by Elizabeth Dalziel
A friend posted a picture on Instagram of her 11-year-old daughter wearing a school uniform, sitting attentively in front of a laptop and waving to her teacher during a virtual class.
My experience lay in stark contrast. During home lessons, my youngest child, a 7-year-old, often ignores the screen and climbs on me whenever possible.
Despite always finishing their homeschooling tasks, when asked what their favorite subjects are, my two boys usually respond in unison, “Break and lunch!” I’m dismayed every time I hear it.
We live in Berkhamsted, England, a little town an hour or so outside London, where the local schools there were shut down on March 23 due to COVID-19.
I’m a freelance photographer with a flexible schedule, so I suddenly became my boys’ primary teacher through the rest of spring and summer. My husband, who has a full-time job, helps when he can.
There wasn’t much discussion at home about how to approach this new reality. We didn’t have good alternate options, and there was little preparation other than ordering five reams of A4 paper, printer ink cartridges and a packet of school exercise books.
As soon as the assignments rolled in from the school, we got down to work.
I quickly learned I wasn’t as qualified as I had hoped. Patience is not one of my chief qualities. Nor is long division, coding, art, English literature, Mayan history or physics – all topics I was suddenly “teaching,” with the aid of materials and video tutorials posted online each day by their teachers. There were some interactive experiences with their classmates and teachers.
But mostly, I felt like I was supposed to make them embrace learning, to challenge themselves — while they just want to get on with the work of children, which is play.
The fact that so much of school has gone on-screen has made me push even harder to make space for low tech. We created a little stage out of a cereal box in which the kids put on puppet productions of children’s books. They performed a play penned by my eldest son Ben, 10, for an English assignment he called “Aliens in the Field.” It imagines the day aliens land on the school grounds in Berkhamsted.
My younger son Joe and I made a pinhole camera out of cardboard, and he relished the task of creating a mythical beast for an art assignment using photo collage. It sits comfortably on his homeschooling notebook next to his math assignments.
Lockdown has made our family bond, wrapping us in a tight hug, though at times it feels like a boa constrictor’s slow squeeze. It has allowed my husband and me a glimpse into how our children approach learning and knowledge. We found them injecting humor into every available assignment that would allow it. Laughter, it seems, is a great route to education.
There have been many positives. With no after-school activities we have the luxury of time, and the boys have found new interests. Ben has developed a love for early American history and decided to memorize the Gettysburg Address and the names of all the U.S. presidents. Joe has been reading up on infectious diseases.
I know our family is fortunate. No one has lost a job. We can pay the mortgage and buy groceries. None of us have been ill.
But it’s not easy, for anyone. In Zoom meetings, you can see parents mute their microphones and scold children, the kids popping in and out of the frame.
The lack of childcare has made scheduling work feel like a game of Tetris. Everything seems to take three times as long to get organized and done.
Nerves frayed from confinement — and the stress of insulating your children from pressure they only loosely grasp — sometimes make family interactions more tense and dramatic.
A simple arithmetic problem can seem insurmountable, and with nowhere to escape, seeing your child melt down at the kitchen table makes you question whether you are fit to mold a young mind.
If misery loves company, I’ve had plenty. Many parents have told me they’ve been reduced to tears at least once, including one who spent three hours extracting one paragraph of writing from their child.
Others have felt unable to stretch themselves to cover all of the demands pulling them in different directions. And some tell me they regularly head for a glass of wine as soon as the day ends.
This may all be far from over, but I tell myself that if we can keep ourselves alive and sane during this period, we are all ahead of the game.