January of 2021 came around and I set my role as Instructional Coach to the side so I could teach a group of 3rd graders. They were learning online the first semester with a different teacher and would be my students in person for the second semester. I worked to ready the classroom for them knowing my work would be far less about the space and far more about community. Switching teachers in the middle of the year is challenging for any class. Added to this were fears about leaving the security of their homes during a pandemic and returning to school in person. These kiddos were sure to carry big feelings.
My students arrived that first day with bright smiles to see me. They were thrilled to be amongst other children, to have unlimited books to choose from, and to play at recess and PE again. Still the day ahead seemed daunting, knowing they would be away from their families, pets, and the security their homes.
Our entire world was worried about the loss of instruction and learning gaps this pandemic was causing, and while I never could shake that worry monkey off my back, I saw my students fears first. It would be impossible to teach 3rd grade curriculum if I had not first made school feel safe and happy again.
The students were a group of clock watchers ticking time off the schedule anxiously. They needed me to verbally and physically check off each moment of our schedule to help them accomplish each new tasks. This was especially true when counting the seconds until snack time. When the moment finally came, they raced with relief as my classroom filled with everything from cucumbers and humus to Pirates Booty. I paused to take in this important moment, watching the stress and tension lift from their little 3rd grade shoulders. As they ate, the students told each other jokes and remembered their teachers and friends still online. Hearing their elation I captured that moment, determined to give them more school feelings like this.
The day carried on with back to school activities, and writing projects that stretched the students stamina and brought back the worries that come with it. Soon morning recess arrived and for a few minutes we were the only children on the playground. The giggles rang out as they ran to play. I watched as all types of children embraced each other thrilled to be outdoors swinging, climbing, and spinning. Nobody complained about the cold. Nobody was left out. Years in education had taught me that while recess is fun, it can also cause a lot of drama concerning sharing, competition, and cliques. Not with this class though, everyone was welcome. It was as if they decided to collectively preserve the purity of play. My students had such gratitude for free play outdoors and a chance to connect with peers I knew this was another moment to capture.
On we went like this through the winter months pushing our learning stamina further and further then releasing those stressor as we ate snack and played. Class read alouds also become a sacred time as we developed a deep connection to Opal’s struggle in Because of Winn-Dixie. I wasn’t surprised as characters always help us build empathy for each other.
The news about state testing creeped into our safe little classroom and the worries exploded again. Students couldn’t stop asking questions about what it would be like. I kept trying to reassure them, “You are so smart and capable of hard work. I know you can do it.” As they continued to share their feelings I realized their worries were a little bit about a fear of failure, but more so about the intensity of testing. They didn’t want to stare at that screen for so long and use so much brain power. We made a deal together. I promised if they would really focus, tackle this hard task and try their best, we would have popsicles and play each afternoon when testing was over. This small little promise released so much tension and even though they still worried, it had strengthened their resolve to work.
Weeks later, now in our last quarter of school, the students self-regulation and stamina for the school day had grown dramatically. Most important to me, we had built a happy community together. Little by little, were got into the routine of tacking on hard challenges because a break was coming. We made sure to celebrate every small moment of success to build our resolve for the next tough moment. We found a great escape not just in playing on the playground, but in the natural play that happened in our schools’ courtyard garden. We jumped from logs, dug in the dirt, planted a butterfly garden, and of course ate more popsicles.
In those finals days of school, I know I accomplished what I had set out to do. School was a safe and welcoming place where we could experience the joy of learning with our peers again. I sent them off into summer praying they would restore and enter 4th grade without trepidation.
Now back in my coaching role I am thinking of the whole building again. 710 students, give or take, will need this same consideration. We have a diverse mix of needs in our student population. Some did online school for just a few weeks, some a few months, and some students had a year and a half of online school. We also have students who were homeschooled and are back with us again. Some of our students faced unspeakable trauma during the pandemic. Even with the most stellar online teachers and rock star homeschooling parents, the transition back to inperson school is a big adjustment. No matter what the situation, I cannot help but wonder if all children need more popsicles and play right now. Even more so I cannot help but wonder if adults need more play too.
Two Story Melody released an article yesterday about Switchfoot’s new album Interrobang. In the interview Jon Foreman talks about how divisive our world became in the absence of play during this pandemic. When we join together to play music, sing the same songs, play a sport, or cheer on the same team we find commonalities in that shared experience of play. It’s a healing experience to play alongside one another.
Moving forward with this school year, I hope we protect and value play for adults and children alike. The lost learning will come but self-regulation and connection comes first. Then we will be ready to enter that focused thinking space again.
To all of the teachers out there, I hope you play your way through learning this school year.
Read more about my 3rd graders and how they transitioned to in person school read my blog post, Pandemic Teaching: 1 year later.
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