For many families, home has become both office and school during the coronavirus pandemic. Parents across America are facing the challenge this fall of managing a full-time job with their child’s education. Memories of a chaotic spring have driven moms and dads to find creative solutions.

Education pods are one way families can ensure their children still get a good education during the pandemic. Jenny Clark, founder of Love Your School and Cottage School Life, joins the podcast to explain how she created a pod in her community and how you can do the same. 

We also cover these stories:

  • The state of California suffers from electrical blackouts for the first time in 19 years. 
  • The Senate Intelligence Committee releases the fifth and final volume of the report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
  • President Donald Trump pardons women’s rights icon Susan B. Anthony.

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Virginia Allen: We are so pleased to be joined by Jenny Clark, founder of Love Your School and Cottage School Life. Jenny, thanks so much for being here.

Jenny Clark: Thank you so much for having me.

Allen: Now, you’re a mom and you have taken such bold and really creative steps and such a bold approach rather to education. And we’re going to talk a little bit about that in a moment, but I want to begin just by hearing a little bit of who you are, your passion about education, and your kids. How many kids do you have and what are their ages?

Clark: Yes. I am a mom of five here in Phoenix, Arizona. I have a 2-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 7-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 10-year-old. So we have a lot of fun here and things are of course very busy in our home when it comes to education.

Allen: Yeah. Oh, I love that. So fun. But you were exploring alternatives to traditional K-12 education even long before the pandemic. So can you … tell us a little bit about how you came to be so passionate about the field of education and such an advocate for what I’ll call kind of like out-of-the-box schooling?

Clark: Absolutely. So, this all really started for our family when we discovered a little over three years ago that our two oldest sons had learning disabilities.

One of our kids, from a very young age, had some developmental things and he was in an early intervention program, which of course they have in every state and a lot of families might be familiar with that. But we didn’t know that our two oldest kids had dyslexia and dysgraphia.

So about three years ago, we got these evaluations. And we were at our local school district and they said, “Yes, your kids qualify for these services, but unfortunately, we don’t have any programs that will help remediate dyslexia in our entire school district.”

And I remember that meeting, which I know many parents have also been in those types of IEP meetings, sitting there going, “Wait, how are you supposed to help my kids? We don’t know what to do.” And we left that meeting realizing that it was really going to be on us as parents to figure out how we could help our kids.

Thankfully, in Arizona, we have an amazing program called the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account Program.

So after we started remediating our kids’ dyslexia ourselves and we did an online charter school for a brief period of time, our kids qualified for this ESA scholarship. And we started right around that same time a really fun education pod with three other families. This year actually will be our third year doing this education pod.

Allen: Oh, I love that.

Clark: Yeah, it’s a great time and wonderful families and our kids absolutely love it.

So yeah, basically, three years ago, we started kind of on this pod journey, and it’s really neat to see that there’s this growing interest as families have been thrust into this situation of trying to reevaluate how they can help their children. They’re looking into education pods too.

So we’ve been very fortunate to be in a situation where we’ve had these experiences and now we’re really excited to help other families.

Allen: That term “pod,” for anyone who might not be familiar with it, can you just explain what exactly an education pod is?

Clark: Absolutely. There’s lots of different terms that are being used right now. Some people may previously have used the term co-op or like a small, tight group, but pod is kind of the term I think that’s kind of been solidified in the last couple of months as a result of coronavirus. And essentially, it is a group or gathering of children whose ages vary.

So we’re talking not just like a third-grade classroom where you have kids that are all about the same age. A pod can be children from the same family or different families, usually smaller, three to four families, and ranging in ages.

In our particular pod, we have the four families, we have kids ages 2 to 11, and we’re kind of on the larger side, but I think it’s manageable for us since we’re going into our third year, as I mentioned. We have about 16 kids in our pod right now.

Allen: Let’s go back to that very first year. You’re thinking about starting a pod. How did you actually go about talking with other families and saying, “Hey, this is something we want to do. Would you be interested too?”

Clark: Such a great question. Yeah. So we kind of share with other families a three-step process. We say it’s create, connect, and contribute.

So the first thing that I would suggest that families do is create a list of things that you need for your child and what you’d like to see in a pod. So what subjects does your child need taught or is it mostly just supervising their online schoolwork? How many days a week do you want for your family and how many hours per day?

The neat thing about a pod is the flexibility. So you don’t have to go every single day of the week from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.. You can say, “Hey, for our family and for our work and life situation, we only need a pod on Tuesday and Thursdays, and we only need it from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and these are the subjects that we need.”

We encourage that first step because once you do that, then you’re not going to get stuck doing what some other pod is doing or engaging in something that really isn’t the best fit for your family.

So Step One is always create a list of what works and what is best for your family. And then if you can’t find a pod that already exists, you can draw people into your pod by saying, “This is [what] we’re going to do and this is what we’re going to offer.”

A quick little side note on that too, Virginia, we’re actually going to be starting a second education pod with three different families teaching different subjects than our first pod. And that’s just coming about this year.

We basically said, “Hey, we’ve got some other friends. They’re interested in doing world history and civics. We’re not currently doing that in this other pod and we love those subjects, so let’s pod up and let’s do these other subjects just one day a week for three hours.”

And then we approached, myself and one other mom, approached other families and said, “This is what we’re doing. Would you like to join?”

So that’s always Step One.

Step Two, as I mentioned, is connect. And after you know what you want, you just begin, kind of what I already mentioned, looking for other families, talking to other families, posting on your Facebook page, your faith groups, other groups that you’re involved in, and sharing with them what you’re doing and reaching out and letting them know so that they can join your pod or so that you can join one that’s already kind of in existence.

Just the last point is just contribute. And so we just really encourage parents to be upfront about what their strengths are and what they can offer to an education pod.

So, in our situation, and I’ve shared this before, I actually am not a teacher in our current education pod. I am the administrator and facilitator.

We actually meet in my home on Mondays from, now it’s going to be 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. I coordinate and prepare the home and all the supplies and things that the students will need. And I also cook lunch and prepare lunch for all of the moms and all of the children.

And the other three moms that are involved in our education pod are all amazing. One is an English professor and she teaches our English class. The other is a nurse and she teaches our science. And then the other mom has a classical education background and she teaches our art class.

So, be up front about what you can contribute, and don’t be afraid if you are not able to actually teach a class, but your skills or your gifts lie elsewhere.

Allen: Let’s talk about kind of two maybe different types of parents. You might have parents that are similar to yourself and they say, “Yes, I have something that I can contribute. I have time that I can give,” or, “I can help to prepare lesson plans,” to really be hands-on in a way.

And then there’s the parent that might say, “I have a full-time job. I can’t do that, and I need to find a way to hire a tutor,” and maybe all of the parents that I’m talking about creating a pod with are in that same situation.

So what kind of advice or encouragement would you give to those parents who say, “Maybe we can pay a tutor, but we really don’t have any time ourselves to give to this pod.” How can they go about someone who’s qualified to help their students in their online schooling or kind of supplement their education in various ways?

Clark: Well, I’m really glad you brought that up because there are a lot of families out there where the parent works or both parents work, if they’re in the home, and they’re unable to facilitate an education pod like our family has done.

So in that case, families would gather together and look into hiring someone who can facilitate their pod or be the actual teacher of all the subjects in their pod.

We are actually in the process through Love Your School of trying to connect those families to those educators who are interested. And to be honest, social media is one of the best places that we recommend families reach out if they’re looking to hire a teacher for their education pod.

I also recommend families reach out to former educators, so former teachers that their child may have had, or friends who might be teachers or educators. Because what we’re seeing is a lot of educators going, “Hey, you know what? I’ve left this position,” or, “I’m available on these certain days and I would like to make money and facilitate an education pod for a family. So here’s what I can offer.”

Of course, in these types of situations when you’re talking about hiring a teacher, the costs would then have to be split between the families that are participating.

Sometimes, if it’s a five days a week, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. situation, the costs might be greater, but a lot of the things that I’m seeing is that families are realizing that their child may not necessarily need to complete all of that. They may not need all that time to complete all of their normal schoolwork.

So some families are opting for sharing childcare maybe certain days of the week, and then doing their education pod and hiring someone two to three days a week. And that’s another option that families should think about and be flexible about, especially if you’re looking to save money and cut down on costs.

Allen: So practical. Thank you, Jenny. It’s just great to kind of hear the one, two, three easy steps.

Can you just talk to us for a moment about … in your three years of doing pods, why you become so convinced that this really is a great way for children to learn and be educated?

Clark: I think one of the biggest things for our family is just seeing how excited and joyful our kids are about learning and about their education.

As a lot of families may experience with their children, there can be a lot of anxiety about school, about school life, about friends and relationships, about how they’re achieving and engaging in the classroom. So one advantage of pods is that lot of that is stripped away, especially for our kids with the learning disabilities.

You know, one of my children is catching up, but he’s still two years behind in reading for his typical grade level. But he’s OK with that and we’re OK with that because we’re like it’s not about being at this place at this age in your life and in your education, it’s about your confidence and it’s about growing and learning and mastering a subject.

And we say to our kids all the time, “If you’re a little bit behind a sibling or a friend, that’s OK. We’re here for you. This isn’t a race. We want you to just love learning and love what you’re doing, and we’re going to be here every step of the way to guide you in that process.”

So that’s one thing that we really love.

And then another thing that I always share that might be a little bit different than what most parents are used to is the idea of mastery.

So with an education pod, you can really move in tandem with each individual child, even if, like in our situation, you have 16 kids because the kids can work in a group, but still independently on some of the things that they’re working on.

They can take a test two or three weeks later than another child and not be considered behind, but they don’t personally have to move on from a certain subject.

Let’s just say learning their timetables, right? If they’re struggling, we can spend extra days and extra weeks working with them to master their timetables and they’re not going to get behind because they’re on their own track.

So that’s just a few things that we really love about our education pod and one of the things that we like to share with parents so that they can get excited and encouraged about that idea of mastery and moving along with the child as well.

Allen: What are maybe some of the challenges that at first you faced in creating a pod and in engaging your kids and the other kids that were involved? Maybe some practical kind of do’s and don’ts, or “learn from my mistakes” kind of things.

Clark: Oh, that’s a good question. Definitely leaning on more structure to begin with so that the kids get comfortable understanding kind of what the rules are, and then also establishing what you would call your education pod rules.

So essentially, when you’re in, in our case, in a home, and kids have been into that home before, they get so excited, right? They’re like running around, they want to go play outside, they want to do these things. And meanwhile we’re saying, “OK, wait, we can do all those things, but we still have three classes we have to get through first.”

So one of the things that we implemented early on was this idea of a quiet gathering time at the very beginning.

So when everybody comes into the house kind of at the same time and it’s kind of busy, the moms need 15 minutes to get ready and prepare everything, get into the classrooms, unpack their bags, and the kids go into the living room and we have a super large bin of books. And right now, I’m gathering books for astronomy and space because that’s what we’re doing in science this fall.

And the kids will come in and they each have to grab a book, sit down with the book in the living room, and just be in there quietly for the first 15 minutes. And of course there’s a little chatter here and there, but they get the idea. And even the younger kids who can’t read will grab a book, sit down, and look through the pictures.

So that really helps set this kind of calm, peaceful tone from when we first began. And then one of our moms, she comes in and does a little bit of our opening session.

So it can look different for different families. In our situation, we do a little bit of a welcome. We maybe sing like a school song or a holiday song, depending on what’s happening, things that we’d like to teach the kids that they may get in a traditional classroom. And then we might talk through the structure of the day.

We also do something really fun, which is presentations. So each week a family gets to present, any kids in the family gets to present.

So one week, that could be this family all does violin lessons and they each want to play a very short little violin piece or a piano piece. Another family might want to read a story they wrote or recite some sort of poetry that they’re memorizing.

The presentations are a really great time for us to teach and train our kids what it looks like to present in front of other people, to speak clearly, to talk about something that they’re interested in. And thankfully, we are able to do that every time that we meet because of our small class size.

So I guess you could think about it a little bit like show and tell. The kids just have more frequency and opportunity to share.

And then of course, with the class structure, one of the things that we really encourage is giving the kids 15 minutes in between switching subjects.

So for us, our classes go 30 to 45 minutes, and then we give the kids a 15 minute break to go outside, and they have to stay outside and play, and then they come back in and get settled for their next class.

So those are just a few little tips that might help some families if they’re thinking about doing a pod in their home or even at an offsite location.

Allen: Have you found that there’s a really kind of goal practical number of students that just seems to work best for having a pod?

Clark: I don’t think that there’s a number that works best. I think it depends on the number of families that are involved and the location that you’re meeting in.

So we’re kind of maxed out right now at 16 with our one education pod that meets, just because of the size of our home.

We have three separate spaces where the kids can meet. So we do one meeting essentially in the dining room, one meeting in the living room, and one meeting in the office. So those three rooms are the max for us. And each of those rooms can have four to seven kids in it.

So that’s something to really think about is we could essentially have eight families, but we would probably only be able to service two kids per family in that situation.

So you can take a lot of families, it really just depends on where you’re meeting, how much space you have, and then also how many adults are going to be able to be with the child.

Allen: Do you have any practical advice for how to really kind of set up and foster that classroom environment in your home, whether it’s just taking place in the living room or maybe in a basement, how do you actually kind of turn that space that maybe is used as a playroom or a tea room and all of a sudden now it’s a classroom?

Clark: One thing I try to encourage families is to not worry about making it look too much like a traditional classroom, because of course, who has all of those amazing things that a child might have in a traditional classroom at home?

And I don’t want that to be a discouragement to families, but little things that you could do would be to set a tray out, and on that tray have pencils and a pencil sharpener, and little things that the kids might need that they can access quickly when they’re in the classroom.

So we do that.

In two of our classrooms we have kind of a tray with supplies and things that the kids might need, but it really does feel a lot like a home. I mean, unless they’re in our office where we do have a whiteboard for one of the classes and a lot of books in here and other kind of fun things like a piano, the other rooms do look like a traditional home, and that’s OK.

Because the other thing that we’ve noticed is that sometimes kids feel more comfortable in that environment and they start to realize, “Wow, I can learn everywhere. I’m sitting on the couch at my friend’s house, and my other friend’s mom is walking me through something. And I’m loving this and I’m learning and I’m looking through a book.”

And I think that that’s a really neat thing that can happen for kids and families when they decide to do education pods, is this idea of learning only happens in the classroom kind of gets expanded to learning can happen everywhere, no matter where I am.

So you can definitely do practical things that the kids might need for the classroom, but don’t worry if your space isn’t set up or you don’t have a lot of supplies because you can grow in that and gain things as you go.

Allen: Whether it be your pod or pods that you watch friends and others create, are there maybe one or two specific things that you can say every successful pod has this?

Clark: That’s a great question. I would say that every successful pod has families who are committed to helping their children learn no matter what the environment looks like. And that I think is really the key to success.

I don’t think it’s about money or how much money a parent has for a pod or the home or the location of where the pod meet. All of those things are secondary.

It’s really just about the parents and the family saying, “You know what? We’re going to do this. We’re all about it. We love you, son and daughter, and thank you so much for being willing to try this and be flexible. And we’re going to be here every step of the way to adjust and address your concerns and help you in this process.”

And that, again, doesn’t mean that the parent is necessarily the one that’s there every day with the child, but it’s the mindset, right, of a parent to say, “We’re going to be with you every step of the way and we’re going to help you with whatever you need.”

And that’s the mindset I think that a lot of parents might have even if their child is attending a traditional school. So hopefully that encourages parents to realize that there isn’t anything super specific or super special that you need to have or do in order to start an education pod. Quite frankly, you can just do it and just start it.

Allen: Oh, that’s really encouraging to hear. So practical. Jenny, before we let you go, can you just tell us about the organization that you started, Love Your School, and what resources can be found on that website?

Clark: Absolutely. Love Your School is all about celebrating school options. So we have a very fun, joyful, and exciting view of what school choice offers to families. So we are all about celebrating those options and we have our website, which is loveyourschool.org, and we also recently launched a podcast this summer too, the “Love Your School Podcast.”

And we are just talking to families and educators and tutors and people who are in the education space that realize that children are amazing and they are unique, and they learn differently. And we want them to be in whatever educational environment works for them, but if parents don’t know what those options are, they can’t choose them.

So we talk all about district schools, charter schools, private schools, online, homeschool, empowerment scholarships, all of these different types of choices so that families can go, “OK, I know now what my options are, and now I can choose what works best for my child.”

We find, and it’s shocking, that so many families are completely unaware that they don’t have to go only to their locally-zoned district school.

So when we start talking to families and we say, “Hey, are you looking for options?” and they say, “Yeah, but I can’t afford private school, but that’s what I want for my child,” we step right in and say, “Hey, did you know about these amazing tuition tax credit scholarships that are available to every family in our state? Here’s the information. Here’s how you can apply. And you know what, if you have any questions, we’re here for you every step of the way.”

Before I even just got onto record with you today, I had another mom who I have never met, who was referred to Love Your School actually by a special education provider. She said, “Hey, this family has a child with severe special needs and their child is not meeting in the classroom. Can you help them?”

So that child and that family is going through the process of getting an Arizona Empowerment Scholarship right now.

But yeah, they’ll text me, they’ll send us Facebook messages. We’re here 24/7 to help families so that they can get the answers to the questions that they need for their kids.

Allen: Jenny, that is incredible. I just love the hands-on work that you’re doing in your state. And I know that there are so many people across the country that are doing similar work in almost every state. So thank you just for standing up for children and fighting for education opportunities.

We really appreciate you coming on the show to talk about pods and to offer parents some really, really practical tips and advice in this crazy season of life we find ourselves in.

Clark: Thank you so much, Virginia. It’s been a pleasure and so fun to talk with y’all.