Home School

Being a pathological optimist, it didn’t occur to me to wonder, when Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill canceled international school trips on March 4, if there would be any disruptions to my own classroom. Nor did I think we wouldn’t be back after March Break. Or that we wouldn’t be back after our two-weeks-off-to-slow-the-virus. The reality has of course sunk in now and our at-home lessons are in full swing.

We hope.

I would like to provide some insights into the challenges of providing public education to elementary school students in their homes. I say public because, of course, education happens all the time, and in these days of Staying at Home many students are learning beautifully with their grandparents, parents or whoever else is with them: they are planting gardens, learning to knit, helping Dad fix the four-wheeler, cooking up a storm. (I do hope that they will take this opportunity to learn to tie their shoes before they come back to school, as this is one of my pet peeves — they are 10, after all!)

Kids learning to cook

Kids learning to cook. (Photo by GHassanLIL / CC BY-SA)

Many of my students are also learning beautifully without any adults at all, following what we in school like to call “passion projects.” One has built a complex condominium for her hamster. Another is delving deeper into art. A nephew has plans to build a boat. And we cannot dismiss the strong educational aspects of the games and apps my students are using these days — they collaborate and problem-solve while playing Fortnite or Roblox, and demonstrate admirable creativity with TikToks.

So what is there left for public education to do? Why should we bother injecting “traditional learning” into this delightful smorgasbord? After all, the current thinking on education is for it to be bottom-up, and child-driven. (“Teachers, leave those kids alone!” echoes in the back of my mind often.)

As an educator, all I can say is that I operate on faith. I have faith in the social goods provided by our schools: a place of safety and reliability, access to regular physical education, music, counseling, conversation, and breakfast.

But I also have faith in the academic purpose of schools, which is to promote a body of knowledge helps us maintain our democratic institutions and our technological advances, and the fact that it’s public and available to everyone makes for a more equitable society. Currently the body of knowledge for Grade 4 includes being able to read critically, to write a passable paragraph, to recite the times tables, to understand fractions and decimals, to write a bit of computer code, to grasp basic Canadian geography, and to (start to) understand how science works. Oh, and to speak basic French. That curriculum will sound very old-fashioned 20 years from now, as it should, but it happens to be what we’ve decided 10-year-olds should know now. All, of course, within a framework of communicating, collaborating, creating, discovering and all those good things.

Unfortunately, most 10-year-olds don’t naturally want to learn this curriculum. They don’t all want to discover math, to have their writing corrected, to recite the provinces and their capitals. They don’t naturally want to read things they haven’t chosen for themselves. And past the initial excitement, most English-speaking students have little interest in learning French. This is why most of my job as an educator is to inspire and engage my students — or should I say, to trick them into learning?

I do this by establishing relationships with the children so that they want to come to school. I establish routines that make it difficult to step out of line, and create goals that are fun to work toward. I set up groups so the children can work together and introduce new topics with the most exciting song-and-dance routines I can muster. Even with all this, it’s an uphill slog. Learning what you want to learn is hard work. Learning what others have deemed good for you is even harder.


This brings us to learning at home. I must say that I am quite frankly astonished at the thought and work that has gone into Nova Scotia’s “Learning Continuity Plan” in such a short time. Right from the beginning, the department grappled with how to make it do-able, and above all, equitable.

The first job for teachers, once we all realized that this was to be a long-term situation, was to check in on all our families and see how they were doing. The education system provides an important connection between families and the various supports available to them and we wanted to make sure our families got the help they needed. Fortunately, we are expected to establish strong lines of communication right from September and it was no problem to phone or email parents, most of whom were happy to chat.

Father and daughter in back yard.

Photo by AthenaGabo / CC BY-SA

The next step was to see how open they were to at-home learning. Was there an adult at home with the children who could supervise? Did they have the space or time in their lives to take on anything more? Did they have the internet and a device to work on?

Having done this survey, the Department of Education decided, wisely, there should be a variety of ways for families to access the curriculum. The first would be “No-tech,” which would take the form of a paper flyer delivered by the SaltWire network. The second would be “Low-tech” which would take the form an email from the teacher, with suggestions for work to do offline. The third was “High-tech,” and would involve the Google Classroom, the educational games, the video chats and all the (quite amazing) methods for delivering learning we have seen emerge over the past few years.

Then of course there was the matter of assessment. Wisely again, it was decided that it would be completely unfair to penalize students for not being able to complete their work under these circumstances, so while there will be a comment-based report card at the end of June, there will be no marks and everyone — I am speaking about P-9 here — will go on to the next grade. (Lest anyone be shocked, the idea of “retaining” or “failing” children has long been out of fashion and is pretty much established to be ineffective anyway).

How the students turn in their work depends on their level of technology. For those who have the flyer, I will call home once every week or so, to see how they are doing and offer any support I can. Those who have the “Low-tech” option can take a picture of their work and email it to me. Those with Google Classroom have access to multiple options for “showing their learning.”


We teachers were tasked with creating our own material for the “Low-tech” and “High-tech” options. Most of my parents opted for “Low-tech,” so my problem became: what should I expect the students to do, and how will I make sure they do it? This is where the issue of equity in education really comes into play. My little survey of families revealed, surprisingly, that everyone had access to the internet, and everyone had something — a cell phone or a tablet — to do some work on. Access to technology in itself is not as great a barrier as some would suppose. But there are huge differences in the ability of families to engage with the material. As I see it, the greatest barriers, even in my homogeneous corner of rural Nova Scotia, are language , family belief, and most importantly, family resilience.

Child on computer.

Photo by Hragaby / CC BY-SA

You have to have the language to read and understand the flyer, my emails or the instructions in Google Classroom. For example, the flyer has this instruction about writing:

Create a three-word poem: Example: Name a noun (Spiders) Add a verb (Spin) Add an Adverb (silently). A noun names a person, place or thing. A verb names an action. An adverb is a word that usually ends in –ly.

Or this one about a math game:

Create a clock on a piece of paper, place on the floor, play a song. Walk around the clock. When the music stops, you stop by the clock number and read the clock time. Make a sundial in your backyard using a stick to draw a circle and rocks for the hours.

These are good learning instructions, and my own email to students and my Google Classroom suggestions are similar. These words work for those of us who read and follow the written instructions for playing a family game or putting together an IKEA bookshelf. But there are many households where no-one has this kind of language, where you put things together by trial and error, and a block of small print is a definite turn-off.

Much greater than language, though, is the influence of family belief. It is my experience, across languages and religions, that some parents buy into not only the importance of traditional education but also the importance of managing their kids. These parents, wherever they come from, will make their children do the work. Even if they are new immigrants with limited English skills, even if they are working all day and come home late at night; they will sit the kids down and make them “do their homework.” This parent confidence usually comes from success in their own lives within a traditional educational system. They will remember their own teachers fondly, and will replicate, as best they can, those methods their teachers used to engage them as children.

Equally common is a different family belief, which is arguably no less valid. For various reasons, many families are suspicious of top-down systems and long ago decided their children could have much more freedom in deciding what to do with their days. On one end of this spectrum are those who might be home-schooling their children anyway, whose homes are full of rich learning opportunities, and whose self-motivated children will learn most of the traditional body of knowledge because they want to, along with many, many other things. On the other end of the spectrum are those parents whose own experience with the educational system was troubling and negative, and who are suspicious of anything that appears to be judging them or telling them what to do. These families will throw the flyer out.


The group of most concern are those families whose social and economic situation is perilous, and whose confidence has been eroded by the difficult and belittling experiences of their lives. Even if they can read the instructions, and want their children to succeed, these parents are struggling to keep any semblance of order in their homes. At the best of times, they send their kids to school and hope the teachers will do something with them because they “can’t get them to listen.” In these times of COVID-19, it’s unlikely they’ll be getting their kids to write poems or make sundials.

So here is my job:

First, I have to maintain a relationship with my students. That’s easy for my good writers who send frequent fun emails, or the techie ones who show up to wave in Google Classroom meetings. But I have to reach further and make sure that for those who don’t write and wave there’s the right phone call at the right time, not too many, not about schoolwork, just to check in and, maybe, talk to the student herself, just to say “Hi.”

Next is to figure out how to get my students to do at least some of the work. How do I make my assignments engaging while at the same time making sure they require some academic skills? How do I give students choice while at the same time making sure they choose something? How do I balance the need for the short, simple worksheet some parents have requested (“Get ‘er done and then you can go outside and play”) with the open-ended creative experiences other parents want? How do I make them struggle to understand hard concepts? I’m really going to have to up my game here. Especially since the whole universe of for-profit education companies has descended upon my world, ready to help me solve exactly this problem.

The final thing I need to do is to maintain my faith in the traditional education we provide at school. There is no doubt in my mind that my children will learn many things in the next two-and-a-half months. I could sleep until June and the greater mass of my students would continue exploring, creating, discovering and growing. They will learn to use and exploit every kind of technology not because of me, but despite me. But as long as I believe that they also need to learn to write a cohesive argument, read a complex text and have enough math skills not to flounder in Grade 5…then I must plug away at inserting these rather arcane things into the new world in which we all find ourselves.

And as long as I believe that real human contact, relationships and active, communal fun are the best way to inspire learners, then I must keep my eyes on the goal of returning eventually to that physical place we call school.



Kate Sircom


Kate Sircom is a school teacher and a resident of Lockhartville in Kings County, Nova Scotia.