Making the Most of Middle School Distance Learning Opportunities

Are you wondering if the "new normal" can be even BETTER than the past? These experienced parents answer with a definitive YES.


Here’s how to maximize the benefits for middle schoolers who are “learning where they live” and “living where they learn”

Thanks to COVID-19, Distance Learning has taken its rightful place on the podium alongside homeschooling, magnet and charter schools feasible alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar schools.


It’s easy to see why. While public and private schools all across the country struggle with the ongoing logistics of teaching online, students involved in distance learning environments excelled.


HOW IS DISTANCE LEARNING DIFFERENT FROM TRADITIONAL LEARNING?

Sit down and experience a jimmy-rigged “online school set-up,” and you’ll find the equivalent of pages of scanned textbooks, with instructions for the students to read and then self-test. They are basically teaching themselves--which works, if your kid is a good reader.

For the more kinesthetic, audio or visual learners, this kid of “text-heavy” format can be daunting, especially if they have to figure out how to do it themselves. And can you imagine learning about topics like algebra simply by reading?

Even worse--high school and college admissions loom ahead. Can your student really afford to fall behind, just because their school didn’t have their act together?

Savvy parents are onto this, and Google searches for “distance learning” are on the rise. They’re using this transitional season to get their kids up-to-speed and ready for the future, despite their schools’ lagging efforts.

They’re finding that the critical difference is TEACHER ENGAGEMENT.

How often does your student interact with their teacher? How comfortable are they to ask specific questions and get feedback on their performance? How confident are they about mastering new concepts? Does the teacher even know their name?

The best distance learning environments take advantage of the heightened INTERACTIVE TEACHER-STUDENT engagement that makes for a superior learning experience. Without the daily in-person interactions that happen in a traditional classroom, distance learning designers master the art of keeping this connection alive--but ONLINE.

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BEST DISTANCE LEARNING PRACTICES FOR PROACTIVE PARENTS OF MIDDLE SCHOOLERS


By Linda Tang, LOMSAA Parent

At LOMSAA, we’ve experienced an exceptional transition into distance learning, and we want to share some tips for parents who want to be ready, in case distance learning becomes “the new normal.”

With the end of the calendar school year approaching, many of us moms have adjusted to the distance learning paradigm and will return prepared for the new school year.

And if your kids are like mine, their thoughts are now turning toward summer vacation! But if you’re a mom like me, you're concerned they don’t fall behind because of the adjustments and distractions of the pandemic.

I wanted to sum up some important lessons we learned this year, to prepare for reactivation, in case a “second wave” of coronavirus necessitates a return to distance learning.

Here are some valuable tips we’ve learned at LOMSAA, to seamlessly create an optimal distance learning environment.

GET READY TO PILE ON EXTRA GRACE

With teachers also somewhat distanced, we’ve shared accountability over our kids and continue to tap into tools, resources (and lots of patience!) in our efforts to keep them motivated and positive. Kids can get moody and irritable from lack of sleep, hunger, not feeling heard, being overwhelmed and overworked—the same as us adults! So it helps to keep verbally reminding each other that “these are stressful times,” and we all need an occasional time-out, and an extra measure of patience with one another.

AGREE TO FOCUS ON STAYING HEALTHY

It sounds pretty obvious, but mental, emotional, and physical health are still at the foundation to any good day. If kids are feeling depleted, a slower pace may need to momentarily trump assignment deadlines—especially to avoid battling the too-stressed-out-to-be-civil wars.

What you can do:

  • Consider discussing project due-date modifications with your child’s teacher if your child struggles to keep up or is just needing extra time to complete assignments. Teachers are usually more than happy to make accommodations and give extensions, especially during times of extended duress.

  • With Spring Fever hitting hard and a restless summer, kids might be tempted to stay up late during the week. Try to enforce reasonable-hour turn-ins Sunday thru Thursday and encourage power-offs on the screens and phones at least an hour before bedtime.

  • Believe it or not, studies show tweens still get a lot of assurance from parent-led read aloud time. Go through an article, devotion or biography of an inspiring role model before bedtime with your middle schooler or teen, or read a book together where he/she is reading aloud to you and vice versa. Books like Do Hard Things, Make Your Bed, poetry, good old fashioned devotionals or chapter books are soothing, calming and connecting. In the words of Author Jim Trelease in The Read-Aloud Handbook, “A good story is a good story, whether it has pictures or not.”

  • Shop together at the Farmers Market or go through recipes online (Super Healthy Kids, for example) to choose healthy meals that your kids can buy into and look forward to possibly prepping for the upcoming week.

TAKE FREQUENT BRAIN BREAKS

Since our kids are hunkered down and sitting for extended periods of time, why not schedule our own mom-enforced “recesses” that allow for pausing and the chance to refresh with unstructured down-time?

With distance learning, kids can take breaks whenever we (or they) determine —as opposed to having to wait for a set, predetermined hour. Call a 7th-inning stretch when you sense attention spans beginning to fade.

And while on a break, why not use “family togetherness” to our advantage? Chores that involve movement and activity can teach our kids the value of contributing to household duties while giving them a little incentive to learn new life skills —okay, it gives us a little help, too!

Down-time also means putting away the books and getting outside. LOMSAA parent Veronica Antionetti sends her daughter outside to breathe in fresh air and sun for at least 15 minutes just to decompress. “Spending time enjoying the sights and sounds of the outdoors is very therapeutic,” she says.

What they can do:

  • Take a board game break (with you!)

  • Dance! (Kidz Bop UTube Channel has dance-along videos) or attend virtual dance parties where everyone is invited!

  • Relax with Yoga (Cosmic Kids Yoga has free resources for kids and Go Noodle has movement and “mindfulness” videos.)

  • Play an instrument.

  • Hit the pavement—create designs on the driveway using sidewalk chalk or play some good old fashioned Hopscotch.

  • Squeeze out frustrations with modeling clay, Playdough or make your own soft Playdough with ingredients from home.

  • Empty the dishwasher, vacuum, sweep or fold clothes.

Be open to your kids’ ideas, too. It might mean you break out of routine and doing something crazy like popping popcorn and watching a movie on Netflix at 2:00 in the afternoon. Play a few rounds of Othello, toss water balloons or take a short hike before your child re-approaches school work. We’ll all be returning to pre-set routines (hard to imagine!) and may miss having creative control over our children’s schedule.

GIVE ABUNDANT PRAISE AND ENCOURAGEMENT

Director and Professional Counselor Supervisor at Community Counseling in Texas Michelle Nietert (michellenietert.com) says that kids are receiving less praise and validation than ever. “It’s so important for parents to encourage their kids on what they are doing well, commiserate with them and let them know how hard this is for everyone, and not make learning about the parent’s own stress.”

Be present, be empathetic. Being at home means we can make regular deposits into our kids’ emotional bank accounts throughout the day. They don’t have to rely on teachers for positive feedback nor wait until they see us after school to hear an encouraging word.

“Building character/self-worth so kids feel better and want to work harder is important,” said Ph.D Emily Scott (RenewedHopeParenting.com) Scott encourages parents to steer away from threatening punishment to get their kids to do homework or chores, and instead, to help foster a desire to learn, work and complete tasks. “We can’t punish kids into wanting to learn,” she says.

What you can do:

  • Catch them in the right act and offer praise with comments like:

  • “Wow, buddy, you showed a lot of discipline and determination by waking up early to turn in that extra credit project!”

  • “Great way to stick with working through those tough math problems. You showed a lot of perseverance.”

  • Review your child’s work and point out a positive detail that he/she completed or has demonstrated growth or improvement in. Let them see that you notice their work, improvement and effort.

  • Be empathetic—if they seem like they are dragging, let them know that sometimes you have a hard time jump-starting into the day, too. Sharing empathy and understanding gives your child permission and space to feel his/her feelings without judgment, and process together with you.

DEVELOP THEIR CONFIDENCE AROUND NATURAL TALENTS

All this extended time at home is a reminder that learning doesn’t have to take place exclusively through a textbook or lecture. Education can take place on a walk, in front of the stove, with a needle and thread, or beneath the hood of a car—(with you standing in front of it, that is!) Learning essentially happens whenever you’re engaged with your kid in day-to-day living.

When your kid shows an interest in something, encourage them to take it one step further. One LOMSAA student built a bookcase for his mother’s office. “This is a project he could not have done in the classroom,” says LOMSAA parent/teacher AnneMarie Winic as her high school son got to explore working with a hammer, nails and wood. ”He has been given the time, tools, support and opportunity to apply problem-solving and math concepts to the actual building and production of equipment that was badly needed in this home. He is learning home improvement and decorating skills to improve the aesthetics and value of the home.”

Moms are frequently the voice that encourages kids out of their comfort zones, and distance learning provides an ideal environment for this. LOMSAA Parent Ashley Huzienga shares that her son is learning compassion and responsibility as a result of cleaning bird cages and feeding lizards. “Our time at home gives time for focus and unintended lessons like animal care which was one of God’s first commandments ever,” she says. “It requires focus, and patience, and selflessness as this animal depends on us to survive as it weans on to food.”

What Can You Do:

  • Tap into what your child is interested in and run with it! Start a project together tailored around his/her interests.

  • Look online for craft ideas, recipes or home improvement projects you can start or do together. Girls Garage on Instagram has started Tool School while Raddish Kids and America’s Test Kitchen Kids are offering free recipes, resources and experiment ideas.

  • Don’t be afraid to encourage something that he/she’s never done before or that requires time. Make a photo book, scrapbook, re-paint a room or go for something you otherwise wouldn’t have set out to do. Now is the time for all those “Someday I’m gonna….” things to take place.

PROMOTE COOPERATIVE SIBLING RELATIONSHIPS

There’s nothing like forced time together to get quarreling kids to figure out a way to get along. Parent Kendra Sanders says her three kids are engaging with one another more during this imposed “togetherness” than they did before COVID. “They are finding creative ways to have fun together,” she describes.

Veronica shares that she has unofficially made her daughter a “mother’s helper,” taking on bedtime story duty with her younger brother and taking him outside to play or attend an arts and crafts Zoom class with him. This has not only allowed the opportunity for more responsibility, but creates space for sibling connection and quality time while also giving her and her husband needed breaks.

ORGANIZE FOR POSITIVE OUTCOMES

Being at home offers the newfound freedom to create and set up comfortable yet efficient learning spaces to accommodate individual quirks and preferences. Instead of fighting it, go with it!

  • Come as you are: We’ve seen and heard how kids around the country are sporting their pajamas during instruction time. Ahhh, it’s the little things!

  • When it comes to comfort: Why can’t kids change up their atmosphere just like their wardrobe? Can they create their own spaces or stations for math, a separate one for writing and English, maybe the garage for science?

  • Whether it’s sitting out on the grass, patio table, a bean bag or pulling a cushion off the sofa for reclining with comfy pillows on the floor, kids now have freedom in deciding how and where they would like to position themselves for learning, so let’s let them.

For organizing files and supplies, consider getting some help from the Container Store or office supply stores.

  • Put everything in its place. Keri Lawson, another LOMSAA parent, lives by the motto that everything has a home. “We treat paper as people,” she tells her kids. “Papers don’t go homeless.”

  • File folders and 3-ring binders still make great holding places for loose papers. Whiteboards and chalkboards are helpful in maintaining notes, and colorful, printable calendars are great for replicating school schedules.

  • Writing on mirrors with expo markers is another way to jot down reminders in a fun and creative way if your post-it-note supply is running low.

What you can do:

  • Create a “block” system/schedule so learning takes place in chunks to keep subjects manageable and to prevent burnout in one area.

  • Set-up communication sessions with teachers for feedback and/or to request expert “help” for your child outside of instruction time.

  • Don’t put away the backpacks yet! They make for great storage and easy transport if your child is moving to other parts of the house throughout the day.

  • If your child has been working in an open space or at the kitchen table, crates and baskets are great for storage so the family doesn’t have to eat dinner with the algebra textbook!

INCORPORATE LEARNING TOOLS BEYOND PAPER AND PENCIL

Students use the curriculum provided by their teachers, but that’s not to say you can’t supplement nor pull in additional resources to enhance extra learning concepts or themes.

Individualize. The key to getting students truly engaged is to allow them to use their own skills, creativity and ideas to go deeper. Kids can incorporate flashcards, mapping and diagrams that give reference points. While public outings are temporarily paused, we can head to the web cams at museums, zoos and national park sites to view exhibits, feeding times and virtual tours of nature. It’s the full experience, but now done virtually.

Short term projects for long-term goals. “The middle school age group is a wonderful time for project-based learning to motivate them to apply the content they are studying,” says Julie Titus, a Global Leadership Consultant at Juliesanders.org. “Whether it’s creating a virtual crochet club, a website to mobilize peers to write cards to the elderly, or create art to express daily news, this age group responds well to a ‘real reason’ to learn and use what they learn.”

Explore community offerings. Thankfully, many extracurricular activities and lessons are available over the computer. Not ideal, but it’s the next best thing to an onsite field trip, and works wonders to keep students engaged in the topics that interest them.

What you can do:

  • Add or change up learning techniques, including using online options (for example, National Geographic Kids has puzzles, games and quizzes, Jumpstart Academy offers math programs and the mobile science site, Seeker, features a science seeker portal).

  • Google and print up free activity sheets including DIY activities from educational websites such as Scholastic Learn-at-Home, First Book and Bamboo Learning.

  • Be imaginative. Use movement, performing arts, costumes or dress-up and make believe. Don’t be afraid to pull in audiobooks, live, author-hosted FB readings, podcasts, or instructional videos like Khan Academy to enhance a learning concept. Quizlet provides free tools and games and Highlights@Home newsletter is filled with education-based activity ideas.

  • Restage your family room as a makeshift theater or set— show educational documentaries (Common Sense Media) or tap into free webinars to illustrate principles in a more concrete way. (The History Channel is featuring History at Home lessons and Disney Plus and Amazon Prime are streaming lots of kid content.)

SHARE YOUR PERSONAL PASSIONS

Staying at home does limit social engagement. One thing that perhaps has been harder to shoulder is having to deal with our children’s frustration over missing friends. With sports and extracurriculars now moving to the sidelines, your kids are likely longing for deep connections with those who share their interests. And it begins with YOU!

Now is the right time to invite them to enjoy your own favorite pastimes which they may not have considered before. So do what’s fun for YOU, mom, and share it with them (even if you get an eye roll). Author David Elkind, Ph.D says that one of the ways to ensure that our children play and develop lifelong habits of play is to share our personal passions with them.

“Whether golf, gardening, fishing or jogging, passions give us a creative outlet that we may not find in our jobs or professions,” he says. “Children are blessed when we have passions that we can share with them for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of doing it.”

We can do a lot of teaching that comes comfortably and naturally while building closer bonds with one another that no amount of distancing can ever take away. It may require some planning and extra time on our parts, but in the long run, we’ll be left with:

  • A more relaxed and settled child.

  • A child that feels understood, paid attention to, cared for and supported.

  • Closer parent-child connections.

  • Insights into newly discovered interests, talents and skills.

  • A self-directed kid who understands his own capabilities, can ask for help, and who knows how his/her own body rhythms.

  • A child with an ability to withstand and move through inconveniences and difficult things.

You probably could form your own list as to what you think is developing organically in your child, and perhaps he/she can share what he has liked about learning from home, what’s been positive, and what he/she thinks he’ll remember months from now. Is it participating in drawing webcasts on UTube? Watching The Kennedy Space Center’s live FB presentations? Taking a weekly current events class on NPR?

Once that alarm clock sounds and it’s time to make lunches and dash back out the door, it will be fun to look back and remember the simple yet enriching pleasures that served as lessons and memories long after quarantine passes.

And that will be a good thing to have spread and passed along to our children.


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