When School Comes Home: Making Room in the Day for Distance Learning
This article originally appeared in the ATA Chronicle-Online.
Once upon a time, in a land that now seems very far away, many parents were able to work as freelancers from their homes. They did this in part by sending their children to another, much larger building five days a week. The children would gather with friends and adults called “teachers” to be educated while their parents stayed in the then-quiet home and worked until it was time for the children to return. The building the children spent so much time in was called a “school,” and it was a place where they learned about reading, writing, math, sports, art, music, getting along with others, and much more.
In 2020, of course, all of that changed when COVID-19 came to town. The age of COVID has led to a major disruption in the world of education. Public and private schools that closed their doors in the spring may or may not be open again this fall. School districts will continue providing instruction for their students, but how they do it has changed. Some schools will be open for in-person classes, some will provide only online instruction as they were forced to do in the spring, and others will adopt a hybrid model to allow students into school for part of the week but avoid dangerous crowding. Consequently, parents in all industries, translation and interpreting included, may find themselves working from home while their children are simultaneously attending school from home, either part-time or full-time. This conflation of parents’ and children’s “work lives” into their shared living space creates its own set of challenges. With some planning and a little flexibility, however, you don’t need to settle for disaster.
First, an important distinction: we are talking about remote learning, not homeschooling. Although media outlets may use the terms interchangeably, these are two separate educational paradigms with important differences. In a homeschooling situation, the parent controls every aspect of their child’s education, from choosing a curriculum to deciding how to present the lessons and assigning schoolwork. They may choose to incorporate lessons into daily activities or have a set time and place for school to happen every day. Homeschooling parents may also choose to use some form of online learning, in which their children are enrolled for virtual classes taught by someone other than the parent, but the parents have chosen the program and know the schedule ahead of time. This is not the case with the emergency remote learning that school districts everywhere had to develop from scratch this year. The student is still enrolled in a traditional public or private school, but instead of going to the school and learning in a classroom environment with faculty and peers, they now receive instruction online from that school’s teachers. Curriculum, class pace, assessment, and instructional methods are still determined by the teacher, not the parent. Class meetings are generally held online through a platform like Google Meet or Zoom, and parents play a supporting role in their child’s education instead of running the show.
Helping one or more children keep up with their education at home while attempting to maintain your own productivity at work can drive a parent bonkers. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of tips to help parents navigate this very strange new world. Please note that much of this advice is based primarily on my own experience with five of my children learning from home over a period of three months. Since this is still a fairly new area for most of us, “expert” advice is scarce.
- Rethink the schedule. Your deadlines and responsibilities will ebb and flow as usual, but so will your children’s. Their online classes may not always be at the same time each day, and if you have more than one school-age child at home, they may need to be in class at the same time. Instead of trying to establish a rigid daily schedule, consider a more modular approach. The night before, if possible, make a list of deadlines, meetings, class times, and other immovable responsibilities for all members of the family, then figure out how to fit homework, invoicing, marketing, or other more flexible tasks around those non-negotiables.
- Tech up your home. Your kids will need a way to get online for virtual classes, homework assignments, research for projects, and assessments without taking over your work equipment. In most cases they can use a variety of devices, including tablets, to access their work. If you don’t have enough devices to go around and can’t or won’t buy another one, try scheduling times for each child to use the available devices, or check with your school district to see if they can lend you one.
- Tour the classroom. Many school districts will use an online educational platform like Google Classroom, which acts as a central hub for accessing instructional materials, completing homework, and attending virtual classes. Spend some time going through the site with your child, and make sure both of you know how to find resources and how to turn in homework.
- Mark their pages. The online classroom is not necessarily self-contained. Teachers may assign work through a variety of online sources ranging from online textbooks to sites like Khan Academy and YouTube. Many of these sites will require login information. To help your student find their assigned work with a minimum of frustration, have the web browser store their usernames and passwords so they can access the sites easily. Then create a folder in the Bookmarks bar, name it for your child, and add all the child’s school resources to that folder. Even young children will be able to find everything they need with very little help from you.
- Keep work and school together. Our children are wonderful and amazing and perfect, but they’re also human, so they may not want to go to math class on a sunny day. Keeping them in the same room with you allows you to keep an eye on them and their participation in class, or the lack thereof.
- Have plenty of headphones. If several people have classes or meetings at the same time, they will all appreciate the ability to hear their own meeting and block out everyone else’s. For younger children, however, it may be better to have them use their device’s built-in audio and microphone so you can hear what’s happening and be ready to step in and help. Another option is to buy two sets of headphones that can piggyback off each other. Plug your child’s set into the device, then plug your own headphones into the child’s so you can listen in as you work next to them. Before you do this, check with the teacher and make sure that parents are allowed to listen in.
- Monitor without intruding. Federal law requires US schools to protect student privacy. To help them meet their legal requirements, your child’s school or district may ask you to take steps like not recording or taking photos of video classes. Whatever the requirements, do your best to abide by the school’s wishes.
- Limit screen time. Distance learning should generally take less time than onsite classroom instruction. Your child may need to be on the computer for a few hours each day, in addition to live classes, but they shouldn’t be glued to the screen from breakfast until dinner time. If you think the amount of time they need to finish their work is excessive, get in touch with the teacher for help.
- Go old school. Don’t forget about traditional learning methods. Paper, pencils, crayons, and rulers should also be part of the school day. Younger learners who are still practicing their fine motor skills should be encouraged to write or draw, while older students will benefit from taking notes by hand to improve retention and give their eyes a break from the screen.
- Help younger children. Tinier humans are generally less adept at acting on verbal instruction only. While the teacher is on the screen telling them what to do, you may need to hand them the crayons or help them trace the first letters on the worksheet.
- Go to gym class. The school’s physical education teachers can assign exercise journals or post home workout videos for their students, but you’re the only one who can make your children get moving. Schedule time for all of you to go for a jog, shoot some hoops, learn to rollerblade, or dance in the living room. The kids need an hour of exercise each day, and we need to move too.
- Allow break time. Virtual learning can be stressful for all involved, and children cannot always express their emotions fluently. Keep an eye out for signs of emotional turmoil and give the kids a chance to let off some steam when they need to.
- Be kind to teachers. They are moving mountains to help your children, with no extra pay and probably not enough training or support. Communicate early, often, and politely when problems arise, or take a moment to say thank you.
- Go easy on yourself. When the kids are learning from home, you’re not just a translator or interpreter; you’re also the teacher’s aide, gym coach, art teacher, school counselor, cafeteria manager, and hall monitor. On days when you feel like you’re not doing such a great job, remember how many hats you’re wearing right now and give yourself a break.
What about your own family’s remote learning experiences? What is working for you? Any other tips to share? Let us know in the comments.
About the Author
Danielle Maxson, CT has been translating since 2009 and specializes in medical translation with a focus on patient records. She is an ATA-certified Portuguese to English and Spanish to English translator and a member of ATA’s Business Practices Education Committee. Before focusing on translation, she worked as a Spanish teacher and a medical interpreter. She has presented on medical topics at ATA conferences in 2014 and 2019, and she authored several articles on HIPAA for Caduceus, the Medical Division newsletter. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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