A high-school teacher in Surrey, B.C., has a simple piece of advice for the complex problems that parents across Canada are suddenly facing, with concerns of their children falling behind academically with schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just read to them.
“If all parents read to their kids every day, or made reading the thing kids do every single day, then everything will be fine,” said Lizanne Foster.
The reassuring message comes as school boards across the country scramble to salvage the remainder of the academic year through remote learning, hoping to keep students on track as much as possible and prevent learning loss that typically happens over the summer months. The work, though well-intentioned, has undoubtedly added to the stress already felt by many parents.
Increasingly, some teachers and education observers are raising questions about how much families need to sweat about homeschooling.
“We’re already in this time period where we all agree that we’re overtesting kids, we’re overstressing them, we’re overscheduling them. That’s the context where all of this takes place,” said Joel Westheimer, a university research chair in democracy and education at the University of Ottawa.
Now, during a pandemic, “we’re extending that same mentality of making sure our kids don’t fall behind. And I don’t think it’s warranted,” he added.
New Brunswick became the latest province to announce schools will be closed for the rest of the academic year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ontario, with two million students, is set to restart instruction, albeit through distance learning, on Monday. Elsewhere, educators, including Ms. Foster and her colleagues in B.C., are reaching out to their students and setting up online classrooms.
In Ontario, the government has said that final marks in report cards for elementary students would be based on teacher evaluations done before March 13, which was the Friday prior to spring break. It is more difficult in high school where students earn credits toward graduation. The government has directed high-school teachers to assign tasks, but to also be reasonable and recognize student performance prior to the spring break.
Prof. Westheimer said he was surprised to learn of the number of parents who have shared pictures of worksheets they were giving their children in recent weeks to fill the education gaps.
“This isn’t the time,” he said.
Young children, in particular, develop at different rates, and there is little evidence that the concept of children falling behind is meaningful. “Research is clear that even though one child may be reading before Grade 1 and another is not a competent reader until Grade 3, neither is a predictor of either child’s reading skills at, say, age 12,” Prof. Westheimer said.
Education observers and teachers encourage some structure at home for children, but they also warn against recreating school that would simply turn children off learning. Instead, bake with children, they say, to teach them about measurements. They also suggest families grow something in the garden or let children build forts.
Parent Risa Ebedes, who lives in Thornhill, Ont., said she has her three children, 8, 10 and 12, do worksheets for about half an hour a day, not because she’s concerned they would fall behind, but rather to occupy them while she’s making dinner. Her daughter, she said, prefers the pencil and paper work. “My two sons prefer not to do it,” she said with a laugh. “But they do it anyway.”
Ms. Ebedes, a teacher at the Toronto District School Board, said the family spends some of their day at home researching and learning a new topic that is of interest to the children. Most recently, they learned about airplanes, her eight-year-old son’s passion.
Families, she said, should focus on the mental health of their children, not worksheets and workbooks. Even though she has invited her students to use Google classroom, she also reminds them that nobody will be left behind.
“This is not really homeschooling. It’s kind of crisis schooling, which is completely different from homeschooling,” Ms. Ebedes said.
The worry, said Tina Rapke, an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto who specializes in math, is that a heavy focus at home on a particular way to do schoolwork will turn children off what they otherwise enjoy. Prof. Rapke said parents may try to mimic their experiences at school, but the way children learn in classrooms has changed.
Prof. Rapke said that math, for example, is taught through discussions on finding solutions, which research has found engages children in learning. She has been doing it with her own children over breakfast or through math games.
“The big thing is to talk with your kids in elementary, and try to do their reading and journalling and story making together. You read a page, they read a page. Make stories together,” she said.
Ms. Foster in B.C. said many parents may believe that school is linear. However, educators are consistently circling back on work, and building upon it. Students, she said, will not be disadvantaged if they only return to school in the fall, because teachers typically review material then.
“Kids are resilient. They just don’t learn in classrooms, they learn all the time,” Ms. Foster said.
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