An informal education

Story by Jill McSheehy

I watched in amazement last spring as my third-grade daughter gazed at the faces of her teachers on my laptop screen. One taught her fractions and the other read a book. Both asked the class short follow-up questions and asked the students to “turn in” those responses by commenting in the Facebook group. Her art, science, reading, music, and P.E. teachers developed weekly assignments to help her learn in a fun and creative way. When she posted photos of her artwork, each teacher offered encouraging words. 

Seeing her teachers’ faces on her laptop lit up her otherwise uncertain and dull days.

My heart throbbed with a mixture of pride and compassion for my daughter’s teachers. As the daughter of two retired teachers and having four other teachers in my family, I shook my head in awe at what these teachers scrambled to do for these kids. No aspiring teacher envisions teaching to a camera, to an empty classroom. Yet they found a way to do it while connecting with their children in a meaningful way. 

As I write this, the future of the 2020-2021 school year is still uncertain. I, for one, know that my children need to be back in the classroom. However, it’s not lost on me that while in-class learning took an extended break, education for many kids expanded in a way that can’t be replicated in a classroom.

For example, after days of boredom stuck at home, my daughter decided she wanted to expand her cooking skills. At the time a former teacher-turned-blogger offered an online cooking class for children during the pandemic. Taking advantage of this opportunity, my third grader learned how to soak and cook dry beans, make homemade tortillas from scratch, cook Spanish rice, make homemade ranch dressing, and create homemade taco seasoning. She beamed when she cooked her first meal from start to finish. 

My seventh-grade son wasn’t interested in cooking, but he showed interest in video editing. As an online garden educator with a new audience of beginning gardeners this year, I created more “how-to” videos and I taught him how to edit them. Not only did he enjoy the creative outlet while at home, but he gained a skill that if he chooses to, could someday provide him with income possibilities. 

My children weren’t the only one to learn new skills at home during the pandemic. As a garden educator, I saw and heard from countless parents who began new gardens with their children. For the first time, perhaps, these kids learned that carrots grow underground and peas taste delicious snapped from the vine. Children saw their science classes come alive in nature as they observed earthworms and bees. Families learned how to turn kitchen scraps into compost among other skills that are now becoming more mainstream. 

As the school year approaches — in whatever form it takes — I know that my children need to be back, but I’m hopeful that some of those memories, for many of them, will include adding unique, hands-on life skills to the whole of their education. These life skills may not only come in handy in the future, but I wonder how many will find their life trajectory shaped in some way by them. 

And for those children who choose to become teachers themselves someday, they will also be inspired by their teachers who rose to meet the challenge of the day. 

While the news and our social media feeds may assault our conscience with negative and sad events of 2020, my hope is that we can look at the good. We may not know until years later what “seeds” were planted in the hearts and minds of our children in 2020 that will go on to bear fruit we never could have predicted. Our children’s future is still largely the hands of skilled teachers who will continue their formal education. But I also can’t deny the life-skills education my children and others received when onsite instruction took a hiatus. Children of this generation will look back to this blip in history and remember different things.