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Six feet apart, but closer than ever

Lessons of the Pandemic

Editor’s note: Despite the many obstacles of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have seen positives shine through in the form of lessons — and gifts — they’ve experienced as a result of being forced to try new things. This school year, School News Network is sharing those experiences from teachers throughout Kent ISD. We’d love to hear yours, too. Please email your thoughts to SNN@kentisd.org for possible inclusion in a future issue.  

SNN: As an educator, what have you found to be some lessons or gifts of the pandemic? Were there any unexpected positives that came from these difficult circumstances?

Andrew Sargent

Andrew Sargent, Lowell fifth-grade teacher at Alto Elementary School:

For 13 years straight, I have created a “class web” with my students on the first day of school. We all sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle on the floor and I start the web by pinching some yarn between my fingers. I introduce myself to the new faces before me and say what I’m excited about for the new school year. I then roll the ball of yarn to a student across from me and it is their turn to pinch the yarn, say their name and say what they are looking forward to during the year. This process repeats itself until all the students are pinching the yarn and a giant web has been created across the circle. 

At the end, when everyone is holding on tightly and not letting go, I emphasize the strength of the web. Sometimes, I even put a book on part of it to show that it won’t fall through. Then I’ll ask a couple students to let go of their part of the yarn. Immediately, the web loses its strength and starts to droop. I’ll ask even more students to let go, and eventually the whole class lets go and the web collapses. 

Throughout the year I will remind students that the class web is at its strongest when everyone is holding on and doing their part. Even if one of us lets go, it isn’t as strong as it can be. 

When the first day of the 2020-2021 school year came about, I knew I still wanted to do my 14th class web, but also knew it would have to look different than years past. We started our year in a hybrid model and I only had half of my total class on that first day. New expectations required students to remain six feet apart as much as possible and social distancing was the new normal. There were recess zones for classes and lunch was eaten in the classroom instead of the cafeteria. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and passing yarn around from one student to the next seemed like it was the exact opposite of what I should be doing. Nonetheless, I was determined to have my students experience a class web, because I knew how important building a sense of community would be for this particular year. 

On that first day, I took the first half of my class, the “red group,” out to the football field and asked them to make a giant circle while standing six feet apart. We were going to make a web no matter what; the only thing that would prevent it would be me running out of yarn since the kids were so far apart! Instead of starting the web myself, I had a student start it. I walked the ball of yarn to the next student, and the next, and the next, until the web was complete. I did the same thing the next day with the other half of my class, the “white group,” and was really proud of how the students all handled it. 

‘Truly Extraordinary’

Usually throughout a school year I will hear a student refer to the web every now and then: “Remember, we all need to hold on tight to the web!” or, “If you let go of the web, it affects all of us!” However, during the 2020-2021 school year, the class web seemed to perpetually hover over both the students and me. The way my students came together, even though they were physically the farthest apart they’d ever been, was truly extraordinary. Never before have I experienced such a sense of community with a class, and I can guarantee the students felt the same way. We all knew that no matter what, we were experiencing the hardships from the pandemic together. Whether we liked it or not, “together” was something we were going to be for the entire year, and my students stepped up like I’d never seen before. There was never a group activity where one student was left out. Friendships blossomed that may never have existed in the first place. If someone was having a hard time, everyone rallied around them and gave encouragement. 

I found that the learning happened as it always does — probably even more so than in years past — but the sense of community was magnified tremendously. I never knew how resilient kids could be until that school year, and I am so impressed with how my students held on to their part of the web and reminded each other to do the same. It’s as if they could always picture the yarn between them, keeping them connected to each other even though they remained physically apart. 

I will never forget my 2020-2021 school year. To my amazement, that’s not because of how scary or challenging it was, but because of what it taught me firsthand about the importance of building relationships and a sense of community within a classroom.

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Rockford, Lowell, Grandville and Cedar Springs. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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