Finding what matters

The worry is widespread – parents are faced with making the kinds of decisions about their children’s schooling and their own work and livelihood which they’d normally make only after much contemplation and research, (assuming they had the freedom and resources to do so, which of course most don’t). I’ve been responding to a variety of related questions, and have found that one of the most frequently asked is about choosing a curriculum to purchase, when a family is considering opting out of whatever in-person or online schooling will be available to them in the fall. Each family’s circumstances are unique and specific, and very few generalizations are even possible, but here’s one thing I’ve been recommending which could help redirect the energy otherwise pointed toward panic, and set a tone for navigating these decisions from a place of alignment with what matters most to you and your child.

Curriculum of course seems like the bone structure of school – the thing that gives school its school-ness. So if it is school we would be replacing, we’d start there, with the skeleton, right? As it happens, though, packaged curriculum can in some cases be a helpful, supportive force but in others can cultivate unnecessary strife and undermine learning. Before you go curriculum shopping, you may first want to reflect a bit on your child’s specific experience of school, to think about exactly what kind of loss it constitutes for them to cease attending school.

We hear a lot from the media about the ones who miss their closed schools. And there are indeed plenty of good reasons to miss school: maybe it’s safer there than at home, or you get along better with your friends than you do with your family, or you have a great teacher who understands and inspires you, or you love math and were enjoying your geometry class, which is just not the same online. But there are also many reasons to be relieved at the closing of school: perhaps your teacher has been consistently unkind to you, or it is excruciating for you to sit still for hours, or your strengths aren’t valued there, or you’re bored and you wish you could work on more difficult assignments.

My 10 year-old niece has said that she likes remote learning because it makes it harder for kids to be mean to each other. She’s not usually bullied at school but is often the one to intervene when there are difficulties between classmates. I think she appreciates not only the actual reduction in meanness but also that she herself is freed up to focus on school work, without the distraction of the social strain present in the classroom. And I’m guessing she misses seeing friends at school and has had to make more effort to remain connected to them, but has apparently determined that it could be a worthwhile trade-off.

I also spoke recently with a parent who told me she was surprised to find that her young son, who had never taken an interest in learning to read at school, made great progress at home during the quarantine months, mostly on his own. He could also keep physically active throughout the day. Many of the issues the family had struggled with when he was going to school disappeared.

This sudden removal of school from children’s lives has revealed a lot about which components of school have been serving them – contributing to their growth and thriving – and which may have been undermining learning and health. This tumultuous and bewildering pandemic occasion can also be an opportunity (especially for those who are in a position to have their children at home with them) to take a closer look at what individual kids need and how we may be able to provide it, whether they miss school as it was and look forward to going back, or are relieved to be elsewhere.

Here are some questions to consider, if this line of inquiry appeals to you. (I’ll alternate pronouns and the accompanying adjectives.)

What does your child miss about school? What does she not miss?

What do you miss from when your child was in school? What are you relieved to be rid of?

Is there anything that has become possible that was not possible before?

Is there anything your child has been interested in that there has never been time to explore with them?

What is helpful for your child to have in his days? What is important to him?

How much physical activity does your child need?

How is your child different from you? What do you admire about them?

You can consider one or more of the questions yourself, and/or offer them to your child to ponder for themselves. If you offer them to your child to consider, you can then talk about your respective responses and how they might inform the choices you make for the coming year. There are lots of ways you can use one or all of the questions, but the idea is to give yourself a moment to organize yourself around what you and your child know about them.

What you’ll have done is reframe the venture as a matter of who your child is and what is likely to support health, learning, and thriving in that actual person. If you still feel like you need a curriculum to follow, you might now have more of an idea of what you want the curriculum to provide and thus can use your own judgment to choose powerfully rather than having to rely on information about what has worked for others with very different children in likely different circumstances. Or you may find that some carefully-chosen materials which support exploration of specific subject areas or topics will serve you better than one multi-subject curriculum. Or you may decide on something else entirely. But you’ll be starting from the needs and specificity of your young person rather from a generalized notion of what is needed for all people your person’s age. This starting point will dramatically improve the chances that whatever you endeavor to do can evolve into something effective and consistent with what matters to you. And your actual person.