Education Cheat Sheet: Embracing the Challenge of Distance Learning

There is no question that turning your home into a classroom is not easy; especially when it's also become an office, campground and everything else for your family. So here are some tips from Hawai‘i educators.

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If you are anything like me, the mere prospect of “home” schooling my children for the next several weeks is beyond daunting. And, I say that as an educator and former classroom teacher. Aside from the usual cooking, cleaning and general care we provide our families, we are now faced with overseeing our children’s education while tending to them throughout the entire day. All this while working remotely ourselves. It’s a lot!

One thing I do know with complete certainty is that this new reality is overwhelming to everyone: our children’s teachers and administrators, friends and family, and our employers. It is also especially stressful for our children, as they grapple with mixed emotions ranging from disappointment about having “the worst spring break ever” to frustration about not being able to see friends.

In the weeks ahead, we will all be faced with a steep learning curve. And, while our community works to figure this out, we must remember to be kind, patient and understanding. To help navigate these uncharted waters, I sought the advice of friends and colleagues from several HAIS member schools.

Practical Tips, Advice and Suggestions for Successful Distance Learning

While your child’s school will provide guidance as you get with distance learning, there are a few norms that can be established early on. Kristi Bendon, head of school at Carden Academy of Maui, recommends setting a daily schedule and routine and then sticking closely to it. “Children thrive on routine, and they will need that stability more now than ever.” She also recommends letting children work as independently as possible, adding “they are more capable than you think!” Finally, for older students make sure social media is turned off throughout the school day and eliminate other potential distractions as best you can.  

Setting up a designated work space for your children is also important to do before their distance learning plan commences. This is something your children should help with so they can make sure they have all the learning tools and supplies they need on hand. Rebecca Eldredge, extended learning programs specialist at Hanahau‘oli School, recommends identifying a central location that is separated from other daily activity areas including the kitchen or main living space. Somewhere where you can monitor their online activities and be present as they need support. This situation could last awhile, so it should be somewhat permanent.

One of the biggest challenges ahead for parents will be figuring out our roles as parents /teachers. Glenn Medeiros, president of Saint Louis School, suggests that parents should plan to be a partner, not a replacement, for their children’s instructors. “It is vital that parents work with teachers to help facilitate learning. Parents are there to guide their child, to ensure their work is being done and to communicate to the teacher the challenges the student may be facing in completing his or her work.” Figuring out early on how best to communicate with teachers and offer feedback about this new experience will be a key factor for overall success. Remember, this is all new to everyone and it is OK to ask your children’s teachers for help.

If your child’s school has shared a distance learning plan, be sure to read through it with your child, ensuring that you have a shared understanding of everyone’s expectations. As Nan Ketpura-Ching, a high school science teacher at ‘Iolani School and parent of middle school-aged children, explained “at ‘Iolani, we are still requiring students to be in dress code. This means collared shirts for boys when they log into Zoom for classes.” Discussing what to expect and having a plan in place early on will ensure that the entire family is on the same page, as you commence this new school experience.

Recognizing opportunities throughout this experience is also something we should do our best to embrace. Jeanne Wilks, interim head of school at Holy Nativity School, points out that this period of time presents an “opportunity for teachers to hold older students accountable for taking greater responsibility for their learning.” Robyn Vierra, director of global education at Punahou School, notes that there are many ways to begin incorporating service learning into weekly routines. “Figure out what the issues are that kids care about and find a way for them to have an impact.”

Parent Homework by Grade Level:

Early Childhood: Preschool – Grade 3

  • “There are so many meaningful opportunities to engage younger students in distance learning. They learn naturally by exploring and interacting with their world.  In addition to online ‘traditional’ learning shared by your child’s school and teacher, cook with them. Have them plant and care for seeds and then observe their growth. Help them to be creative as artists, musicians and authors.”—Steve Ross, elementary principal at Island Pacific Academy.

Here are a few ideas that Robyn Vierra, director of global education at Punahou School, plans to do with her first- and second- grade children:

  • Take a slow walk in your neighborhood, taking time to observe and wonder (inspired by Harvard Project Zero Eden Walks). Map the neighborhood and discuss. What do we wish was included? What do we value? How do things we see help or hurt people and our planet? 
  • Play math games with number cards and dice.
  • Generate an inquiry project. Kids will pick an animal or a topic that they want to explore and research it online. Then they will make models of the animal, paint it, write about it, design solutions to protecting or caring for it, create an “Explain Everything” video about it, create a Scratch coding project about it, email an expert, create a game, etc. Vierra says the key is to have a sustained project that can help them create learning on the iPad, rather than just consuming on the iPad. 

Upper Elementary: Grades 4 to 5 or 6

  • “Start a family book club. Everyone read the book and do a check-in to discuss it every couple of days (brainstorm questions, reactions, and connections prior). Make it an official book club by cooking for it or serving hot cocoa!”—Robyn Vierra, Punahou School
  • Encourage kids to be creative. Maybe suggest a long-term project they could work on such as writing and illustrating a journal about their experience or creating their own board game. Give them household responsibilities if they don’t already have them and encourage participation in the family “team”.—Catherine Fuller, ‘Iolani School
  • Meet up for lunch at the dining table. Be sure to carve out time to exercise: either go for a walk, play Just Dance in front of the TV or do yoga. Have kids help more with dinner prep. Learn a new craft together. My kids and I are planning to work on a knitting project over spring break.—Nan Ketpura-Ching, ‘Iolani School

Middle and High School: Grades 6-12

  • Try to help others such as an elderly neighbor. Acts of service build community, perpetuate agency and reduce anxiety.—Maureen MacLeod, Punahou School
  • This is a chance for upper school students to try distance learning, which is a popular option in college.—Michelle Bradley, secondary interim principal at Island Pacific Academy
  • Set clear systems, guidelines and routines. What are times for family engagement and what are times for independent work? What are the choices during independent work time? Brainstorm those together as a family and make expectations super clear and upfront. Nobody wants their kids asking for the iPad throughout the day!—Robyn Viera, Punahou School

Tips for Parents:

  • Continue with a daily schedule and routine. Involve your children in planning for the day. Set the alarm, wake and get dressed as you did when school was in session. Stick to a bedtime routine.—Rebecca Eldredge, Hanahau‘oli School
  • This is all uncharted territory. Be patient, kind, and listen to your child.—Tim Spurrier, head of school, Honolulu Waldorf
  • It is important to include children in daily chores and upkeep of the house.—Kristi Bendon, Carden Academy of Maui
  • Take a deep breath. Know that not everything has to be done or completed.  Schedule time for work (for parents and students) and also time to enjoy together, such as a movie on Netflix, a walk in the neighborhood, or a bike ride to the park.—Steve Ross, Island Pacific Academy
  • Be sure to carve out time for yourself as a caretaker. It could be a walk by yourself or time to read a good book, or doing an activity you enjoy.—Nan Ketpura-Ching, ‘Iolani School
  • Focus on the opportunities in the situation: time together, keeping routines strong, and the assurance that, as a nation, as a family, and as individuals, we have endured hardships before, and will do so again.—Jyo Bridgewater, Holy Nativity School.

Deanna D’Olier is the associate director at the Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools (HAIS). She is a former teacher and holds a master’s degree in education, with 20 years of experience in the field. She is also a wife and mother of two daughters, ages 10 and 12.