see which tastes best.

Intimidated by science experiments? Take seeds, the tops of onions, and even bits of food from under the fridge and plant them all. Water and care for them equally and see what grows. Keep track of your experiment on a chart, then the kids can use linear algebra to predict how big the plants will get based on the data they’ve collected.

So, parents, please don’t be so hard on yourselves. By the time most students are in middle school they will be carrying around smartphones that give them access to the sum of all human knowledge. If you send me back a student who had fun learning something — or one who can concentrate a little longer than before — then you will have done something profound.

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David Bulley is an administrator at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.