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My 11-year-old daughter and I tackling the skill of dividing fractions — who among you remember how to do that — with the help of Khan Academy. (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)

The Khan Academy math instructor has a soothing deep voice. It comes to you disembodied, a Wizard-of-Oz-like presence behind the cursor. He tees up fractions, changing colors as he switches between handwritten numerators and denominators. He draws rectangles that are sliced into slightly irregular quarters. To me, their unevenness implies that any budding mathematician could draw these shapes, following along at home.

The voice never introduces himself.

My 11-year-old daughter and I name him Kevin.

With all of Washington state’s schools physically shuttered since March 17 by order of the governor, families across the state are struggling to cobble together DIY homeschooling built from ed-tech platforms like Khan Academy, whatever resources are available from schools and anything else that fills the day while hopefully preventing their kids from going completely off the rails academically. The coronavirus-driven closures will stretch at least until April 24 in our state.

My daughter’s notebook for working on math through Khan Academy and the faceless teacher we call “Kevin.” (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)

And with social distancing and fears about the risk of infecting vulnerable grandparents, the circles of potential caregivers minding the kids have shrunk essentially to parents — many of whom are working from home or out of the house providing key services.

Public schools in particular have struggled to fill the void for students. Their mandate is to meet all kids’ needs equally so that students without access to computers or the internet, or kids with learning challenges, for example, all have the same opportunities. For most schools in Washington, that rules out online instruction.

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) announced that starting Monday it would provide educational videos on SPS TV, social media and their website, offering “optional learning” in short segments targeting different subjects and grade levels.

All told, the patchwork instruction can’t replicate the teaching that happens at school.

Education experts advise parents to do what they can, and know that it’s OK.

“It’s healthy for families to take a broad definition of learning” said Kristen Missall, an associate professor in the University of Washington’s College of Education. She also has three school-age kids.

“We should reset our expectations,” she said. “As parents, we’re not teachers. We’re good at other stuff.”

Fortunately there are lots of digital apps and platforms available for every age and covering wide-ranging content areas for parents who want to plug into ed-tech as part of their kids’ days. The biggest challenge is whittling down the options:

“We have wanted to become experts in digital content and distance learning and virtual experience,” said Pacific Science Center CEO Will Daugherty. “This crisis creates a catalyst for innovation.”

For my family, Khan’s “Kevin” is a happy tether to academics. (In reporting this story I learned that the math instructor is actually Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, which adds an extra layer of credibility to our experience, in my assessment.)

Drawing along at home on the Khan Academy platform.

We started using Khan before coronavirus blew up everyone’s lives. My daughter was math-phobic and needed support outside the classroom. My mom had done years of volunteer tutoring and liked Khan. It’s free, so we gave it a try. The instruction is organized by grade level and it’s easy to search for specific math topics. It provides teaching videos hosted by Sal/Kevin alternating with exercises and quizzes to check a student’s mastery.

It’s legit instruction without lots of flashy graphics and sounds (there are occasional confetti downpours) — but that austerity is good and bad. My daughter is learning, but isn’t keen to do the work on her own. We sit side-by-side, watching instruction videos, joking when Sal/Kevin draws a particularly wacky diagram. I check in repeatedly to see if concepts are landing.

Me: “Does that make sense?”

Daughter: “Yes.

Me: “Honestly, though?”

Daughter: “Yes.”

Me: “Are you ready to try some problems?”

Daughter: (Sigh.) “I might and might not be, but let’s try.”

Because the Khan instruction requires hands-on focus from me, it’s a much smaller slice of our at-home classroom. My daughter is also reading chapter books of her choosing and I surprised her yesterday with a new graphic novel that I’d bought and tucked away. Her normal classroom teachers are assigning creative writing prompts that she enjoys and occasional math worksheets. Artistic by nature, she always has a drawing, painting or other project going as well.

At night, as a family we’re watching the Ken Burn’s multi-episode “Country Music” documentary. My daughter loves the storytelling and is a huge music fan. The series overlays stuff she’s interested in with historic political, economic and cultural events.

In our house, graphic novels are an accepted reading option. (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)

Without intending to do so, we’ve created a mix of more traditional academics and “other” that some experts recommend. The idea is also getting traction in social media — that worksheet intensive, monotonous exercises are not the answer. Some parents are going a step further to reject attempting academics at all during this time. Our preference is a middle road that checks in with math, embraces reading and leaves lots of space unstructured.

“Definitely take some time for learning outside of the curriculum and let their curiosity lead them,” said DreamBox Chief Learning Officer Tim Hudson.

A father of four, Hudson suggested “asking your kids, ‘What do you want to learn when school is out?’ Kids are full of questions. Spend some time tracking those down. We can be co-learners and dig into the juicy questions.”

Education experts offer these additional tips for families:

  • Look to trusted sources to find online learning (including Common Sense and UNESCO). If your kids’ school uses online tools, check those out. The students will have some familiarity that will hopefully allow them to be more independent in using the software.
  • Seek online instruction that provides motivational rewards that speak to your kid, is interesting and encourages problem solving.
  • Lessons that review and reinforce information your child has already been taught in school will be easier than tackling new material, and is still valuable.
  • If a kid gets frustrated with an educational activity, take a break or look to another source. They can’t learn while stressed out.
  • Incorporate learning into family activities like cooking or reading aloud to each other.
  • Reading is great for kids of all ages and a good independent activity (hopefully).
  • Set routines and expectations. They shouldn’t be strict hour-by-hour schedules, but create some comfortable predictability.

The UW’s Missall is testing out a scheduling approach that a friend recommended. She’s telling her kids they need to accomplish three things each day: they have to learn something, do something productive and engage in one thing that is just for fun.

“That makes good sense,” Missall said. “It gives you the opportunity to make learning a little broad.”

One of her kids chose watching a YouTube video demonstrating how to draw robots as one of his learning activities.

“That’s not going to help his SAT score,” Missall said. “But it was a fun activity.”

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