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Preparing for back to school, creating a Specialists Pod!

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

I have spent much of the past month thinking about back to school, or the lack thereof. Here in California we are not going back to school in person. First San Diego Unified decided that at least the first week of school would be done online, then the Governor created his own set of guidelines that made it impossible for most schools to reopen here. Are you scrambling with how to deal with this too?

I wanted to create something new and possibly long term to help make learning at home more fun, so I've spent the past few weeks setting up a small classroom in my backyard. What I'm thinking is I can offer an in person Art class to a small group of kids in my daughters class. This will give the kids an opportunity to actually meet with each other. If lots of kids are interested I can rotate the kids through in small pods. I also plan to hire a Spanish teacher and see if any kids in her class want to join in once a week. The beauty of Distance Learning is we will have some flexibility and can cultivate our own Specialists!

I'll be honest, I have enjoyed the freedom that the past few months have provided. Our schedules are relaxed and we are still doing a few activities that my kids love. Meanwhile they are getting along and playing with each other better than they ever have. So for us some good things have come from the changes of living through this pandemic.

With all the uncertainty that goes along with the virus, including the social distancing deemed necessary to return to school, I'm okay with not sending my kids to school right now.

There are basically two options for those of us with young kids. Distance Learning, which means you take what the district gives you (it will probably look very similar to what we were doing at the end of last school year), or get your own thing going via a home school program (possibly providing more flexibility and less time online, but also means trying something new). Some parents may choose to hire a tutor or teacher or join a pod. In the end it is hard to plan for any of this when we don't have any information from the district about classes or how the days will be structured. But my guess is as the year moves on many parents will start working together.

One thing that has struck me is the fact that there will be no Specialists this year. For our school that means no Art, Spanish, Science or Technology. Kids used to rotate through these classes throughout the year and they loved them. I have to admit, I totally balked at the fact that my kindergartner was in a class that was teaching her how to type and use a computer...then bam, we went to online learning and those computer skills definitely paid off!

So I've decided to set up this backyard classroom where I can be an unofficial Art Specialist. You could easily take this same idea and turn it into a learning pod. Maybe you don't want to take on the commitment of an entire Pod, instead you can set up a Specialist Pod. What's your Specialty?

If you decide to do a regular learning pod there are many things you will want to consider. How many students? I've heard lots of parents say 3-6 is ideal. How many hours a day? Some people are getting tutors for one hour a day, some are choosing 2-4 hours a day for a pod. How many days a week and will students move around to different houses? This depends on your needs. What portion of online curriculum will students complete, will they do their zooms with the pod or will they do that at home? Will parents do a trade or will you hire a tutor or teacher? An experienced babysitter could help your child get their assignments done. A tutor will be able to help older kids with content. An experienced teacher will be able to balance many different personalities, conflicts and keep it fun.

Lots of my friends have been asking about pay. If you want a teacher to plan lessons beyond the online curriculum your school is giving you, this will require time outside of the pod. You will need to pay them for the planning time or figure it in to their total pay. If you find a student from the Education Department at your local college you may be able to spend as little as $30 an hour, but be sure to ask them if they have had experience as a Student Teacher. That's the part where teachers get to practice teaching. If you hire a credentialed teacher with experience you could spend as much as $60 per hour or more, split between the pod. Don't be afraid to ask them to come in and do a practice lesson in front of you, an experienced teacher will have no problem doing this. Thinking about all of this gets overwhelming real quick!

Back to my Specialist Pod. I decided to do this in my backyard because of airborne germs and I have zero extra space inside my house. Maybe you have a back porch, or a garage where you can open up the door? Most of us here in California are challenged for space, so we have to get creative with pod space.

We just happened to have a pergola area right next to a sandbox and chalkboard, it seemed like the perfect space. My main goal was to make it feel as much like a real classroom as possible. I want the kids to think, okay, I'm here to learn! And have fun!

The first thing I did was discuss a budget with my husband. Let's be honest, this may be temporary...or not, let's not go crazy we thought. Still I went a little crazy. I decided $500 was my classroom budget. I may have gone slightly over, but I've always wanted to start a formal art class for kids in my backyard, so this was an investment for me.

Since my space is outdoors I focused on creating lots of shade, because if kids are squinting in the hot sun, learning won't be fun. There was already shade cloth on top of our pergola, so I just added two sun sails from Amazon for $30 each and attached them using hooks for $6. These were cheap and easy to install in my space, but if you don't already have a sturdy wood post to attach them too it could be a challenge.

I wanted to create a reading nook/comfortable learning area, so I moved our outdoor couches and added an outdoor rug. The outdoor rug (currently on sale for $75) will be an inviting spot for kids to sit down on when I read to them or do a demo.

I got two tables from Target for $109 each. They are indoor tables, so I'm covering them with a tarp at night and crossing my fingers they last the whole year. What I like about them is they came with small benches, they feel very sturdy, and they have built in marker/pencil holders, perfect for an art class. An alternative outside table could be kids picnic tables, you can always repaint them when they start to fade and they are also fairly inexpensive.

Next came the wobbly stools. If you haven't been in a kindergarten classroom you probably don't know what a wobbly stool is. It is exactly what it sounds like. Most young kids need to fidget and actually learn best when they are moving, so these really help. I remember my daughter coming home from kindergarten and telling me all about the wobbly stools, so I had to buy two, $50 each.

What else does a classroom need? Drawers to keep paper and supplies easily accessible. I got these drawers for $10 from Target. A trash can, $10 from Target. A wall? I hung a colorful sheet for under $20 from Amazon. I used bag clips to clip it to the pergola, and weighted the bottom of it by creating a seam and slipping in the cardboard roll that came out of the middle of my outdoor carpet.

The last thing I needed was a white board, I bought this one at Walmart for $65. It is easy to move around, double sided, and magnetic so I can attach papers to it as well.

Luckily I already had lots of books and stuffies, so I brought some of these outside as well. This space now has many purposes and has even become another play area for my kids.

I hope this helps you plan a learning space for your kids, and maybe your own Specialist Pod this year. If you have any questions or ideas to share please feel free to leave a message in the comments below!

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