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9/1/2020 8:47:56 PM
READ THIS FIRST: Educating Your Child at Home:
As I write this, Covid-19 is causing many parents to think
harder about their children’s education. Many are having to take (hands on)
responsibility for their children’s education for the first time.
However, the truth is, parents are always ultimately responsible
for their child’s education, whether they’ve realized it or not.
Think about it. Who, at your child’s school, has blocks of
time to spend one-on-one with each student to figure out what unlocks her
excitement for learning? Or to understand why he is verbally articulate in conversation,
yet struggling when he reads aloud? Or to assess why her grades are suddenly
The answer may be “nobody.” Or, if your child is diagnosed
with a learning disability, he may get more one-on-one attention. But here’s
the thing about the teachers who work with these diagnosed students, individually
or in smaller groups: Some of them are awesome and can change a child’s life
for the better. But, as with any job, there are teachers who are poor performers,
teachers who are mediocre, and teachers who are stellar. For your child, which
kind of teacher she gets in any given year is luck of the draw. (I am not
anti-teacher. My mother was a phenomenal teacher, but she was also the first to
admit that there are some people in the profession who shouldn’t be there. And
she would also say that the number of kids in a typical class makes it
extremely difficult—or impossible—to make sure some students aren’t falling
through one crack or another.)
And, no matter how caring the teacher is, no one cares about
your child like you do.
Before I talk about my teaching and learning philosophies, I
want to tell you two true stories. The first illustrates the importance of
really paying attention to the education your child is getting. The second is
to get across the fact that you can’t always take the busy, overwhelmed teacher’s
word for what the root of the problem is because she may not have the time to figure
For 8 years, I owned a learning center where I helped school-age
kids who were struggling in school. I specialized in reading.
When Justin’s mom brought her 2nd grader to me
for testing, she didn’t know what to do. He was falling behind on his grades, especially
compared to 1st grade. His teacher seemed annoyed and fed up with
him. When I asked for details, the annoyance seemed to revolve around the fact
that he often didn’t sit all the way down in his seat and stay there while he
was working. The teacher was absolutely convinced Justin had ADHD and needed to
Justin’s mom didn’t like the idea of putting him on
medication and brought him to see me in search of another way to raise his
grades and another opinion on whether he should see a doctor about this.
When I gave Justin the phonics assessment, it showed that,
like most kids that were brought to me, then, he hadn’t been taught phonics.
That explained the grade drop. Many kids can read by memorization for a while,
but, as they are introduced to more and more words, they can become overwhelmed
if they don’t have a key to unlock the (phonics) code.
Justin’s mom signed him up for tutoring, and I started
working with him. After a few sessions, she asked what I thought about the
possibility of him having ADHD. This is what I told her, “I’m not qualified to
make a medical diagnosis, but I can tell you how he acts here. He comes in and does
whatever I ask of him. He can do page after page of the workbook without drifting
off or losing focus. He is progressing through the workbook very quickly,
understands the phonics rules easily, and he gets 100% on most pages. Then she
asked if he was sitting in his chair and behaving.
“I don’t make him sit down completely in his chair,” I told
her. “I noticed it seems easier for him to focus on his work if I let him
change positions. Sometimes he is sitting, sometimes he’s sort of half-standing
with one knee on the chair while he does his work.”
“So, do you think he’s ADHD?” she asked again.
“Bottom line,” I told her. “Lots of little boys I’ve tutored
have excess energy or they get hungry and restless. Justin is clearly intelligent
and capable and I don’t see anything wrong that would keep him from learning. At
this rate, he’ll probably be above grade level with his reading within three to
four months. He seems fine.”
Justin did, indeed, complete the phonics quickly and was able
to successfully complete reading comprehension material above grade level within a few months. His grades
went up. His mom reported that his next teacher allowed him to sit how he
needed to and seemed happy with him.
Tiffany was a 7th grader. Her parents were paying
for her to go to an expensive private school. She’d been diagnosed with
attention deficit disorder (ADD) which seemed to be a good diagnosis, from what
I saw. Her mother had her come to me for several hours a day, four days a week (for
reading, grammar, and math) during the summer to see if there was anything more
I could do for her.
A few days after Tiffany started with me, her mom happened
to mention that the special teacher Tiffany went to at school because she had
ADD had said she was doing 2nd grade level work. (That is not a
I was horrified. “2nd grade work?” I asked. “Are you
sure that’s what she said?” She was sure.
At this point, I have to admit, I got very frustrated. I had
to take a moment to calm myself and find my words. “I want to be very clear
about this,” I said. “I have had Tiffany working on 5th and 6th
grade level materials. She can often get 100% on them, but sometimes she’ll
suddenly get a 60%. I’ve been sitting with her to see what happens. The low
grades seem to result when she loses focus and her attention starts drifting.
She can seem like she’s forgotten how to do the thing she’s been doing
successfully. However, if I switch up what she’s working on and come back to
the previous items later, she typically remembers how to do it and can make
80%-100% on it. That’s considered mastery, which means I’m planning to have her
working at grade level before the summer is over. The part that scares me is
this: If a teacher is telling you Tiffany is working at a 2nd grade
level, that probably means all she’s giving her is 2nd grade level
work. That makes it very easy on the teacher because she can just shove the
very easy work in front of Tiffany and not have to put any effort into her, but
Tiffany is not being challenged. How many more years are they going to keep her
doing 2nd grade work?”
From what I’ve seen, a lot of kids seem to either grow out
of learning disabilities to some extent or figure out tricks that help them work around their issues.
(I know several dyslexic writers. My favorite editor has dyslexia. She has to
print manuscripts out and read them on paper because of it, but she’s a darn
What kids are less likely to grow out of is the fact that their
best learning years were wasted, working way below their grade levels for the
convenience of a lazy teacher. And when I found out what Tiffany’s mother was
paying that private school, I felt kind of sick at my stomach. (I learned while
tutoring that private school is not necessarily better than public. Some are
great. Some aren’t.)
My point is, regardless of pandemics or any ideas you have
that the school’s educators know more than you do, you need to stay on top of
your child’s learning. Even the best teachers get exhausted by the demands by 20-30
kids, the administrators, and parents. And they certainly can’t know your child
as well as you do.
SCHOOLING AT HOME OR HOMESCHOOLING?
Note: If your school district has managed to assemble an
online system you and your child are happy with during the pandemic, there is
no need to rock the boat, and there is still some information in this post for
My daughter and stepson are young adults, but if I had
elementary-age children right now, I would unenroll them from regular school and
do one of two things: Homeschool them myself or use an established online school
like K12 or Connections Academy. Here’s a list of online schools if your local district's plan isn't working for you and you don’t
want to homeschool them yourself: https://www.verywellfamily.com/best-online-homeschool-programs-4842632. (I have not used online school, but know many who have for various reasons.)
My thoughts on what I would do in this situation are based on my assumption that most school districts
haven’t had enough time to work the kinks out of such a drastic change in
methods. This is the kind of monumental change institutions would spend years planning for,
but they’ve only had weeks or a few months, at best.
You’ll need to look up
the laws in your state if you decide to unenroll your child from school and
take responsibility for teaching her at home. Here is a site to get you
If you can’t or don’t want to be your child’s only teacher,
you can still improve his reading skills on your own. (See my Reading blog
The cool thing about real homeschooling (as opposed to normal
school) is that an individual child needs less hours of organized school per
day because he will be working on his level, at his own pace. (This can make it
easier for you if you are trying to work from home and/or have a child that
doesn’t want to sit and do the schoolwork she is assigned to do at home.) At
school, the teacher has to account for the fact that she has a classroom full
of kids that are officially in one grade, but, in reality, are all functioning
at different levels on each subject
I’ve done homeschooling, and it seems much easier to me than
trying to keep up with a quickly cobbled together online system educators were
forced to come up with practically overnight. Most teachers are not used to
teaching online. Educators, like the rest of us, are at all different levels
when it comes to their abilities to use technology effectively. And, without
the teacher there, in person, it’s much harder to keep a kid working on tedious
tasks for an entire school day. The parent-child relationship is much different
than the teacher-child relationship. Don’t blame yourself if you have trouble
getting them to behave and work all day.
Regardless of Your Method: Adjusting Your Thinking and Attitude About Teaching Your
Child at Home (a.k.a. CHILL!)
School is a lie!
Okay, maybe that’s just a tiny bit dramatic and inflammatory.
But what I want you to realize is that, to some extent, school curriculum is arbitrary. Someone had to decide at what grade level the various topics
within each subject would be put into the curriculum.
In reality, it doesn’t matter if you learn that bats fly
with sonar or how photosynthesis works in third grade or eighth grade. The
timing and content of school curricula are not the same in every country or
even every state in the U.S. Some things we know are done poorly, such as teaching foreign language to high schoolers instead of to elementary school students when language sticks to their little brains so much better.
Regardless, my point is: There’s no need to be overly stressed about whether
your child is learning exactly the same information she would have learned in a particular year in school.
Now deep breathe and take that in for a moment. The fact
that your child is at home when he would normally be at school does not mean he
is getting irreparably behind in life. I personally know a number of people who
started school without knowing English and caught up, then surpassed, many
of the other students. I also tutored lots of kids who started out reading
multiple grade levels behind, and most were reading above grade level within 5
months because I used the best phonics system and worked with them 1 to 3
students at a time.
If you think homeschooling on your own might be a better fit
right now than trying to navigate the slew of emails from teachers or the
hodgepodge of websites they’re having to use to run online school, you don’t
need to have your child sit at the kitchen table and work for 6 or 7 hours per day. And you
certainly don’t need to stress about how you will teach every possible subject.
What should the priorities be?
Reading and math.
Reading is at the top of my list because nearly everything
your child will do in school and nearly every job in her future will require
reading. As I mentioned above, for years, I tutored kids who were behind in
reading. Typically, as soon as we got the reading level up where it was
supposed to be, all the other grades went up, including math (because they were
finally able to read the word problems correctly). A child who is a confident
reader can easily become a self-learner, especially with tools like the internet
that are available today.
Did you know software developers (aka computer programmers),
even at the highest levels, use Google to figure out how to do their jobs?
There is so much technology out there and so much more being created all the
time that no one can be a “computer expert.” Programmers are constantly needing
to read and figure out the best technology and methods to use for whatever project
they’ve been assigned. They get paid well, not because they have
giant brains that hold every computer language and every possible tool and
every possible combination of methods for writing a program. They get paid well because they are self-learners.
Once a person becomes a self-learner, all kinds of things
are possible. My twenty-something daughter and stepson have been using the
extra time the pandemic has given them to learn new things. I was aware my
daughter was learning a couple of languages on the Duolingo app. But a few days
ago, I found her with her phone propped on the kitchen table. She appeared to
be holding an entire conversation on her phone in American Sign Language. As it
turns out, there’s a website for that.
Our son just finished college and is applying online for
jobs. Meanwhile, he has used the internet to learn how to compose some weird
niche music on his computer (without an instrument) and people who sing that weird niche music have started
offering him money to compose music for their lyrics. He also reads up on
all kinds of things from science to cooking, which means he can hold
conversations on a myriad of topics, which will be handy in his business career.
Our daughter’s friends have started commenting on how interesting and cool he
is. Lately, we’ve been referring to him as “The Most Interesting Man in the
Why is math the other big priority?
Because, even in elementary school, math classes are constantly
building on what you learned in previous math classes. For example, you can’t
be expected to sit down and start multiplying fractions if you never learned
what multiplication is or what fractions are.
Also, because math works the problem-solving part of your
brain, it can help a person do a lot of different kinds of jobs better in the
future, even if the job doesn’t require you to sit and do math all day.
If you are planning to do full-fledged homeschool this year,
you get to choose what you use and how you use it. Common Core is being
used in a lot of schools now to try to address the fact that the U.S. is way
behind most other developed countries in math. When I started hearing the term,
I felt like many people: “Why in the world do they need to change math?” But,
after looking into it, I realized I’d been using common core methods for years,
whenever I needed to do math quickly in my head, even though it wasn’t taught back
when I was in school.
Here’s a quick video that explains it well: https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/blog/post/common-core-math-explained-3-minutes/43020
You can choose whether you want a more traditional workbook
or a Common Core workbook. If there’s a chance that your child is behind in
math, I would start with a workbook at a lower grade level, then move on to the
next grade level after he shows mastery of the first. (Mastery is when the
student is consistently scoring 80%-100%.)
Setting a child up for failure by getting materials that are
too advanced. If your child does a few pages and bombs, take the workbook away
and say you don’t think it’s very good and you need to find another one. Then start
at a lower grade level.
Loss of confidence is a huge problem. When I was tutoring
reading, most 1st and 2nd graders hadn’t lost all their
confidence yet. They believed the tutoring would help them. However, somewhere
between 3rd and 6th grade, many students who’ve been getting
bad grades for years start losing hope. Then they start mentally turning away
from school, and learning in general, because it has brought them nothing but
failure and humiliation.
I’ll never forget Sarah, a 6th grader. My phone
rang one day and her mother said, “I’m calling you because my daughter is in
the car with me crying. She just got her report card and she’s failing classes.
She doesn’t cause problems in school. She’s a good kid who wants to do well. On
top of everything else, her teacher told her, in front of the whole class, that
she can’t read.”
When Sarah came to see me the first time, I gave her the
phonics test, which she flunked, like most other students that came to me. I
looked into her huge—heartbreakingly sad—blue eyes and explained what we were
going to do to fix her reading and that this wasn’t her fault. She just hadn’t been
taught phonics. She nodded politely, but I could tell she didn’t believe me.
She seemed downtrodden and hopeless at 12.
Six weeks later, Sarah got another report card and the F’s
had gone up to C’s. She was a believer then. She would come in, get her phonics
workbook and comprehension book and start working before her mother was finished
saying goodbye to me. Six weeks after
that, she walked into tutoring confidently and told me she had all B’s on her
report card and she planned to have some A’s next time. She finished the
phonics and was working on eight grade level comprehension within a few weeks
and I congratulated her and told her she was done. Her mom called me a few
weeks later to tell me Sarah’s report card was nothing but A’s.
Note: Don’t freak out if your child is working below
grade level. As you saw in the previous story, kids working at their own pace
can move up multiple grade levels in one year. I had my daughter tested in the
spring of her 1st grade year because she decided she would—finally—be
emotionally ready to leave me and go to regular school for 2nd
grade. So, March of her 1st grade year, she tested at 4th
grade level in overall reading, 7th grade level for vocabulary.
(This is because I don’t believe in dumbing down vocab for kids. They learn
whatever words they hear you using.) Her math skills tested as if she were in the
latter half of 2nd grade.
Another Note: While we were still homeschooling, we joined
a homeschooler group that went on field trips together. Most of the kids were
much more articulate and knowledgeable than their “regular school” counterparts.
In my experience, children usually progress faster when they get individualized
help and are in groups of 1-5. (If you’re wondering why I put my daughter in school if
homeschooling was so successful, it’s because I had 2 long-term illnesses that
were being incorrectly diagnosed, and I was exhausted from entertaining my
curious child 24/7 for 7 years.)
At the request of some of my fiction readers who are parents trying to educate their children during the pandemic, I am writing these education blog posts in August and September of 2020 as fast as I can. Check back for more posts in a few days.
Other education blog posts published or currently in the works:
-READ THIS FIRST: Educating at Home: Deciding What to Do and How to Do It
-READ THIS SECOND: Getting the Most from Your Child
-Reading: Quick Phonics Assessment
-Reading: Teaching Reading the Right Way
-Where to Find Learning Materials for My Preschool or Elementary School Student?
-Creating Real-life "Opportunity Learning" Moments
-Preparing Your Infant and Toddler for Success
Copyright 2020 Nina Cordoba