When we departed for spring break on March 6th, I certainly did not expect that the next time that I’d see the Abrome Learners in-person was going to be on September 8th. But after six months of responding to the unknown, of trying to protect our community and support our Learners through a pandemic (and an economic recession/depression, and an uprising in response to systemic racism and police brutality, and in anticipation of potential political unrest in November), fumbling through Self-Directed Education via videoconferencing (not at all sufficient), and aggressively trying to come up with a plan that would allow us to be together while still protecting each other, yesterday we finally got to come back together as a community. Sort of.

We came back to a plan to be broken up into small, physically distant operating cells of no more than seven Learners each. These operating cells would be meeting in outdoor public spaces, and would remain outdoors all day. And the cells would be together for three weeks at a time, and then after a nine day break we would shuffle the participants of the cells before meeting in-person, again. And even though we would be outside, we would still wear masks when near each other. We felt it would be the healthiest way to come back together in terms of stopping the spread of Covid-19 as well as supporting the mental, social, emotional, and physical needs of Learners. So we came back together as a community, divided by two, about 20 minutes apart from one another. And it was great to be back together, physically, with half the community.

My cell consisted of Learners from previous years plus two new Learners. And Lauren, a Facilitator-in-training that will be training with us for this entire cycle. We also had two Learners who could not join us on the first day so the plan was to patch them into our meetings remotely, as well as a Learner from the other cell who needs to be remote for the first week or two. The hotspot worked great, except at the place that we were trying to hold our initial meeting, so we could not get the people who were checking in with us remotely to fully experience our morning meeting. (And because we are agile we are already changing up how we will support remote Learners when everyone else is outdoors.)

At Abrome we believe in mixed-age learning, so the Learners who were in-person in my cell ranged in ages from 6- to just a couple days shy of 16-years-old, plus we had two Facilitators who aged into their mid-forties. We introduced ourselves to each other by sharing our names, pronouns, what we were excited about, and what we were worried about. As with all initial meetings for most people, there was some shyness and reservation from folks, but when we queued up a get to know you activity people started to loosen up. Next we addressed our basic principles and agreements and then decided to adjourn the meeting so that we could all go on a walk together. During the walk we pointed out and talked about the things we should think about now that we would be spending our days outdoors, such as heat exhaustion, poison ivy, fire ants, and falling tree limbs. We also talked about taking care of ourselves and each other through preventative Covid-19 practices.

Playing a game of fire keeper

Playing a game of fire keeper

When we finished our walk with a brief stop at a public restroom we sat down near the shore of a lake. A couple people pulled out their lunches and others used the opportunity to investigate the mud, shore, and plants that were around us. I got to have a longer conversation with one of the new Learners which was really nice. We spent a good amount of time there just being around each other, listening to one another and sharing ideas and experiences. I then asked if anyone wanted to play a game and we agreed to give the game “fire keeper” a try. In that game one person is blindfolded and armed with a squirt bottle that they will shoot at people who are sneaking up trying to put out the fire (in this case we had a set of keys that they were trying to take without being squirted with water). We played this game for over an hour, trading out positions whenever someone successfully put out the fire, and using hand sanitizer between turns.


We weren’t the only operating cell that had a great first day — these Learners got to explore a creek bed

Burnt out from the games we collectively decided it would be a good idea to get in the shade so we went on a hike where we got to see the abundance of poison ivy lining the trail we were walking along. On the walk we focused on noticing what was around us such as plants with thorns, berries that had fallen into the trail, a lizard that was overrun by ants, and erosion from the lake. It turned out to be a nice little workout that left Learners with tired legs and an eagerness to sit down. At the end of the walk we were able to refill water bottles which gave us the opportunity to talk about how much water we should be consuming.

And these masked Learners got to catch up after six months apart

And these masked Learners got to catch up after six months apart

At the end of the day we had our afternoon roundup. First we played a game called mind melt and then we shared with each other what we thought of the day using the rose, bud, thorn approach to reflection. We highlighted something that was really nice, in full bloom (rose); something that had potential for the future (bud); and something that maybe wasn’t so great, that maybe hurt (thorn). By this time in the day, with everyone tired and more comfortable around each other, even the youngest Learners eagerly shared their reflections of the day. If we had to take measure of the day based on roses versus thorns I would have been satisfied with the grade. We don’t grade or measure our days. But we care about awarenesses such as did we connect with others, did people feel included and supported, were there experiences that Learners benefited from, and did we strengthen our community, today? My take is the answer to each of those questions was yes. So from my perspective, it was a great first day of coming together outdoors while society tries to figure out what pandemic schooling should be.