For the past month, Curious City has been talking with families, students and teachers from around the Chicago region to get a sense of what this school year has been like since COVID-19 forced many schools to go remote and others to adopt a whole new set of rules and protocols.
And one of those parents that we heard from is Kanako Morikawa, who has turned her Logan Square garage into a classroom.
The garage is home to “Podawan Montessori,” a learning pod started by Morikawa and Rachel Winkelman to help facilitate remote learning for their kids who attend Jonathan Burr Elementary School. The pod includes second graders Elliott and Bodie, Theo and Asher who are in kindergarten and Ruth and Misha, who are both in preschool.
For three days each week, the pod attends classes inside Morikawa’s garage (the other two days they’re at the Winkelman’s).
Curious City visited the garage on a Wednesday morning to see the classroom and experience what a typical school day is like.
The learning pod was formed by the Morikawa-Liebo and Winkelman families to help both manage remote learning. The Winkelmans both work full-time, Morikawa’s husband works full-time as a cardiologist, and Morikawa takes graduate classes and also works part-time.
And neither family was keen on sending their kids back to school in person in the fall before CPS decided to go all-remote.
“I didn’t want to make an arrangement with somebody who was going to send their kids back,” said Winkelman. “And already our families just sort of go really well together because the parents like each other and the kids each have a little buddy who’s their exact same age.”
The pod gets its name, “Podawan Montessori,” from a Star Wars spin on its pod learning style. The school mascot, a wolf or “wolverine,” comes from Asher’s beloved stuffed animal Wolfie, which she sometimes cuddles during her online classes.
Morikawa calls the school a “true Montessori,” where each student has different learning levels and styles and can help each other participate and stay focused during the day.
“It’s nice that they work together. And I try to encourage them to help each other out, keep each other on task,” she said.
One of the first things Morikawa did was make the garage space look and feel like a classroom. Sheets cover open storage space while drawings, maps, and subtraction tables hang along the walls. Shelves hold books and games to use during “brain breaks,” and even a couple of the desks are decorated with name tags.
“And as the [first] day approached, I was like, I don’t know what I’m doing, but if my garage looks like a classroom, then maybe the kids will act like it’s their classroom and they’ll take ownership of it,” she said.
Each student has their responsibilities, with a daily chore list written on one of the white boards. And Morikawa gives a “rockstar award” to a student each day, awarding or subtracting stars based on their behavior.
This classroom management, Morikawa said, requires flexibility, adaptability and open-mindedness. But she said the hardest part so far has been teaching her own kids — and having the same patience with them that she gives to the others.
“And I think it’s because I put so much pressure on my kids to do better and want them to do better, so it’s finding that balance,” she said.
When the kids are in class online, Morikawa is standing by, ready to help with any technology issues. And when they have “brain breaks,” or time away from the computer, she makes sure they let out some energy. It all happens in the garage and the alley, and if they have to go inside to use the restroom, they put their masks on.
“I think people will think that I’m crazy that I have all these kids in this pod and I agree with them,” Morikawa said. “I am probably a little bit crazy, but I think you have to just want to do better for the kids and have their best interests in mind.”
Even though Morikawa says she feels bad that Asher and Theo are starting kindergarten online, she says Asher actually enjoys doing virtual school.
“She thinks she’s a big girl because she’s online and in front of a computer and doing other things her big brother is doing,” she said.
But she says that Bodie, now a couple years into his schooling, would rather be in person.
“For the older kids it’s harder because they’ve seen what school is like before and what it is now, and they just don’t like staring at the screen for eight hours a day,” she said. “So that’s a transition that the older kids are struggling with.”
All of this supervision, Morikawa admits, is not easy. She says she often doesn’t start her own graduate school work until the kids go to bed, around 9:00 P.M., so that she can remain attentive while the kids are in school.
“I don’t want to be distracted,” said Morikawa. “I want to be 100 percent there for them.”
Back when CPS was figuring out their approach to the fall, Morikawa said she’d planned to do the all-remote option. Working in a hospital, she said she knows that it’s hard enough for adults to follow the rules when it comes to COVID-19.
“I don’t see how teachers are supposed to be responsible for making sure all the kids are abiding by all the CDC guidelines,” said Kanako. “They’re kids and they’re going to forget and they’re going to act impulsively, and it just takes one person to do one wrong thing and they could spread the virus.”
For now, she says that the garage is a great solution for making school work for her family. Keeping the school day outdoors, with the garage door lifted and air purifiers running, adds a layer of comfort.
But she knows that the outdoor learning space is not going to last once the temperatures drop, and looking forward, she still thinks that having kids go back to school full-time is going to be challenging. So she’s looking for ways to safely move the pod indoors.
“Once we go inside we will be wearing masks and being more strict about keeping your distance,” she said.
She said that if they keep the pod limited to the six kids between two trusted families, she thinks they’ll be able to keep the learning environment safe.
“It’s a leap of faith,” said Morikawa. “But I think keeping the numbers small is better than going back to school and having 15 kids to a class.”
And for now, she says the leap of faith feels worth it — especially when her kids tell her how much they love home school.
“It’s just temporary, and I can do this now,” Morikawa said.
Mackenzie Crosson is the interim digital producer for Curious City. Get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.