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‘They crave the regularity of our time together’

Teacher reflects on family time, book love and virtual connections

In February, I was in my eighth grade English language arts classroom at Wyoming Junior High School, talking with my students about how many times a day we get touched without being asked for consent.

In retrospect, I can see the irony there.

Katie Sluiter continues to connect with her students, sharing the love of reading (courtesy photo)

And now here we are: in quarantine until who knows when and no more in-person school for the rest of the school year! At the beginning of this whole thing, neither Wyoming nor Zeeland (where my kids go to school) were requiring online or digital learning — and, by law, they couldn’t anyway, since it’s not an equitable learning experience for all — which even as a teacher, I completely agreed with. It’s hard enough to adjust to being home with everyone with all the anxiety and worries, but to require kids to keep learning math during all this seems like overload.

I have gotten quite a few in-box messages and emails that are all a version of “WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR THE CHILDREN?”

Since I am a teacher, an English education doctoral student, and writer, people want to know what to do with their own kids based on what I am doing with my own kids and what I am offering for my middle school students.

Honestly? I am trying not to stress them out. I do not expect anyone to be an actual student during this time.

As far as my own kids, their teachers provided a bunch of great optional stuff to work through. Since we usually don’t allow access to iPads during the week, we decided to use the optional learning as a way to earn screen time rather than make it a mandatory part of the day.

So I made a checklist: Each kid needs to do some math, some reading, and then one choice thing from all the possibilities their teachers sent home, in order to earn up to 90 minutes of iPad time.

For my oldest, Eddie, this looks like a page in his fifth grade math packet, 20 or more minutes on Lexia and his choice is usually reading a book either from his room or on his class’ Epic account.

For sure, we owe it to our children to finish the school year’s education, but in the least overwhelming way possible.

— Katie Sluiter, eighth grade teacher  

My younger son, Charlie, is in second grade, so he will usually do math from his daily packet, work with his red word list (he has made flashcards, written them and read them from a list). He can also choose Lexia or Epic, but he usually wants to do some quick math.

My youngest, Alice, is a preschooler, so her school work is way more fun. Counting by ones to 30 or by 10s to 100 works as math. Her brothers will also give her simple adding and subtracting problems. Today we were making lemon bread, so Charlie lined up the lemons I was zesting and asked her what 4 (the number I had already zested) plus 3 (how many I had left) was. For reading/writing, I wrote out her full name — Alice Sluiter — on a big piece of paper for her to trace in rainbow colors.

My students and kids will tell you that reading is sort of a big deal to me. I’ve spent the past six years amassing a rather large classroom library, and I am a voracious reader of young adult and middle-grade literature. Naturally that means we read a lot in our house anyway, and this quarantine business is no different.

Alice Sluiter works on writing (courtesy photo)

Since my husband and I take turns on bedtime duty with the kids (two nights on, two nights off), we each have a chapter book we are reading with the two older boys. My husband is currently reading “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, and I’m reading “Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan.

Since I am an ELA teacher through and through, we do a lot of talking about what we are reading the same way I would ask questions and talk about it with my eighth graders. Don’t tell my kids that they are basically getting 45 minutes of ELA every night. It can be our secret!

Because I haven’t wanted my eighth graders forgetting how wonderful reading is, I started posting book talks on my teaching Instagram account. I don’t have a ton of young adult or middle-grade literature here at my house, and since I didn’t get a chance to grab books I’ve already read from my classroom library I asked my kids to join the fun. So each of them did their first book talk for my students and their families.

I’ve also sent a Google Form each week to check in with my students, where they can choose things they need or would like to see me continue as we slog on through this separation from each other.

Their responses have made me smile. They love the video book talks and want me and my kids to continue those. They also want me to continue to do some of the routine things I did with them in class, but to post it via video.

For instance, I do something called First Chapter Fridays in class, where I read the first chapter, or part of the first chapter, of one of the books from my classroom library while they do their Free-write Friday bell ringer, a classroom activity at the beginning of class. If someone wants to check out the book, they can! Of course, doing it this way they will have to write down the title and ask for it when we get back.

They’ve also asked me to post writing prompts that they can do on their own. I took it a step further and made the writing prompt a Google Doc that they can add their response to (or not) and I do a response each day too. They have been writing, and it’s so good to “hear” their voices again.

In this way, just like my kids are doing some school each day, so am I and so are my students if they choose.

Starting next week –after Spring Break– we will all begin a sort of “distance learning” to wrap up the school year. I’m not sure what this will look like yet, but our administration has been pushing “less is more” and I agree with that completely. I can’t imagine being a kid, taking six online classes, sharing a device with my siblings, maybe not having the most reliable internet or a quiet spot to think and work, and also dealing with a global pandemic all at the same time.

For sure, we owe it to our children to finish the school year’s education, but in the least overwhelming way possible. Our first priority has to be their mental health, and then maybe some school work in our pajamas.

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