Learning in and around the home

  • Zachary Podhorzer teaches eighth grade remotely from home. When able, he takes a break to play disc golf. For the Recorder/GIllis MacDougall—

  • Pax Belmonte, 7, reads at home. Contributed photo—

  • Pax Belmonte, 7, works out math problems at home. Contributed photo—

  • Enzo Belmonte, 13, is a Turners Falls home-schooler. Contributed photo—

  • Pax Belmonte, 7, with a few books at home in Turners Falls. Contributed photo—

  • The DeLorenzo family of Greenfield: Jim, Ella, Melissa, Lily, and Noah. Contributed photo—

  • Robin Clifford of Greenfield initially improvised a standing desk by piling boxes on her bed. Since then, she's acquired an upgrade. Contributed photo—

For the Recorder
Published: 1/20/2021 9:04:38 AM

Returning to school after the winter holidays usually brings renewed energy to teachers and students, as well as relief for parents of school-aged children. This new term, however, brings with it continued challenges, as many area schools remain closed or operate on hybrid models. 

“We didn’t travel last summer like we usually do, but we minded the garden more,” said Amanda Locke, 45, a seventh-grade math and science teacher at Greenfield’s Four River Charter School.

Over the past year, Locke and her wife, Robin Clifford, a social studies and English teacher at Amherst Middle School, have had to adapt their small Greenfield home to the requirements of remote teaching work while simultaneously overseeing the online academic activities of their two children.

“Our daughter and our son are eleven months apart. They’re both nine right now, but not for long,” Locke said. “To be honest, it’s bonkers.”

Amid the challenges, “We’ve found a rhythm,” Clifford said, describing how she transformed their bedroom into her office, creating a standing desk by piling boxes on the bed. Their computer modem is located in the middle of the house; cords snake down hallways. Clifford feels like she teaches “from a cockpit, using multiple screens.” 

Their son’s home desk is set up on the hearth, and they’ve thrown a sheet over a nearby bookshelf to limit distractions during on-line learning. At times, Locke teaches remotely from her school’s building and can bring her daughter along to free up space — and bandwidth — at home.

“It’s hard to maintain home/work boundaries,” Locke admitted. “Robin and I whip together teaching materials when the kids are in the bathtub or asleep. Most planning occurs between 9 p.m. and midnight.”

In contrast, Eloise Michael, of Greenfield, teaches almost exclusively in person at Hinsdale High School in New Hampshire — but that doesn’t alleviate the challenges altogether. She adapts during stretches of remote teaching.

“I don’t love teaching remotely, but while working from home, I do enjoy the chance to have lunch with (sons) Max and Fedya.” Max, 20, is enrolled at Bard, a small college in Great Barrington conducting in-person classes with mandatory masks and frequent testing. Bard students left campus at Thanksgiving and resume classes at the end of January.

Fedya, 17, is enrolled at Greenfield High School, learning remotely since March of 2020. “We’re lucky to have enough space so all three of us can do our thing,” Michael said. As a teacher, she expressed broad concern for children and teens.

“I worry for their generation,” said the longtime teacher, age 46. “Kids spent so much time isolated and on screens before COVID. Now it’s much worse.” 

She noted, however, that some thrive with remote learning. “Students who are overwhelmed in the classroom by others’ boisterous behavior … some of them are doing fine, along with those who have motivation.”

Zachary Podhorzer, 33, a first-year teacher at Four Rivers Charter School, also worries about his students’ well-being and the challenges that come with at-home learning. “At first, remote learning seemed helpful for students with social anxiety. But we've been doing this for so long, I think the benefits have worn off,” he said.

“(My partner and I) are home almost all the time. I've had to rearrange things, buy a new chair for my back, and adjust my schedule,” Podhorzer said. “I don't have children, but many of my colleagues struggle to find consistent child care, which affects when they can work. The line between personal and professional has grown even blurrier. Working from home does provide some flexibility, but often comes at a cost.”

Aware of society’s many inequities, Podhorzer noted, “Remote learning is yet another thread in the realm of intersectionality. Students who are in marginalized and oppressed social groups experience the negative effects of remote learning exponentially more. The exacerbated inequities truly scare me.”

Since he and his partner both work from home, “There are problems like having fast enough internet to sustain two simultaneous video conference connections. I often deal with confidential student information while my partner, who works at the Community Health Center, deals with confidential patient information. We both take confidentiality very seriously, so we each use headphones or earbuds for at least six hours a day.”

He worries about teachers elsewhere who might not have home-life circumstances that make remote work possible. “Some simply cannot make (remote teaching) work and have had to quit or take leaves of absence which, of course, disproportionately affects women. It also hurts to know that many people think we should teach in person and put our lives at risk without hazard pay or recognition,” he said. 

Mary Bowen moved from Los Angeles to Northfield a few years ago and teaches online as a long-term sub for Pioneer Valley Regional School. She also supports her son, Otis, a senior at Pioneer. 

“My job is to help kids who fall between the cracks. I become their buddy and we work through assignments online. One student went from getting an F to an A-minus,” she said.

Despite successes, Bowen described challenges. “If something goes wrong with Google Classroom, it’s so frustrating. Everyone has to exit the link and then come back on. And some people just don’t have enough Wi-Fi juice to make it work.”

Of her son, Bowen said, “Otis is an only child. He’s used to being somewhat isolated. But the last three months have been really tough. He never had a huge social life, but this is just too much.”

Her husband, Tim Bowen, periodically relocates to Los Angeles, where he works in the film industry. The family operates the Northfield Creamie spring through autumn, but during the off-season, “Tim dresses sets.” 

“Right now, he’s in L.A. working on a Netflix movie. His job is to hang curtains, choose the fabric for the bedspread, stuff like that. He worked on (the AMC cable network period drama series) ‘Mad Men’ for years, giving the set that 1960s office look,” Mary Bowen said.

Elsewhere in the region, sisters Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo and Rebecca Beck feel lucky to live in a basically peaceful community with opportunities to be outdoors. “Our families have formed a bubble,” DeLorenzo, 49, explained. “My kids are Noah, 15, and our twins, Ella and Lily, 13.” Her husband Jim rounds out their family of five. 

Rebecca Beck, 47, and her husband, Brian Beck, 50, also have three children. Their eldest daughter, Maeve, 19, went to school through fifth grade and then homeschooled, eventually earning her high school equivalency diploma. Maeve is currently enrolled at a small circus school in Maine. Sons Josiah, 17, and Kessik, 14, live at home. 

Over the years, the Becks have done both regular schooling and homeschooling. Rebecca Beck is a longtime homebirth midwife; Brian Beck is a school administrator. 

In contrast, the DeLorenzos have homeschooled exclusively. “We’re essentially un-schoolers,” DeLorenzo said. A writer by trade, she said, “We read a ton, including reading historical fiction aloud, and we use the library a lot. Our choices are based on the kids’ interests and whatever seems to be working.”

In some ways, being homeschoolers gave the DeLorenzos an advantage when COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. “I imagine it's anxiety-producing for parents who worry if their kids will fall behind. I don’t worry about my kids falling behind academically. We’re pretty relaxed. My kids are learning, they’re fairly focused, we’re doing OK.”

Like other area homeschoolers, however, the DeLorenzos don’t just stay home. “COVID has cut us off at the knees in terms of social and extracurricular stuff,” she lamented. 

She knows that some regard homeschooling as an option of the privileged. “But we’ve made a lot of sacrifices,” DeLorenzo explained. “(Husband) Jim does marketing for a software security company and works from home. He’s our so-called full-time worker. But I’ve always worked, too, albeit part-time. My mom helped by watching the kids sometimes, so it’s been an intergenerational success.”

 

Her sister, Rebecca Beck noted that, for her son who’s enrolled in a local high school, “Josiah always regarded home as a refuge. But online learning has tainted the concept of home.” She added, “He misses the personal contact of being in school. And without requirements to keep grades up in order to participate in team sports...well, let’s just say that’s had quite an impact.”

Both Beck parents have busy work lives. “Brian has loads of Zoom meetings, really just endless, and my practice spiked along with the pandemic as people explored options for giving birth outside of hospitals.” 

The family learned to “let some things go,” Rebecca said, “like not worrying about being super neat. It’s more important to truly be together when we can.”

Alexis Major Jameson, 42, lives in Haydenville with her husband Neal Jameson, 45, and two young children, Oli and Lao, 8 and 4. Alexis Major Jameson is a yoga teacher and her husband is a home improvement contractor. They, too, are homeschoolers.

When COVID restrictions hit, parents of schooled kids reached out to Alexis for advice. “They asked for resources, ideas, survival strategies. I suggested that they not put too much pressure on themselves or their families. Honestly, sometimes the best thing you can do is to make sure everyone gets three meals a day at basically regular intervals.”

She feels her vocation helps her reduce anxiety in a stressful time. “It’s important for adults to keep our nervous systems balanced while also protecting our kids. For us, it means not listening to the news when the kids are awake. We also try to make sure we (adults) get a good hour or two together after the kids go to bed.”

Her family enjoys moments of “time beyond time. I mean, if this pandemic is going to utterly change our lives, why not learn to adjust? It’s not always easy. No life or schooling situation is 100 percent perfect. But we can be flexible and grow stronger, more present.”

Longtime homeschooler Melissa Belmonte, 43, echoed the sentiment. “We adapt,” she said. While she teaches Smith College Spanish language classes online from her bedroom, her husband Chris Belmonte, 42, drives to Northampton where he works as a regional radio personality. 

The Belmontes’ three children — Atticus, 16; Enzo, 13; and Pax, 7 — spend more time on screens than before the pandemic, but the family makes sure to spend time outdoors, too.

Melissa brings in another element: “The pandemic has brought more intensity to everything, like political situations. After George Floyd was murdered, and with more attention to the work of Black Lives Matter, oh my gosh. It just seemed like everything was intense, all the time.”

She worries for her students, most of whom are in the 18-21 age group. “I’m witnessing huge psychological struggles. I’d definitely noticed increased levels of depression since 2016, but wow, the pandemic has magnified that exponentially.”

While working from home, educators are banding together digitally, “for example, through a Facebook group called ‘Pandemic Pedagogy,’ but everyone is weary. We need to stick together.”

As local families, teachers and kids try to make it through this time, common themes emerge, including getting outdoors, being kind to each other, and having fun. 

Perhaps the greatest words of wisdom came from 7-year-old Pax, who seemed unfazed. “I love staying home when it snows,” he said. “Do you know we got 19 inches last time it really snowed? It was so great.” He described the forts he and his friend, Max, dug out of snowbanks, and a snowball fight when the two of them teamed up against older brother, Enzo.

“We won,” Pax said, clearly proud of his triumph. “I love the snow. It's so fun to be outside.”

Eveline MacDougall is a local author, outdoor enthusiast, and mom. She welcomes feedback at eveline@amandlachorus.org


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