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Roxanna Elden on Educating from Home During Coronavirus

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we'll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Roxanna Elden is a veteran educator, teacher advice guru, and author of See Me After Class and Adequate Yearly Progress. Lately, Roxanna's been giving advice to parents who are unexpectedly educating their kids from the kitchen table. I reached out to see what she's hearing from teachers and parents about how they're dealing with the coronavirus. Here's what she had to say.

Rick: What are you hearing from teachers about how this experience is going for them? What are some of their frustrations and worries?

Roxanna: Teachers are used to writing lesson plans for their own use, to be followed in a classroom environment where they've already set up certain routines. Now, they're writing lesson plans for large groups of stressed-out nonteachers who are trying to make sense of these plans between work emails while kids are spilling milk on the sofa and sneaking onto unauthorized websites. That's a perfect recipe for communication breakdowns. Since none of us really knows what's going on in other people's lives right now, teachers may not realize how their instructions land with parents. But it's also a good reason for parents to sleep on an angry message before hitting send or before complaining in a group chat with the other parents in the class.

Rick: What do you think parents or policymakers should understand about teachers and their mindsets right now that they might not appreciate or understand?

Roxanna: There's a lot of back and forth about how much of students' work should be graded. On the one hand, there are so many issues keeping some kids off task and offline right now. It seems unfair to risk damaging anyone's GPA on top of that. On the other hand, grades are one of the reasons that students actually do the work teachers assign to them. No matter how inspiring a teacher might be, it's hard to replace that if everything is suddenly just a suggestion. A separate, but related, issue is that many of the activities during a seven-hour school day are for practice or review. But if a teacher tries to recreate the school day remotely by describing all the activities they'd be covering in class, the first question they're likely to get is, "Is this for a grade?" As a teacher, I always found this question irritating. As a parent in the age of COVID-19, I've been asking it every week.

Rick: What do you think of the way this stuff is getting covered by journalists and social media?

Roxanna: This crisis has led to both great journalism and funny memes. From an educator-advice perspective, though, it's a good idea to limit how much media you're taking in during the hours when you're in charge of kids. Social media offers so many different ways to get emotionally blindsided: comparing our unedited footage to other people's highlight reels, reading misinformation from people we thought were smarter than that, and getting sucked into arguments in an algorithm-controlled universe that favors the strongest opinions. All of this has potential to sap an adult's already-limited patience and attention. Even with reliable news sources, there is an argument for limiting our exposure during the "school day." Things are changing fast, but the next hour might still be better spent helping the kids learn their multiplication tables than re-refreshing multiple news apps we just checked. Put your phones down, parents and teachers. We're gonna be here for a while.

Rick: You've thought a lot about what the best teachers do. What are one or two things a go-it-alone parent should keep in mind or try to emulate?

Roxanna: Most teachers' biggest struggle during the first year is with something called classroom management. In a well-managed class, the teacher has premade decisions that come up regularly and then teaches these to students in the form of rules and routines. By a few weeks into the school year, for example, students know where to turn in their homework or what to do if their pencil breaks while the teacher is giving directions. Classroom management is always a work in progress, but over time, some aspects of the school day begin to run on autopilot. That makes things less stressful for the teacher. Parents whose dining room tables have suddenly become one-room schoolhouses may not be used to this, but it's never too late to start making clear decisions about the issues that come up regularly: Who should be doing what task and when? How should kids get an adult's attention when that adult is busy with something else? What noise level and how much help are expected during each activity?

Rick: Adequate Yearly Progress follows several very different teacher characters as their professional and personal lives collide. How do you think some of these characters would have dealt with the shutdown?

Roxanna: One of the characters is a single mom living with her mother, who is a nurse. This would be a hard time for her whole family, and her perfectionist tendencies might make things even harder. There's also a classroom blogger in the book. I suspect she'd be posting more than ever, though she might be secretly relieved to have a break from events in her actual classroom. And the football coach would definitely be suffering with no team to coach and professional sports on hold.

Rick: If you were to write a follow up novel to Adequate Yearly Progress about the pandemic and school closures, what would be the big idea?

Roxanna: It's hard to say, partly because there's no way to know what part of the real-life storyline we're currently living through. We've got scenes that expose us as complex-yet-flawed characters, and there are certainly some moments of high drama, but the overall plot is not clear at all. Honestly, the whole story could use some editing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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