On March 12, my first-grade students said their “goodbyes” to their friends and teachers and trudged home with as many books, workbooks, school supplies and learning materials as we could stuff into their backpacks. We did not know when we would see them again but knew that somehow their learning would continue.
The events that spiraled out of control last March introduced our students to new words they had never known. They become fluent at pronouncing three-syllable words like “pandemic” and learned to understand how viruses traveled. What might have seemed like an event similar to a major snowstorm that would close schools for a period of days or weeks soon became more clear to us.
We grew to understand over time that our students would not be returning to school for the rest of the school year. As teachers, we did everything in our power to reach and teach our students, but we were stymied by the immediate pivot that was required from teaching in the classroom to teaching online.
Our staff began teaching using Microsoft Teams as our online platform to reach and teach our students. They began teaching from their garages, living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, patios, and closets. Our students’ parents began working from home and wearing multiple hats at once. They were employees and parents. But now they were also helping to facilitate their children’s learning.
We finished off the year in June, still in disbelief at what had happened. We made videos to teach our students new skills and shared them across grade levels with our teams. We learned to schedule Teams meetings and families learned to login in order to have their students participate in live online learning and classroom group experiences. Even the youngest of our children learned to mute and unmute themselves to participate in show-and-tell and to give and receive feedback from their peers.
My sweet first-grade students stared into their computers’ cameras in what looked like disbelief as their classmates showed up looking 2 inches tall for class meetings. I wondered what was going through their minds as they discovered the chat function and learned how to send GIFs of unicorns and kittens to each other and to type short sentences such as “I mis u.”
It was an emotionally trying time for teachers, students, and parents alike. Many tears were shed. One little girl struggled to get online. When I stopped by her house to visit and check in on her, I learned that she needed a computer. My principal took one to her the very next day and helped her to set it up. A few days later this little 6-year-old girl typed a message into the chat function of Teams when we were not meeting, and nobody was there to respond. She wrote, “Is anebuty ther? I am scard.”
I shed a lot of tears that day. It broke my heart that she was alone as she typed. That there was no one there to comfort her when she needed someone to assure her that things would be OK. Teachers, students, and parents knew that we were all feeling great big emotions and did our best to share them while online with each other and in emails. But we could not be together.
Nobody thought schools would remain closed in the fall. We were either overly optimistic or perhaps we had our heads in the clouds. Then as the summer wore on, some people’s desire to “mingle” took over their common sense, and in time the number of virus cases began to climax for a second time. It soon became clear that school would not be resuming with “in person” instruction at most of our area schools. Like deer in the headlights, we were stunned. How could this go on? It wasn’t fair! We hadn’t ever planned to live in a global pandemic; to see people struggle with job losses, scarcity of resources and increasing demands on the government for financial resources to see people through this challenging time.
I have two kids in college. My husband works in a small office and continues to go to work each day. My aging parents live less than a mile away. We made an effort to see them often but did not enter their home or have them enter ours. We celebrated my dad’s birthday around a firepit while masked in the back yard. Mother’s Day came and went without hugs or kisses for our aging moms. We all knew that the elders in our community were at the greatest risk to catch and in many cases, not recover from the damaging effects of the virus.
In late June just days after school was out, I visited my local Home Depot store and walked inside of a Tuff Shed. I was in awe: These small outbuildings represented space I had not known in recent months. I imagined how it might feel to work inside one of these sheds. What bliss to not have the barking dogs interrupt my Teams calls, or to have my children walking back and forth behind me as I taught. I often taught from the back patio under the patio umbrella to avoid worrying about the noise or the mess that surrounded me in my kitchen. After all, I did not have time to work 10 hours a day and clean the house while teaching from home. I craved a space of my own, as we all did. Not having any space dedicated to teaching, other than the kitchen island, was one of the hardest aspects of teaching from home in the spring. I had also recently climbed up into my kids’ weather-worn treehouse and was struck by the way it felt to be alone in a space so small that I could barely turn around, yet I was alone and without interruptions. It felt calming. Many people’s nerves were frayed from the constant noise and stimuli of virtual togetherness brought on by the pandemic.
One day when I was discussing my desire to buy a Tuff Shed with my 80-year-old retired dad, he said, “I could build you one of those!”
That piqued my interest, so I pursued the idea with him. The next week we staked out a spot in the back yard where he could build it. He managed people and projects for HUD for 38 years before retiring in 2002. He loved to stay busy and was never one to shy away from a building project. So he drew up some plans, and we discussed them. Then he showed up one day as he began the project with 2 by 6 pieces of wood attached to the side doors of his Toyota Camry. He began the dutiful march of delivering materials to my yard for several days in a row wearing old plaid shirts, jeans, and a faded baseball hat that said “The Greatest Grandpa.” He reminded me of an ant as he worked purposefully, and without any desire to make small talk, in my back yard.
My 22-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter were both taking summer classes at the University of Washington, but whenever they were free, he enlisted their help. My husband helped, too. They measured wood pieces, learned to use a level, lifted and moved heavy materials and helped to lay a foundation with cement blocks. Then they helped to build a frame for the 10-by-12-foot shed. My dad built window frames and installed the door and windows.
The little discovery den began to take shape. They wrapped it in plastic and put a roof on it with asphalt shingles that were leftover from two other roof projects that my dad had worked on years earlier. My dad ran up and down those ladders hundreds of times. Our goal was to build this space on a budget for as little money as possible. We used repurposed materials as much as we could. The work continued each day for six weeks. My dad told me that my job was to “stay out of the way.” I spent those weeks planning what the inside of the room would look and feel like.
I was a Peace Corps education volunteer in Niger, West Africa, and in the Philippines in the late 1980s. I lived in a house made of grass and bamboo in a mountain village in the Philippines for two years. I lived in a bush village in Niger, in a home made from clay, dung, straw and small bits of gravel. I lived without electricity or running water for 2 1/2 years between the two experiences and I loved it. I had kerosene lamps that I used to light up my small homes by night and carried water from the nearby artesian wells to shower with. The idea of working and living simply in a small room where I would be dependent on the natural light to see and do my work appealed to me.
I scoured local “Buy Nothing” postings and collected many of the things I thought I might need for my one-room schoolhouse including a computer stand, a bookshelf, puppets, baskets, and children’s books. I visited my local Value Village and Goodwill to find books and stuffed animals that I disemboweled to create puppets. I got an old carpet remnant from a church that was cleaning out a storage room, another bookshelf for $5 on Facebook marketplace, and book jackets to paper some of the walls of my classroom library.
I enjoyed passing time in my empty schoolhouse; listening to NPR with an extension cord, typing letters on a 1955 Underwood typewriter to old friends, and helping my dad to add insulation to the interior walls. We painted the exterior, and my dad added plasterboard over the insulation. It was almost done. My week of tech training began in late August, as we painted the interior of the Lightbulb Lab until well after dark each evening. My daughter got LED lights from Amazon that operate with batteries, and then it was moving day!
I was overjoyed to move my many finds into my little Learning Lab and make it look like a school. The district was beginning completely online again due to the recent spike in coronavirus case numbers. I had requested a completely “virtual” assignment for the year as I knew many of our district’s families had requested that for their children. Due to my age, and my family members’ health conditions putting them at increased risk for complications if they were to catch the virus, I was given a virtual assignment and set up shop in my Pandemic Palace (one of many names I gave it throughout the construction period) knowing that I would be there for 180 school days and an unknown period of challenge in the months ahead as I would work to understand and use the many types of technology provided for my students and their families by my school district.
I lined my puppets up along the wall as I thought about the names I would give them to help us learn and endure the next many months. “Resilient Rabbit,” “Flexible Fred,” “First Grade Fox,” his younger sibling “Kinderkitten,” “Old School Olga,” a triceratops who prefers things as they used to be, “Worried William,” a bear who will work with us to model the effort many of us will need to put forth to manage our worries and anxiety, and “Positive Polly,” a dog with pompoms attached to her paws who always looks at the bright side of things and will teach us to do the same.
The puppets hang on hooks and should help me to feel less alone and to emulate the virtues I want to teach my kids about in the months ahead. I have my red crown and flowing red “Royal Reader” robe which I will wear while I sit on a regal-looking red stuffed chair to read stories. The chair has a cigarette burn and a bit of white paint on the back (also bought secondhand), but I will add drama and flair to the stories I read, and speak to the kids about the importance of drama and voice in sharing stories to make them more interesting. I have a pink guitar, an autoharp and a ukulele to play as we sing away our concerns in the days ahead. I put a discarded whiteboard on the wall, the alphabet, calendar and posted several positive thoughts. My favorite is, “Never Let Anyone Dull Your Sparkle.”
I know that some would say I look a bit crazy while I talk with my “Pandemic Pal Puppets” online with my students. But I have to entertain them! I want them to stay with me and to buy what I am selling. They must remain curious and eager to learn!
I have arrived upon a final name for this little space I will teach in each day. I will call it “The Lemonade School.” Why? “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.”
COVID-19 is the most colossal of all of the lemons I have ever encountered as an elementary-school teacher. It is way worse than 9/11 ever was. It is worse than the 2002 earthquake. It is worse than all of the other countless horrible things that have happened in any of my students’ lives or in my own since I began teaching 27 years ago. But it doesn’t have to remain a “lemon.” There is joy to be had. There are songs to be sung. There are stories to relish.
On the day before school begins, I will deliver a lemon to each of my students’ doorsteps. I will teach them the steps to cut and squeeze a lemon, and to add ice, water and sugar to make it the most refreshing drink they could ever hope to taste. I will leave a lemon on my desk throughout the school year to remind myself that attitude is everything. That lemon will also remind me that there is always a silver lining and that if I try hard enough to make memories and teach with love and resilience, all the while modeling patience and flexibility, that I can continue to impact lives and make a positive difference in the lives of the children I teach.
The Lemonade School has uncertain days ahead. I don’t know what the fall and winter will hold, but I do know that spring and summer will come again, and my hope is that I will be able to meet my children in person at some point in the future; at that my little Lemonade School Graduates will have mastered the art of looking for light in the dark, joy in trying times, and for laughter and lemonade in a small wooden shed and inside their own hearts as they continue to journey on into their future lives.