Life with a smile: First impressions of virtual school

Published 4:06 pm Friday, September 18, 2020


It has taken me a couple weeks to put together some initial thoughts about virtual schooling. When I write, I try to be both positive and authentic. The Venn Diagram of those aspirations has yielded exactly nothing since the start of the school year.

The best I can say is that we’re surviving. 

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We have yet to go an entire day without someone in the house crying, but in fairness, the most recent meltdown was over the school lunch, not the school curriculum, so I’m not sure that counts. And I think we can all agree that tears are an appropriate response to the discovery of whole wheat powdered sugar donuts masquerading as “real” donuts.

But truly, this is hard.

I could not do it alone — and mercifully, I don’t have to. I give thanks daily for my parents, who have taken charge of the vast majority of virtual schooling. 

It’s not just that I don’t have “time” to help the kids with their work. There are probably enough hours in the day, total, to do my work and shepherd them through theirs. 

What I lack is bandwidth. I do not have the emotional or existential energy reserves to manage all of this. Fifty-four Google meets per week, assignments in 24 discreet educational “spheres” (eight subjects times three grades), and a bewildering array of different educational platforms and “resources.”

There are Google meets, Google docs, Google sheets, Google sites, Google forms, Google slides, Google classroom, and Google mail. And don’t forget about Kami, Clever, Moby Max, XtraMath, ABCya,, Canva, Epic, FlipGrid, Infinite Campus, Edpuzzle, and Bloomz. That’s off the top of my head. I probably missed a couple. 

Prior to August 27, my children had not used any of these programs. Not one. 

The sheer flood of information is too much. For all of us. 

They’re learning. We’re all learning. But the learning curve has been steep and frustrating. Learn to take pictures with your webcam and upload them so you can embed them in a Google doc and submit that doc to your teacher. Learn to save a powerpoint file as a Google slides file so you can edit it. Learn to use a computer trackpad. Learn to type. 

Learn to resist the urge to pick your nose on camera — or turn off your camera if you just can’t resist.

My parents are heroes and my kids are champs. If nothing else, let this serve as a reminder that kids are resilient. 

My oldest daughter has a Google group-chat with her friends so they can ask questions, share tips, and commiserate as necessary. 

My youngest has taken to bringing a gigantic (larger than she is) stuffed leopard to “school” with her and holding it in her lap during Google meets. 

My son is enchanted by a sports-themed study app and will voluntarily do extra math problems in exchange for opportunities to shoot hockey pucks or kick virtual soccer balls.

But we are asking too much of them. Too much of ourselves. 

It makes me angry, but I don’t have anywhere useful to direct that anger. Teachers are doing their best; school districts lack adequate guidance and support from the state; the federal education department is a train wreck. (I’m looking at you, Betsy DeVos.)

I wish that someone could step forward with the clarity, creativity, and strength to say: You know what? I think the kids will be alright if we dialed it down. Maybe we don’t have to try to recreate the broken educational standards we had before. Maybe trying to shift every single aspect of school online wasn’t necessary. Maybe we don’t need to be so worried that kids will fall “behind” this year, because “behind” is a completely artificial construct that “we” could dismantle if “we” decided to. 

I wish that person was me, but I was never cut out to stride off the grid into the land of creative “unschooling.” I admire the people that can. 

You know the ones — that family you see on Instagram that drives cross-country in a camper, learning about The World while exploring the great outdoors? I’m too rule-bound for such things. I have always colored inside the lines.

Also, I’ve seen what kids learn in the sixth grade. I do not wish to take responsibility for teaching it. Blessings upon you, brave and noble middle school educators.

Instead, we’ll make the best of the situation we have. We’ll learn the apps and attend (most of) the classroom lessons. We’ll arm wrestle for the chocolate donuts in the school lunches, which — as anyone will tell you — are vastly superior to the powdered sugar ones. We’ll wear our masks in public, vote for people who know what they’re doing, and remember that this, too, shall pass. 

I just hope it passes soon.