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Distance learning was a disaster. So I decided to teach my daughter myself.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/19/2020 Tracey Lewis-Giggetts
a person sitting at a table using a laptop: (iStock) (iStock)

I had relatively high hopes at the start of this school year. My daughter’s small private school, which we loved, had given us the option of going virtual in light of the pandemic while still offering face-to-face learning to those who needed it. That probably should have been my first clue.

The teachers were going to teach a group of rambunctious and easily bored fourth-graders online while simultaneously teaching the same in the classroom. After the first week, my husband and I, both also working from home, were appalled. Our child was confused and agitated.

How in the world is this going to work?

In addition to the need for better webcams and technology, the school struggled with the flow of the schedule. There needed to be some way for the teacher to spend uninterrupted time with virtual students for direct teaching. There also needed to be a variation in the teaching styles for students online vs. in-classroom; something that’s difficult to do if you’re teaching the two groups at the same time. I know from my own work as a professor that I can’t teach online students in the same way I do those in the classroom. The pedagogy is entirely different. Still, my husband and I made our concerns known and prayed for the best. But the best never arrived.

There was a critical moment, two weeks later, when everything became crystal clear. I was sitting in the same room as my daughter while she was online with her class. She was staring at the screen with her little hand up trying to get the teacher’s attention. Then finally, when called on, she excitedly answered the question. But the sound was glitchy. The teacher, understandably, said, “I can’t hear you. Who else would like to answer?” The look of absolute frustration and dejection was all I needed. I typed a message to the teacher saying she was done for the day and we closed the laptop. It was a small thing, yes. Technical glitches happen. But it was a small thing at the end of a laundry list of small and big things that suggested another nine months of the same was not going to work.

We never opened that Chromebook again.

“Let’s go take a walk, Sugah.”

My daughter reminded me that black joy is a form of resistance

It took about a week of intense discussions and rearranging schedules before we sent the letter, pulling her out of the school. Ordinarily, my daughter would have resisted all of it. But I think even she knew that this was the right choice. Her little 9-year-old spirit was relieved as long as I remembered to get the names and phone numbers of her close friends and their parents.

I’m fairly certain I would have pulled every strand of hair out of my head if we hadn’t withdrawn her from the school. Nearly every morning, there would have been the same weeping and gnashing of teeth we experienced those first few weeks. This brilliant kid who reads above grade level but hasn’t quite gotten the point of math, is a kinesthetic and visual learner; two traits I think I only understood in theory before the pandemic. It was mostly the kind of thing I’d say when sipping wine with my girlfriends on a girls night out, when the conversation turned to our kids.

These were the same girlfriends, half of whom were home-schooling moms pre-covid, whose ideas about K-12 learning were foreign to me. I am an educator, so with very little humility I made it known that I thought home-schooling had to be enacted in a particular way — basically a structured mirroring of what happened in the classroom with a few extra field trips — or it was ineffective. I was also clear that I didn’t have the bandwidth nor the energy for “teaching” an elementary school student. It was never an option for me. Until it was.

You know the saying, “We make plans and God laughs”? Well, let’s just say that sometimes God will get your friends in on the gag because I’m sure my friends are laughing now.

Thanks, covid-19.

For the first official day of our adventures into home schooling, I prepared all the things. A whiteboard filled with a strict schedule for subjects broken into half-hour blocks. Math manipulatives galore. Her favorite chapter books at the ready. The first day was, well, anticlimactic. It wasn’t the “oh my God, this is horrendous” feeling we’d had the weeks before but there were no groundbreaking changes, either. She did what I asked but I still had to fight tooth and nail to get her “on schedule.” This, too, would eventually be unsustainable and likely lead to a complete hatred of learning on her part, and patches of missing hair on mine. Then, she said something that initially made no sense to my brain.

“Mommy, why do I have to do my lessons in that order? It’s too much pressure.”

Because that’s the way you do school, I thought.

Or is it?

Down the rabbit hole I went.

Akilah Richards, host of the podcast, “Fare of the Free Child,” and leading advocate in the self-directed education movement, said something on an episode that shook the ground for me. She said, “If you are very clear that the school system is not working for your child … then we have to figure out in our communities how to create alternatives.”

As I really began to research the many learning options available, I realized that I’d bought into a system that didn’t serve my child’s needs well at all. Yes, it was the system that I’d learned to conform to but, if I was honest, as smart as I believe myself to be, most of what I’ve held onto in the way of intelligence was birthed from my own curiosities; my own discoveries. And that’s what I want to give my child. So not quite willing to give up the schedule completely — baby steps — I relaxed some of the rules and allowed her to have more input in the curriculum.

The shift in her demeanor was dramatic. We first started with allowing her to choose which subject she tackled first, then second. As long she got the assignments done for her subjects by a set time, “you can approach them any way you want,” I told her.

Having that tiny bit of choice liberated her strong-willed self. It meant that when it came time for her to deal with harder subjects, she felt ready to do so. We didn’t have a single fight. A win for Mommy and her writing deadlines, right? So I decided to take things up a notch. She was studying propellers for Science/Engineering that week. To allegedly shake things up, I allowed her to watch YouTube videos on the subject as opposed to reading an article. I then asked her to write about how they work.

She struggled so hard.

But having empowered her to make the earlier choices, she also felt comfortable sharing her feelings of being overwhelm with me.

“But I think I have another way to write it, Mommy!”

Okay?

My child went back into her room and started jotting things down in her notebook. As I peeked in, I thought, “Well, maybe she figured it out.”

When she came back in to show me her work, I was shocked. She hadn’t written a single sentence about propellers at all. She’d drawn an entire diagram of one and included labeled details of how each part worked. She then began to explain to me what she’d drawn. Yes, she eventually ended up writing a paragraph about propellers, but apparently she just needed to see it her way first.

I cried so hard when she left the room.

Within one week, we’d had enough of a breakthrough to see that the way our child learns wasn’t being served well by the school setting, and that the virtual learning setup only magnified those challenges. I cried because I’d wished we’d caught it earlier and because I was grateful that I’d trusted my gut. In doing so, we finally had a path for her that made sense.

These last seven months have not been easy for us. We’ve not only had to explain why our babies couldn’t return back to school or hug and wrestle with their homies, but we’ve had to unpack why certain leaders in our country downplayed this deadly pandemic — extending it unnecessarily and killing thousands. We’ve had the added devastation of talking to our children about how systemic racism impacts our health (the virus disproportionately impacts people of color) and our lives, as Black and Brown people are killed by law enforcement in larger numbers proportionally than White people.

And so it wasn’t a simple choice to pull our child out of school in the midst of all of this. But it was an important one for us.

I know everyone can’t do what we did. One of the things I grapple with is the privilege we have in being able to remove our child from school so quickly. There are essential workers who don’t have that option. There are caregivers who don’t have the resources for that kind of switch.

So yes, whether it’s traditional school, cyber school, home school or self-directed learning, we all must decide what’s best for us, but it’s critical that we recognize the advantages in those decisions, should there be any. Then, we can do something to serve someone who has to make the harder choice. This, to me, is what it means to live in community.

Every day, in light of lockdowns and uprisings, I’m learning the significance of building moments of joy in our lives. I’ve always known that there many ways learning can show up, but now I know that it’s easier when joy is an integral part of the process. By making this choice for my daughter, she is finding joy in learning. And that, more than anything else, is what helps me keep going.

Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts is a writer and educator whose work explores the intersection of culture (race, class, identity) with spirituality and wellness. The author of 13 books, she is the host of the podcast HeARTtalk with Tracey Michae’l and author of the forthcoming book “BLACK JOY: A Strategy for Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration.”

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More reading:

Distance learning is straining parent-teacher relationships

Distance learning in a pandemic is stressful, but I’m trying to see the hidden gifts

How can I keep myself, and my child, on track while navigating online kindergarten

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