On the eve of March 17th, the schoolhouse was vibrating with energies of all kinds. Teachers, support staff, and administrators gathered together to collect materials to furnish Home Learning Kits. We met in the morning and worked until the late hours of the night. I recall thinking that I had never been on campus in such darkness, yet we were all fueled by such light and hope as educators.
At the time, I was not afraid. I was in crisis-management mode. The mission was clear: help the children to not be afraid, and deliver as much normalcy as possible. Together with an incredible support team, we assembled learning kits that had familiar materials in them: a wooden alphabet set, fabric number flags, a kit to grow your own beanstalk, a magnifying glass, a carving tool, a nature journal, and a journey stick, to name a few. These items materialized over the course of 24-48 hours by the loving hands of the preschool staff. The packages were beautiful. When they were all lined up on the art room table, I was taken aback by what we had been able to accomplish in such little time. I had never been more proud of our team.
Fast forward two weeks. This civil emergency was not showing any signs of dissipating. My days were filled with sporadic moments of deep sobs, not knowing if I would see the children before the end of the year and wishing that I had just held them a little tighter on that last day we were together. Amongst these fleeting moments of what felt like hopelessness, I felt a spark ignite deep within me. It whispered to me that what the children (and the world) need now is authentic interactions.
How do we authenticate relationships that have now been reduced to screen time and virtual gatherings? It all felt incredibly wrong. Juniper Hill School is a tiny little school nestled in a small rural town in midcoast Maine. We exist in this wonderful, and often magical, screenless world in the woods. Our preschoolers call a forest cottage their home base for school and had just begun to ask if they could be barefoot when the temperature broke 40 degrees. Spring was so close we could taste it.
Spring is a time when these tiny humans begin to see the world in a new, big way. Everywhere they turn there is something bright and fresh. Their world is illuminated with a light that revitalizes their spirits. Letters and numbers seem to emerge everywhere. The connections being made are innumerable and exciting. Children disappear into trees, beaming with a newfound confidence every inch of the way.
It struck me on Day 11 of this pandemic that I, that we, would not witness any of this magic. I could almost hear my heart breaking.
So, I started cutting out hearts. Prior to the school closure, every day for 8 weeks, the children would routinely put their belongings away in their cubbies and then promptly visit the art table outside the forest cottage. There they would stay, and return many times throughout the day, drawing, painting, and cutting out hearts. Just a few days before our lives shifted, one of the children had drawn her first heart on her own!
I traced and cut for hours. Making enough hearts to send to the children to last two weeks. Each child would receive 5 hearts a week. One for each day we learn at home together. I too am making hearts to keep track of our time apart. Today we each have 30 hearts. No two hearts are the same. They are all colorful and bright, reminiscent of their morning greetings.
The hearts were the start of a delightful weekly practice not only for the children, but also for me. I was reacquainted with my love of creating, color exploration, and multiple mediums. Each week the hearts take on a new theme that is undoubtedly influenced by each of the children.
An outstanding by-product of this project is that the entire class has become penpals. On the hardest of days, there seems to be a handwritten note or drawing in my mailbox from one of the children. I have been inspired to send the children things that silently allow them to be seen, heard, and loved from afar. This has been my breath in a time where the state of the world had initially left me breathless.
About the Author:
Adrienne Hofmann is the Lead Preschool Teacher and Early Childhood Department Chair at Juniper Hill School in Alna, Maine.