Lately I’ve come back to the same image when I fantasize about having every student back in the classroom, particularly the 8th graders I love so much. They are maskless. They need no sanitation. And, most of all, they sprawl.

These middle schoolers lean shoulder to shoulder across desks that they’re pushed together, sharing neon paint markers for a poster project. They jut their legs into aisles, enough that I step delicately. They carve out a corner to sit in while creating a group slides presentation. Some lean back in their desks, while others lie on their stomachs. 

Owning Space in the Classroom

I didn’t realize until the pandemic just how much this state of sprawl is my ideal classroom setting. It’s not as if it happens all the time. Many times, my middle school civics students are in their desks, maybe getting up for a gallery walk or turning to someone near them to share a current event — still more traditionally seated than I want. But on the best days, when they’re mid-project, they eke out space where I thought there was none, at the tables outside my classroom in the California sunshine or inside on the blue-carpeted floor. They stretch their bodies while stretching their minds.

On such days, I feel I’m just the coach, a fluid element of the scene, flitting from one group to another. I might suggest a tweak to a citation or ask which keywords they’ve tried in a database search. But they are in the groove, self-driving, open to possibility. We have days left to finish whatever project is on deck, whether a spoken word poem or a reformers research paper. We have all the time and space in the world. 

Neither of which we have now, in Los Angeles, still stuck on screens after eleven months. Zoom breakout rooms offer the advantage of undistracted attention toward the students within, but I can no longer flit. I can’t scan the room, hear from the corner of my ear a conversation that sounds in need of focus, experience the joy of a breakthrough idea, ask a group what made them laugh. I’ve lost a tool I never would have called a tool before: the power of walking around. 

Walking Around Campus

Beyond my classroom these days, as an administrator, each day I do walk around our fairly empty  campus. Teachers can teach from their classrooms if they like, and maybe a quarter of faculty have decided to do that. A number of staff also hole up in individual offices. In the fall many of us had lunch together in small groups on the patio, able to talk even though each person often took a separate table. 

But in December and January,  the cases in L.A  rose shockingly high. Even now, with a stay-at-home order partially lifted, the ICUs remain challenged. Our kitchen has closed for the safety of its staff. Most days I take my sweet potato salad or turkey sandwich to a corner balcony table overlooking our field, eating alone as our Covid task force has suggested. The sun warms my back while I read a young adult novel or watch videos from Broadway musicals on my phone. The field has never looked more pristine, kelly green. 

A daily walk these days around our mostly outdoor, 7.5-acre campus does yield two small yet tangible benefits: the coffee urns, which one member of the kitchen staff still leaves outside on a steel cart each morning, and a Halloween-worthy range of mini candy bars, which our front office manager arranges outside her window. While pressing the decaf lever, with a napkin so as not to share germs, I might run into a science teacher or a member of the facilities staff. While deciding whether I’d like a dark Milky Way or peanut butter Snickers, I might get to greet one of our security team, helming the locked front gate.

Walking around, seeing the occasional adult, is not the same as buzzing through my indoor-outdoor classroom during project work. But it soothes, however faintly, a similar need of checking in, seeing each other’s faces, moving ahead the work we do one day to the next. 

When We Return

Once we are back on campus, I hope we do not become inured to the power of being together, physically, in person. I don’t think we will. The giddy joy will be too much to forget quickly.What I do think we’ll need is to harness the alchemy of inhabiting space together — in a classroom, on the field, on the lunch patio. For sure, I will keep walking around, grabbing a cup of coffee, choosing my daily candy. But, above all, I want to create as many “moments of sprawl” as possible with my students. These moments, I’ve realized, are another way of saying that I’ve relinquished control and am helping these 8th graders become the people they want to be — or don’t even yet know they want to be but are hoping they might figure out soon. It’s middle school, after all, the beginning of adult identity exploration. All I want is a front-row seat.