First-grader Lucas Fernandez, 6, studies with his sister, second grader Cecilia Fernandez, 8, on April 5 at their home in Riverside. The kids’ “school” table is one their mom, Suzannah, purchased from the Riverside Public Library, just for that purpose. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

School has been different for everyone this year, but two Riverside neighbors who live just a couple doors down from each other on Selborne Road decided to take the plunge and home school their children this year. 

With school districts wrestling with how and when to welcome children back into classrooms, Abby Brennan and Suzannah Fernandez both decided that home schooling would work best this year for their families during this pandemic year. 

Brennan, the owner of Brennan Massage & Spa in Brookfield, needed a consistent schedule for herself and her kids. She and Fernandez, a former high school history teacher, didn’t like the amount of screen time their children endured last spring when schools quickly shifted to remote learning at the onset of the pandemic. 

From left, siblings Liliana, 5, Cecilia, 8, and Lucas Fernandez, 6, stand together near their work space on April 5, at their home in Riverside. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

“I didn’t feel it was best for my kids,” Fernandez said. “It didn’t suit the way they are used to learning very well and I didn’t want to go back to that in the fall. … We thought they needed more hands-on work rather than just doing all of the assignments on the computer or the iPad.” 

Every weekday morning Fernandez and her three children, 8-year-old Cecelia, 6-year-old Lucas and 5-year-old Liliana, attend school at table in their living room that Fernandez purchased for $75 from the Riverside Public Library when the officials there were preparing to remodel the library’s lower level.

From 8:30 a.m. until noon they do reading, arithmetic and writing at the table with mom as the teacher.

About noon they break for lunch and a little play time. Afternoons are spent doing crafts and projects. Sometimes Fernandez takes them to the forest preserves or to Morton Arboretum for exercise and nature studies. Some days they just take walks. Even in the dead of winter they went outside nearly every day.

“They spent hours outside just playing in the snow because they enjoyed it, building all kinds of stuff,” Fernandez said. “The outdoor component has been critical. Even if it was cold, we went outside.”

One of the advantages of home schooling is that they can do it anywhere. Many lessons, especially science lessons, were held outside.

Suzannah Fernandez, left, works with her children preschooler Lilian, 5, first grader Lucas, 6, and second grader Ceclilia, 8, in their living room on April 5, at their home in Riverside. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

For much of the year while Fernandez has been teaching her children downstairs in the living room, her husband Braulio, an eighth-grade math teacher at a Chicago public school, has been teaching his classes remotely from an upstairs office. While Suzannah is the teacher for their children, Brauilo occasionally helps out.

“He helps when I have questions, especially in the math, of how to teach the basics of math to our children,” Fernandez said.

The Fernandez kids and Brennan’s two girls, Harriet, 9, and Iris, 7, get together almost every afternoon to play.

From left, siblings Cecilia Fernandez, 8, Lucas Fernandez, 6, and Liliana Fernandez, 5, stand together for a photo on April 5, at their home in Riverside. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

“Neither my kids nor her kids really are having any other social interaction with other kids, so it’s been nice to have kids just two doors down kids that are their age that they can play with and still socialize with,” Fernandez said.

Both Fernandez and Brennan are former teachers. Fernandez was a high school or middle school history teacher for 16 years before deciding to stay home full time four years ago. 

She taught history for 10 years at Lycée de Francais de Chicago, private school, while Brennan had been a K-8 art teacher in the Chicago Public Schools for seven years before opening her business.

Teaching young kids has been challenging for both of them. Brennan’s daughters are in first and third grade while Fernandez has a first-grader, second-grader and a preschooler.

“I felt I could handle the challenge of teaching little ones, but it has been a challenge. Because I’m a teacher anyway I thought, ‘I can do this,’” Fernandez said.

Teaching their first-graders how to read has been a priority. Neither had much or any training in teaching reading. 

“I wouldn’t say I know how to teach reading, but I learned how to teach her to read,” Brennan said. “I had to kind of learn along the way. I looked online for resources and did a lot of creative ways to get her to sound things out.”

Fernandez said her oldest child had excellent teachers at Blythe Park School, and she utilizes tips that she picked up seeing how her Cecilia was taught to read.

It was a bit of a struggle at first with Lucas, but then things began to click.

“It’s been a little more of a struggle with him being as a boy, but he’s doing really well,” Fernandez said. “It’s really surprising that once they actually get it they can pick it up so quickly.”

With Liliana, who will start kindergarten in the fall, Fernandez has just focused on teaching her letters and numbers. But since Liliana is spending much of the morning sitting at the same table as her older sister and brother, she has picked up some words by osmosis and is starting to read a little herself.

“I haven’t really worked on that with her,” Fernandez said. “It’s just something that because she hears, she’s in the same room and hears what her brother and sister are doing.”

While Fernandez handles the teaching for her children, Brennan and her husband, Michael Snow, a stay-at-home dad, split the teaching duties at their house. Abby teaches in the morning before heading off to the spa, while Michael teaches in the afternoon.

“I do the reading the writing and science and art and he really does math, and he’ll do science as well if I can’t get to the science,” Brennan said. 

Brennan teaches from the kitchen table.

“It’s been a good experience for all of us,” Brennan said. “It’s definitely been hard, but everything [this year] has been hard.

Both Brennan and Fernandez like the flexibility that home schooling allows. They can shape their lessons to their values and interests and abilities of their children. For former art teacher Brennan, that means incorporating art and creativity into her lessons as frequently as she can.

“We’re always tying in that higher-order thinking,” Brennan said. “Some days it’s been more traditional like in a school. Other days we’ve done it a little more hands on or artistically.”

For Fernandez it means teaching values.

“We do Bible study, which is incorporated into our daily lessons,” Fernandez said. “That’s something that they wouldn’t get in the public schools, and it’s been great to be able to teach them that at home.”

Another aspect of the home schooling is being able to have school anywhere. About once of month on Thursdays Fernandez packs her kids in the car and they head off to rural east central Indiana to visit the grandparents. They have school at the grandparents’ house on Friday and then enjoy the weekend.

“They’ve enjoyed being able to do school from wherever they are,” Fernandez said.

Although they live just a couple of doors down from each other and their kids play together nearly every day, Brennan and Fernandez haven’t worked together on school much.

“She does her home schooling in a pretty different style than me,” Brennan said. “I tend to bring in a little more hands on and art. She does some but not as much.”

Neither Brennan nor Fernandez have followed a formal curriculum although Fernandez purchased a curriculum based on the teaching of Charlotte Mason, who was an English educational reformer active at the turn of the 20th century. 

The Charlotte Mason curriculum is religiously influenced and includes scripture studies. As she got more confident Fernandez became more creative and followed her own instructs.

“Definitely now I’m doing more on my own than through that curriculum that I purchased,” Fernandez said.

Brennan didn’t buy a curriculum

“I just focused on the state goals for the grade level and took it from there on my own,” Brennan said.

Neither Brennan nor Fernandez have focused much on testing. 

“I know where they are and if they’re meeting what I believe are the grade-level standards, that’s our goal,” Fernandez said. “I’ve never really been especially as a parent on who compares my kids to others.”

Brennan is not sure where how her kids stack up against their grade-level classmates who remained enrolled at Blythe Park this year, but she isn’t too concerned about it.

“We’re probably behind in some things and ahead in others,” Brennan said.

Both Brennan and Fernandez say that their children have really enjoyed home schooling. However, Brennan’s kids are definitely going back to Blythe Park next year, although she thinks it might be hard at first for her girls to be in different classes after having so much time together this year.

“I think the school can give them more than I can,” Brennan said. “We’ve been able to do a lot and a lot of it has been really, really great, but it has been hard.” 

Fernandez said that she too is leaning toward sending her kids back to Blythe Park next year, although her kids are lobbying to continue with home schooling. 

“I think it’s important for their social-emotional development for them to be around kids and also for them to have someone other than the mother teach them so they can just, interact with other adults,” Fernandez said. “That’s my only concern. Otherwise, I wouldn’t mind home schooling them. I would do it, no problem.”