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Learning at home: a long-time home-schooler offers advice for parents

kids reading. one sitting in the grass and the other sitting in a tree
Libby Johnson
Sylvia Johnson, 9, and Eli Johnson, 12, are entering their sixth year as home-school students. Their mom, Libby Johnson, hopes parents will value the chance to have more time with their kids during the pandemic.

For a lot of Michigan kids, the first day of school this fall means another day at home. And if the spring was any indication, even parents who have kids in a fully online school program will still need some home-schooling skills.

For some tips on learning in the home and maintaining your sanity, we reached out to Libby Johnson. Johnson lives in the West Michigan community of Alto. She has a 12-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter and has been home-schooling them for several years now.

A surge in interest

Johnson said since the COVID-19 pandemic began she's been bombarded with questions about home-schooling.

"Since about May, I guess it's my new hobby to provide advice," Johnson said, who often talks with people at a local home-schooling book store. 

"Parents started having their kids at home in March and in April, they were seeing their kids interact in these live [online] classes. And they started picking up on things that they didn't know that their kids didn't know," she said.

Johnson says she has spoken with many parents who aren't ready to commit to home-schooling, but do want to teach their kids one or two specific subjects at home.  

man pointing to book
Credit Libby Johnson
Ben Johnson helps his 12-year-old son, Eli, with schoolwork.

A source of consistency

Johnson got into home-schooling because her family was constantly on the move. In the first 13 years of their marriage, she and her husband moved 14 times. He repairs emergency medical helicopters and has to go where the choppers are. The family recently decided to settle down in West Michigan to be near relatives and now Johnson's husband travels about three weeks a month for work.

Home-schooling gave Johnson and chance to provide her kids with a level of consistency when they were moving to new states and school districts.

She also supplements her own teaching. Last school year, her children attended a home-schooling co-op one day a week. 

"We say in home-schooling, 'Nobody learns when they're crying.'" -Libby Johnson

"They receive teaching just like a college model where the teacher might address a particularly difficult concept in class and teach that and then we as the parents roll that out during the week."

And when the pandemic hit, just like parents with children in traditional schools, Johnson felt the strain of trying to navigate online education.

"When the schools shut down, our co-op shut down overnight, as well. And we experienced the same frustration with moving [classes] to Zoom. When we finished our co-op activities in the spring, it was a big relief."

Advice: Take the long view

"You've got an unprecedented time right now to really forge a bond with your kids. If they miss a particular concept when they're at the younger elementary ages, guaranteed it will be covered again before they graduate," Johnson said. "When you have your kids home for this sort of time ... it goes a lot farther than you think."

Selective socializing

During the pandemic, Johnson and her kids have been spending time with a few close friends they can count on to keep up their standards for safety.

selfie of woman in the middle and child on left and right side
Credit Libby Johnson
This will be the sixth year Libby Johnson has home-schooled her two children, Eli and Sylvia.

"Keep it outside. The outside seems and feels safer. If you can meet up with your kids and a trusted friend go walk outside on trails."

And Johnson prefers "quality over quantity."

"We have a few friends in our sphere that we know are following our safety requirements. When we meet up with them, we would prefer to to have it be a really winner of a day rather than just meeting for 15 minutes."

Patience, patience

"[H]ave grace with yourself. Rather than spending three hours trying to make a square peg into a round hole, walk away and reframe it," Johnson said. "If the day is beautiful, getting everybody away from crying at the computer and going out for a walk. Because we say in home-schooling, 'Nobody learns when they're crying.'"

"It's just sort of deciding what has to happen today and what could be put off 'til tomorrow. So, the trash has to get out today, but I guess I might have to put up with a sticky floor."

Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length. You can listen to the complete interview at the top of the page. 

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Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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