During a meeting back in October with my fifth grade teaching partners and principal, I expressed that I was worried about one of my students. “I’m really concerned that Jill does not have a close friend in the current cohort. She needs that connection to feel safe,” We were working to place our students into cohorts of 10-12 kids each as we were moving from a full distance model of school to a hybrid model. In our hybrid model, students would remain with the same cohort of children for all activities both in and out of the classroom each day- they would learn together, eat together, and play together with no physical exposure to any other children at school. So, we spent quite a bit of time creating, rethinking, and then recreating our cohort placements. Ultimately, many of the placement decisions ended up being out of our control as we had to ensure siblings were in the same cohort time frames in addition to a few other considerations as well. So, we did not have as much flexibility as we would have liked.
On our first day back I was worried for Jill as her two closest friends were placed in a different cohort. The first hour and a half of the day went smoothly. We reacquainted ourselves with physically being back in school and of course read some great books! Around 9:30 that morning, I decided to bring my students outside for some unstructured extra play time. I figured that they had not been with other children in 8 months, so the more play time together, the better! As students moved into our designated play zone for the day (each cohort is assigned a rotating play zone everyday in order to stay physically distanced from other cohorts), I noticed Jill stayed back a ways and just observed the others. The rest of the kids quickly gathered together (at a safe distance of course) and started chatting. It looked like they were figuring out what to do. I’m a firm believer in allowing kids the space and freedom to structure their own play time, so I decided to hang back and just observe. As a little more time went on, the kids all moved into a game with jump ropes. They all grabbed ropes, helped tie a few together, and formed a line to take turns running into the spinning jump rope two at a time. It brought me immense joy to watch them giddily play together after months of being separated. However, Jill was still hanging back on her own.
As I was about to walk up to Jill to invite her to play with the other kids, Layla, another student in class, looked over and gleefully yelled, “Jill, what are you doing? Come play with us!” I took a step back and just looked at Jill. As she quickly glanced up from whatever she was staring at on the ground, a smile grew across her face, and she ran over to the other kids to join the jumping line. That’s all it took.
Every single day since, Jill’s cohort has played together like a family out at recess and during extra play time. All kids in the cohort of ten are always included. They do this completely on their own without my prompting. Instead of small groups of two or three children doing their own separate things, they always make it a point to play as a whole group. The ten of them, all coming from different friendship groups in previous grades, have become a caring and nurturing bubble of classmates. Not only do they continue to play together without my intervention, but they also share their personal poetry with each other, audibly laugh with each other in class (mostly at my frustration with tech issues!), and even resolve conflict with each other in a compassionate way. Our days are not always without conflict, but that conflict is now met with a layer of compassion that’s much deeper than I’ve ever previously observed as a teacher.
Someone recently asked me how I work to foster friendships in a hybrid model classroom. I honestly answered that the kids have done it themselves. They just needed the adult around them to get out of the way. Or, I should say, they needed the adult around them to give them the space to apply what they have learned and experienced as humans living in a pandemic to build relationships with the people around them. It didn’t matter that Jill wasn’t placed in a cohort with her best friends. What mattered on that first day back and still matters now is that the people with her value her as a fellow human being and she values them as well. Friendship was found in simple, beautiful ways because of our situation, not in spite of it. Imagine if I would have intervened with Jill that day. I would have taken away that feeling of acceptance she felt coming directly from the other kids. Adult intervention is definitely necessary at times, but more often than not, the kids just don’t need us- and we have to recognize what a beautiful thing that is!
Interestingly, when chatting with students’ caregivers at our conferences a couple weeks ago, a few parents mentioned that they were concerned at first because their child’s close friend was placed in a different cohort, but that the concern quickly faded as new friendships were immediately formed. In talking with a few of my colleagues, they are also noticing the same level of new friendships blossoming as well.
Whether our kids are in a full distance, hybrid, or even back to a full classroom model of learning, one thing I know is true. Our kids have realized and prioritized the importance of friendships and relationships during this trying time- whether those relationships are developing in-person or online, human connection matters now more than it ever has before. Being physically away from others has really demonstrated how important we all are to one another.
We have gone through so much loss as a global community. Our children have not been spared from this loss. In these overwhelmingly difficult times, friendship, love, and compassion for each other have been found and fostered. It’s not perfect. After all, who has ever heard of a perfect friendship or a perfect love? But, it is real and it is perhaps more important than anything else. Authentic human relationships and budding or growing friendships have been shining lights in the darkness of this pandemic. Our kids see it, believe in it, and most importantly, act upon it. It’s time for us to follow their lead.
Learning Gain #2 of this series, Mistakes Modeled, is coming out soon. Click on the follow button to have the post delivered to your inbox or check back here in a few days. Until then, follow the lead of our kids- they clearly know what they’re doing!