By Jessica Salfia
My classroom is a strange place to me these days.
Desks are spaced far apart. My reading rug, easy chair, and bean bags in my book nook are gone. My snack table is empty. Craft supplies are packed away. Chrome books are out daily.
Every lesson is highly structured, virtually accessible, and planned days in advance so that students at home can learn with us synchronously.
Like a jazz musician, good teachers improvise and riff to get a lesson just right. I love to improvise. I don’t as much anymore.
My face is covered. My voice is muffled.
My students’ faces are covered. I can’t tell if they’re smiling. If their mouths are tightening in frustration or confusion. If the corners of their lips are turned down in sadness or anger. I still don’t know what all of them look like below the eyes.
I am grateful for the emphasis on safety. My school is prioritizing our health and the health of our communities. But this new normal has made not just the desks, but my teaching feel scrubbed, sanitized, and sterile.
In the first weeks of school, this feeling had me laid low. I hated being in a place I didn’t recognize, and I hated being unrecognizable. I curled my lip at the blue plastic gloves crinkling against my hands when I wiped down the desks. I despaired at how empty my classroom space felt—how disconnected I felt from my students. All my “teacher tricks” had be adjusted for safety. No icebreakers, no gathering around butcher paper to annotate a text, no popping out into the stairwell or hall space for a discussion activity. Even something as easy as grinning has been taken away. No matter how big I smile, none of them can see it.
I like to get my hands dirty—to take my students on adventures. I love field trips and projects.
I love the unpredictability, the wildness. More than once, I have compared being a teacher to my time as a whitewater rafting guide on the Cheat River in West Virginia, and this has always been one of my favorite analogies—the excitement, the visceral nature of it, the necessary teamwork for survival, the “we’re all in this boat together” feeling.
But at first, even in the same classroom…it felt like we were alone together—each of us staring at our own screens, not grouping, not sharing supplies, not high fiving. The masks seem to make students more reluctant to share responses and discuss aloud in class. The spaced out desks keep them far enough away that private comments, jokes, or bits of gossip are near impossible.
I didn’t want it to feel hard to come to a place that for so long had been joyful and comfortable to me. I began exploring ways to connect us in our new unconnected world–I started trying to figure out how to make my classroom a space I recognized again.
The first week of school I started filling empty space with plants, mostly because I wanted the strangely quiet, sanitized classroom to feel alive.
I put a giant pothos on top of my filing cabinet, a small jade plant on my desk, some Christmas cactus cuttings in pots around the room, and small bonsai ficus tree that had been on my back porch in the windowsill behind my desk. I filled the widely spaced space with as much green as I could. I bought a fish—a tiny betta named J.J. that swims contentedly in a tank on the corner of my desk. I liked seeing J.J.’s whole unmasked fish-face in the room.
And I kept going. I kept trying new things. Kept showing up.
Two weeks into the school year, I noticed a tiny seedling unfurling in the same pot as the bonsai tree.
I started to pluck it but stopped. Something wild had blown into the pot while it was on my porch and it had germinated and taken root while resting in my classroom windowsill.
That same day a student in one of my AP classes cracked a joke while analyzing an advertisement. The whole class threw back our heads and laughed together loudly and for a second it felt like…normal.
I stared at the seedling and thought about those kids laughing, and then watered it along with the bonsai.
Every day since, I have watched my strange little seedling grow as I’ve tried to figure out at least one or two more ways to successfully navigate my strange new classroom. Some of them have worked. Some of them haven’t. This isn’t a best practices blog post. I’m not sure there is a “best” for anyone right now.
But what I have tried to do is to stop concentrating on the ways this wasn’t the class I recognized, and I’ve focused on what might blow in, germinate, and grow here.
A peer review activity failed. But a collaborative Google Slide Vocabulary activity didn’t. Not being about to circle up tight for discussion is hard, but discussion board posts are eliciting thoughtful discussion. Every task is an adjustment to see what will take root.
This year has forced me to be more comfortable with Schoology than I ever have been. I keep asking my students for feedback on what is working and what isn’t. I toss out anything that doesn’t seem to work. I celebrate anything that does.
After a week the tiny seedling had sprouted big enough leaves that I could tell what it was: clover. A clover seed had blown into the pot.
I kept watering it.
My classes were starting to open up too. Nothing would be like it was, but the kids in front of me were and are getting comfortable and like me, they were and are determined to make the best of their class experience. I adore them. They are joyful learners and I am grateful for them.
This week my tiny patch of wild clover looks like this.
I can’t explain why, but this little bit of wild makes me believe that maybe something can grow this year. And don’t get me wrong, this post is not to tell you that I think everything is going to be ok or that my little classroom weed is a symbol of resilience or hope.
I’m not sure everything is going to be ok. And there have been many days that I haven’t felt hopeful.
The same day I am writing this post, our county has shifted to remote instruction because our cases have steadily increased in my district. I don’t know if my students will be returning to my classroom next week or the week after.
I walked into my empty classroom yesterday and spent the first two hours of the day just answering student emails. I spent another two uploading and creating digital content. I recorded two videos, and I had two more to record after I got home before I called it night.
Before I left yesterday, I looked around at the empty space, even stranger and emptier without my students. I hoped that everything I had uploaded and created for them made sense. I hoped they saw value in it.
I tilted a plastic water bottle over my bonsai and my tiny patch of wild clover and hopefully soaked the soil with its first water of the week.
I don’t know if the clover is going to keep growing or if it should even be in the pot with the bonsai tree. But I am going to keep watering and see what takes hold.