All of us at WAYB hope that your families are safe and sound during the spread of COVID-19. Many of us are juggling working from home with watching our kiddos while schools are closed. The pressure to homeschool and get a day’s work done is intense! Here are some tips from a recent first-time homeschooler to keep it fun and calming for kids, and flexible for parents.
Six months ago, my husband and I sold our house, took our kids out of school, and moved onto my dad’s small sailboat. Seemed nuts at the time. Now that most Americans (and many folks worldwide) are staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19, we appreciate how lucky we are to be together on a well-stocked little boat (and already pretty isolated socially).
Since a lot of parents are handling homeschool for the first time, I thought I’d share a few tips that have worked well for us. I designed our boatschool, “Starfish School,” to provide a lot of stability for my kids during this ever-changing adventure without locking us into an onerous school schedule (or feeling guilty when we “missed” a day). I hope this helps your family navigate these bumpy times!
My tips all kind of boil down to one thing: school provides kids with a lot of structure and security. They know what’s expected of them, they know the routine, they have things they are looking forward to. It’s really important to keep that going, especially in uncertain times. But I don’t believe you have to schedule every minute of your child’s day to achieve this. We’ve found a way to do it on the boat that still gives us a lot of flexibility and spontaneity.
Strict routine, flexible schedule
We do school when it makes sense for our schedule, but always keep our opening and closing ritual the same. Kids need routine, especially in times of upheaval and anxiety. They complain about it, but they need it. Create an opening and closing sequence and stick to it. Whether “school” is one hour or six, morning or afternoon, Tuesday or Saturday, the opening and closing stay the same. And yes, school really is just an hour for us sometimes, and half of that is the opening and closing. I had to get over my frustration that my kids weren’t “learning” when we have a short day. Keeping them feeling safe and secure through the routine of school is the priority (and they can’t learn much if they are feeling stressed out).
Our opening and closing are detailed at the end of this post. Sometimes, in the beginning, the kids would rebel or goof off, derailing opening. I had them start the routine over. It only takes once or twice for them to get with the program. When we go for a few days without school, it’s really clear how much they need it (meltdowns and mischief).
Projects over lessons
You may have materials from your school to get through. If not, I recommend creating projects around a theme instead of doing a lot of textbook reading. We recently did a marine science unit. Each kid picked a fish and studied it, creating a poster of facts. I showed them a list of marine scientists (on board E/V Nautilus) and they each chose one to write a letter to. Now they are each studying one thing that threatens coral reefs. They love the ownership over projects, and it allows me to get one working then help the other, since we are a “one-room schoolhouse” with both kindergarten and third grade. The third-grader goes a bit deeper or does longer reports. The exception is math; my husband teaches that using a curriculum (no projects).
Thinking of how kids’ classroom teachers always give the students something to look forward to, I plan our own fun days and announce them at least a week in advance. These can be super easy, like face paint day, silly hat day, game day, baking day, bring a stuffed animal day, whatever. Let’s be honest, most days are pajama day.
Count schooldays, not weekdays
For us, it does not work to plan to have school certain days of the week (if I said we would have “Fun Friday” I’d be in trouble if Friday came and we had to sail that day and miss school). We just count the school days. Today is day 75 (Backwards Day) and my kids are looking forward to day 80 (Game Day). It might be in a week or in a month but they can count on it. If you might have to skip homeschool because of work or whatever, counting school days might help so you don’t feel bad if you miss a weekday. Also, if it turns out weekends work better, it’s simply another school day.
I realized my kids would miss “Open House” when they can show off their work. Even though we are a small boat and the work is not a surprise, the chance to share it is really powerful. We do a monthly “show” when the kids share whatever they have made that month (reports, posters, art, a play, a new song on ukulele). My dad, their dad, and I are the audience. And we always serve a snack (that the kids plan and make).
I also realized that my kids’ past teachers spent a lot of time on holidays, and kids love that. So get ready for Easter, Passover, Ramadan (even if your family doesn’t celebrate, it’s a great time to learn about all holidays), Mother’s Day, etc.
One of the many great teachers my kids had taught me this: kids have responsibilities at school and it makes them happy. Our kids have jobs around the boat and classroom jobs. These are light but they take them seriously. They switch most jobs every five school days. They each have a permanent job too, Librarian and Game Warden (the keeper of the board games!).
My students spin a homemade wheel to get writing or art assignments. It’s one tool I use to avoid kid-parent arguments (when I want a student-teacher dynamic).
School rules and tools
We have school rules that we brainstormed together on the first day. I pull them out as a reminder as needed. I also created tools for giving assignments so it feels less like I’m telling them what to do and more like chance. We have a “wheel of writing” with options like letter, play, song, poem. They spin the wheel to get a writing assignment on their current theme. Kids are used to negotiating (ok, arguing) with their parents, something I wanted to avoid as their teacher. When they “spin” their own assignments there’s no discussion. In our detailed routine at the end of the post, you’ll see some other tools for this.
Go easy on yourself
Above all, try not to put too much pressure on yourself to replicate a full school day! It’s hard (I appreciate you, teachers!). And, you can get through a lot of material in less time with just a few students, plus you have to do what works best for the whole fam. I hope these tips help you make the most of the school time you do have, so you don’t feel guilty if it’s not as much as you hoped. Good luck!
Read on if you’d like to see more detail of what we do at “Starfish School.”
Our opening and closing:
Because every day changes for us on the boat (weather, visitors, shore excursions all supersede school) we never know when is a good day for school, or what time of day. It would fail to say “we always do school at 9” or “we do school Monday-Friday.” Instead, we do school when it works for us, but we never skimp on our school routine. You can make one up; ours is based on what my kids did in their classrooms last year plus what I think is good for them. On a short day, the routine takes as long as schoolwork. But I think it’s worth it.
- I announce “school in five minutes.” They go to the bathroom, fill water bottles.
- Few minutes meditation
- Sing a song (same every day: we sing the good morning song in a few languages)
- Gratitude (we call this “jar fairy”: one student takes a question out of a jar like “what’s one thing you love about your shipmates?”)
- Goal (each student says something they want to try or be better at. We call this “Goal Roller” - see below for more detail).
- Journal (we just write at least 1 or 2 sentences, record our gratitude and goal).
- Then we do the day’s lesson(s) and schoolwork (we NEVER get as much done as I think we will). Sometimes we all work on the same stuff, sometimes one of them does math while the other works on their project, then they switch.
- Sometimes we break for snack or dancing around to a hype song if they are low energy.
- Reflection: charades (everyone acts out one thing you did in school that day and the others guess)
- Cheer (we made up a school cheer/anthem)
- 1-minute meditation
Jar Fairy: a jar full of questions all designed to prompt gratitude.
Goal Roller: roll the die and each number matches a way to state a goal. Proud, Better, Goal, Excited, Try, Wish. Like “I want to try...”.
Wheel of Art and Wheel of Writing: we made these from paper plates, kids spin the wheel to get an assignment (no repeats until they complete the wheel).
JOT: in addition to their journals, they each have an academic planner where they jot down one or two things about the day, and their gratitude and goal.
In addition to basic materials (paper, scissors, tape, markers) we have a school whiteboard and a few individual whiteboard tablets.
What don’t we have? iPads.
I know a lot of homeschool families love them. Part of our goal this year was to get offline. We have books and a lot of school supplies, and that’s all we need. I find any time I have tried to do “one quick thing” on an iPad it turns into a rabbit hole or an argument. So it’s not part of school for us. (We also are rarely online when we’re at sea, so it just doesn’t help that much. Also, our kids are young and not trying to keep up with a strict curriculum.) If we were home with jobs to manage, our kids would be watching Netflix outside of “school” time, no doubt (no shame in screentime to get through a work-from-home day!).
My kids do each have a kindle, and when I do get on WiFi I borrow new books from the library (fun fiction reads as well as books related to our current theme). We don’t do any English Language Arts (apart from Wheel of Writing for our theme) because my kids spend a ton of downtime reading independently. We also are able to send PDFs to our kindles, including our entire math curriculum (though we also printed out all of the workbooks).
In case you're curious, our themes for the year:
American History, Weather, Astronomy, Marine Science, Human Body, Art Intensive
Foreign language, music (ukulele), math (my husband does math using the Eureka Math curriculum, available as free PDFs).
About the author: Amanda Reid is the former Head of Brand and Social Impact at WAYB, and is currently living on a sailboat with her family. She spends her time writing, steering, boatschooling, and planning the next adventure, big or small.