Tips from Chicago teachers for parents thrust into home schooling by coronavirus

Write letters, begin a journal, hunt for rocks in the yard — a few ways to make home schooling productive and fun.

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CPS teacher Leonor Torres’s children, Brooke, 12, and Mateo, 8, at their home classroom — a new normal for thousands of CPS students during the school shutdown due to the coronavirus.

CPS teacher Leonor Torres’s children, Brooke, 12, and Mateo, 8, at their home classroom — a new normal for thousands of CPS students during the school shutdown due to the coronavirus.


Panicked parents conscripted by coronavirus into the ranks of home school teachers have been streaming into Belinda Carucci’s teacher supply store in Bucktown and asking her and her staff for advice.

Anxieties for many parents were heightened because, unlike many suburban school districts, Chicago Public Schools has not offered standard e-learning curriculum after the decision to shut down schools because not all students have internet access at home, Carucci said. Chicago Public Schools has made enrichment activities available online and is offering the material at food pickup sites at schools throughout the city.

But there’s fear about just how long schools will be closed. Under the governor’s state-at-home order, the earliest schools could open would be April 8. CPS last week said its schools would remain shuttered until April 21.

“Parents, especially of younger kids, want to know how to make lessons last longer than 20 minutes,” said Carucci, who runs Chicago Teachers Inc. “Our bestsellers have been workbooks; we have a whole curriculum of home-school workbooks, and arts and crafts supplies.”

Carucci said of her customers last Wednesday, Day Two of schools being closed: “They’re going crazy trying to maintain order.”

With this in mind, the Sun-Times asked professional educators for guidance on how to handle home schooling.

“Create a routine,” said Ellen Metz, head of schools for Noble Network of Charter Schools. “And ‘routine’ is a better word than ‘schedule’ because schedules seem rigid, like you might feel like a failure if you don’t follow them. Routines are more forgiving.”

Writing letters to friends and family has helped create connectivity and given Metz, who has young kids of her own, a reason to explain what a stamp is and how writing an address on an envelope works.

“I’ve asked permission to read their journal entries, and never once have they told me they’re sad in person, but they wrote down in their journals that they were sad,” Metz said. “And that opens things up for conversation by asking: what’s making you feel that way.”

“Our walks to the mailbox are a very purposeful and quiet time.”

Kris M. Cox, a home school consultant based in Minneapolis, suggested new home school teachers should just realize they don’t have to imitate school by having formal learning from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“You don’t have to spend hours and hours every day. Younger kids really don’t need more than 20 to 30 minutes on a subject, and then play for a while, but older kids can focus for 45 minutes to an hour,” she said.

“Teaching your children is something you’re already doing in so many ways, this is just adding academics to the picture,” said Cox, adding math and language arts should be the primary areas of focus.

Stacy Davis Gates, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, said one of the first activities her three kids did at home was put on a puppet show.

“This is a break in our fast-paced, over-scheduled lives. And we’ve getting to make dinner and bond, and I am enjoying being connected to them so deeply,” Davis Gates said. It can be a struggle, at first, to get past the feeling this time at home is a vacation, she added.

“I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that families should simply read. Let every person take a passage of their favorite book, or parents can read aloud. There’s nothing better you can do for a child’s education,” she said. “Read. Read. Read.”

Davis Gates noted many CPS teachers, though it’s not standardized, are maintaining daily contact with students and parents to help with lessons and planning.

Leonor Torres, a Spanish teacher at Monroe Elementary in Logan Square, had her 8-year-old son conduct a rock study in the backyard Tuesday. 

“He literally went through the yard and collected rocks and sorted them three different ways: heavy and light, smooth and rough, round and misshapen. And then he created his own categories, and he decided to sort them by color,” she said.

It’s important to recognize if you’re in the same room and things become too much that it’s time to take a break, she said.

“As parents we can get overwhelmed and sometimes what that looks like for our children may be scary,” she said.

Daneal Silvers, a CPS kindergarten teacher at Edison Regional Gifted Center, said it’s important to use screen time wisely.

“I think as long as any screen time is used on a research-based educational site, and with the guidance of an adult, it is beneficial,” Silvers said. “Further, if an adult is sitting with their child and talking with them about what they see on the screen, this moves the learning into something that is not isolating but rather conversational.”


The hashtag #homeschooling on social media offers ideas for keeping kids busy, as well as glimpses — sometimes funny — into the trial-and-error efforts of parents across the country who share the same struggle.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education created a web page that offers expert guidance on maintaining structure, routine and healthy habits at home.

The Illinois State Board of Education has posted educational resources online.

Scholastic is posting daily Learn at Home curriculums for Pre-K through 6th grade and up.

Home schooling consultant Kris M. Cox wrote a blog post suggesting tips and resources.

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