Sunflowers in the Sandbox: A Reflection on Distance Learning during COVID-19

Sunflowers in the Sandbox: A Reflection on Distance Learning during COVID-19
Sarah Clark, Grade 1 Teacher

Each September, I bring sunflowers from my garden to school. I cut them down just before the squirrels and other neighborhood rodents think they are ripe enough to eat. The children in our lower school love to pull out the sunflower seeds and use them to decorate sand castles, bake them into their grass and rock recipes, and sometimes even exchange them as playground currency. It’s become a fall tradition. We get fine motor practice, an appreciation of patterns in nature, creative problem solving, and lots of social skills—all from sunflowers.

As we began the 2019-20 school year, I reflected on the teaching goal I selected for myself: speak less. I need to be more of a listener in my first grade classroom. I am continuously reminding myself that first graders need time and space to think things through more than they need to hear my voice. They don’t need me interrupting as they let a question, a problem, or an observation settle. They are busy collecting their own thoughts. I’m there, I’m observing, I’m posing challenges, offering feedback and reinforcement, but I don’t always need to fill the quiet. If I have done a good job, I will know when the children need or want my help. Otherwise, I can just shhh.

Then the world changed. Overnight. I am on Zoom calls with my students on “mute”. Wait time turns into “Are you frozen?” “Your connection is laggy.” “Try turning off your camera.” Only my voice, trying to sound normal through our morning meeting. Forgetting to let someone in from the waiting room, trying to figure out how to share my screen. I seem to yell when I’m on Zoom, as if I can close the distance with my voice, but I can’t. I make videos for asynchronous learning. I now hear only my voice, or sometimes no voice at all, because I have forgotten to turn on my microphone. “Spell this word; pause me while you write your answer.”  Are my students busy collecting their own thoughts? I don’t know.

It’s hard. We’re sad. The weather is lousy, and we are all overwhelmed. We are all also more fortunate than most. We have devices and internet access. We have homes, medical care and enough to eat. We have parents who are ready, willing and more able than many to help their students, but it’s not easy. Everyone is struggling to get motivated, figure out how things work, stay healthy, and do their own jobs. There’s not enough structure. There’s too much structure. So many screens. So much sitting.

Slowly, it starts to feel kind of normal. The governor tells us that we’re doing school this way for the duration of the school year, and that helps us settle in. We begin to build new routines. We find ways to organize ourselves. Online programs help skills move along. Companies step up and provide materials and support for free. Kids and parents learn how to use our recorded videos and the work we post online to get things done. Pretty soon, the kids start making their own videos: “Today I am going to talk to you about my rock collection.” “I am going to show you how to draw a cat.” We schedule one to one times. Kids read to me, show me their Lego collections, we play games. That 15 minutes of individual time is now my time to follow the kids’ lead, listen, and shhh.

It’s spring, and even from a distance, there is work to do. Plant your seeds. Collect rocks. Make a May calendar. Try this story problem. Hold up your work; I can screenshot it!  I am learning how to use this app; help me and try it out! I discover I can use my screen to give everyone a different math problem, changing them as they are solved. Kids figure out how to help each other. They troubleshoot their own technology issues, and they are proud of their work. I think the ee and ea vowel teams I am introducing in my mini-lesson will be new to my readers, but they recognize them right away. “You mean like in ‘leave meeting’?”

We are able to do most of our year end assessments, and lo and behold, there is growth. So many children have jumped a couple of reading levels. Kids have practiced more math facts than usual. They can do it on their own, and parents know this. First graders are writing books, songs and poetry. Some “arrive” early to a meeting just to share their latest project. They have chosen their own books to read and games to play. They have learned how to ride a bike, or make bread. They have helped their younger siblings, and recruited their older siblings back to the games and activities they used to love.

When I finally go back to the empty school building to pack up the kids’ desks, I look out the window to our playground. There, in the sandbox, are sprouts. So sad, I think:  weeds are growing where children should have been playing all these months. Then I look more closely. Those sprouts are sunflower seedlings. This is certainly the longest time our sandbox has gone uninterrupted.

The seeds have been waiting; collecting their thoughts. All we had to do was shhh. I scoop some out and bring them back home to my garden. Perhaps this was not exactly the kind of growth I was expecting, but I’ll take it.

Planting Sunflower Seeds

September 2019

Sunflower Seeds Spouted in the Sandbox

June 2020