The Mother Load: Learning, Teaching, and Parenting

Instructional Designer, Clarity Innovations

“Let’s do this.” This is what I thought when I first found out that schools were closing due to COVID-19 and that my kids would be transitioning to remote learning from home. A less-than-normal response, to be sure, but while my friends worried, I felt oddly confident. I put on my “ed- tech instructional designer” hat and began teaching my kids from home the only way I knew how: a way in which I had unknowingly been preparing for for nearly 10 years. 

I love teaching. And I knew that even though every day wouldn’t be all sunshine and rainbows, we would come out of this whole experience unscathed. In fact, this little remote learning “project” might actually be fun!

What I didn’t appreciate at the time was how my understanding of remote, digital learning would shift to include much more appreciation for the social-emotional aspects. When I was forced to wear both hats at the same time—that of a mom, and that of an instructional designer—I saw a more complete picture.

Embrace the Intangibles

If anything, this experience has reaffirmed what I know and believe about digital learning. My core principles of educational pedagogy held strong, even when the classroom went away. What’s more interesting is my discovery of what I can only describe as the “intangibles”—the things that can’t easily be measured by performance data or assessments. Things like: How do my kids know that someone really cares about their work? How can they find relevance in topics that seem so unrelated to what is going on around them? What makes them laugh? What makes them wonder? What keeps them engaged after the novelty of wearing pajamas has worn off? You know, the things maybe only a parent might worry about.

As it turns out, some of these intangible things are just as important as the most rigorous, research-supported design of remote digital learning. I found that what resonated with my kids, and what stuck with them, made a big difference in how they perceived learning as well as their social-emotional well being.

Is Anybody Out There?

Behind the wall of a computer screen, it’s impossible to completely recreate the raw energy and excitement that comes from 35 busy little bodies staring up at you, ready to learn. But the best engagement I saw from my own kids was when their teachers found small ways to create multiple touchpoints throughout the day. You know it’s happening because you see their faces light up. As a parent, I clung to these moments. My son’s teacher learned how to use filters to post silly animal-face videos and daily check-ins. And my daughter gravitated towards posting short videos alongside her teacher on FlipGrid. It didn’t matter what their teacher or their classmates were talking about—their dog, their cat, or their latest cooking disaster—they just needed to know that someone was out there on the other side of the screen.

Step Away From the Screen

As a parent, I witnessed what happens when excited little learners turn into cranky little screen zombies. It’s not pretty. Some of the most meaningful learning experiences they had were those that happened far away from the screen. They designed marble runs, built neighborhood maps out of LEGO bricks, and even created recycled robots to help out around the house. And I’ve never seen such ingenuity (and physics!) at work as when they had to design a play fort with an area of at least 25 square feet (shout out for real-world math!). The best days were those when learning happened naturally, in the real world, and the technology became a way that they could connect and share these experiences with others.

Finding Hidden Confidence

During this time of remote learning, there were a few bright “aha!” moments where I saw my kids uncover interests they never knew they had. I watched how diligently my son worked on coding a Scratch game where you earn points for sorting quadrilaterals. My daughter turned a lesson on simple machines into a video scavenger hunt around the house, set to dramatic music and accompanied by her infectious shouting of “inclined plane! pulley!” As an instructional designer, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how content is presented, and how it’s assessed. But as I’ve discovered, the self-confidence that comes from letting students uncover learning and show you what they know in their own quirky, unique way is priceless.

Having a Good Laugh

There’s a certain playfulness and unrehearsed humor that comes from teaching in a classroom. I knew it was there, but I don’t think I fully grasped its social-emotional importance until I watched my kids respond to spontaneous moments with their classmates and teachers online. When it comes to digital learning, it’s easy to focus so much on the learning objectives that you lose sight of the silly, everyday moments that make learning fun. I will forever be grateful for the Zoom scavenger hunt that sent my kids racing around the house looking for something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. That laughter and that connection with their classmates gave them the boost they needed to get through another day.

I’m so grateful for this experience, which has given me a broader perspective of what it means to be a digital learner in today’s technology-rich world. I’m also grateful for my kids’ teachers: the ground underneath them shifted nearly every day, and they always seemed to land on their feet. I will forever be thankful for the grace and presence they maintained to give my children some peace of mind when they were likely losing theirs.

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