Staying close — six feet apart

Building a classroom culture during a pandemic
Ara 1439

Each year on the first day of class, I do an icebreaker: an “onion” activity in which my high school students throw around a ball of crushed paper that they peel once the music stops playing in the background. Each crumpled sheet in the onion has a question the student answers after stating their name. What is one fear you have, and why? What is one hobby you enjoy doing alone? What fictional place would you most like to go?

The activity helps us build a community.

This year, when we began in-person classes, that activity was out. Group work and lessons had to be reconfigured to ensure everyone’s safety. I found myself rethinking everything.

How do I build relationships with students? How can we create a classroom culture that is close while being six feet apart? How can we care for each other, learn and feel safe during the pandemic with so much uncertainty? The culture of the classroom shifted, changed and was alien to all of us.

When I found out after my in-person classes had ended on Nov. 18 that all schools were going back to remote learning, I was crouched over my laptop, waiting for students to contact me with questions about their Google Classroom assignments. None of them did. But I received a text message from one of my students, Maria: “Did schools close?”

I wanted to comfort her and tell her that everything was going to be OK when, in reality, I had no idea.

That has been the biggest challenge about teaching during the pandemic: reassuring students that even though they can’t physically interact with each other, they still matter. Learning still matters even when the world seems to be falling apart.

When we were all in class again the next day remotely, I gave my students time to vent — to talk about their concerns and disappointments. They needed each other at that moment. I put aside the final paper discussion and allowed them to reflect on the last eight weeks of being together.

They typed in the chat, had their cameras on and shared their spaces with each other. They spoke about how the holidays will feel so different this year. They shared how they couldn’t do school at home: no space, no privacy and no way to be focused.

With schools back to a remote schedule for now, I worry about my students. I worry about how Maria is going to learn in a home environment that doesn’t seem to suit her. I worry that students who are already struggling with in-person instruction will feel even more deeply lost with remote teaching and learning.

As a special education teacher, I want to remind myself that building relationships with students is one of the only ways I can help them, especially during the uncertainty of the pandemic.

I’m preparing to teach a new class in a couple of weeks, this time remotely with co-teachers. I’m planning to start with an icebreaker that will allow us to build community.

Maybe I will give the onion activity another shot. No ball of crushed paper — instead, I’ll share my screen and post the questions.


Ara is the pseudonym for a fifth-year high school special education teacher in Manhattan.

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