The great debate: cameras on or off

Since last spring, teachers everywhere have been debating cameras. Should students be mandated to have them on? Does such a requirement cross the line?

I think this debate has died down a lot in recent weeks, but it’s still out there. In the fall, I heard teachers openly refer to this issue as a “fight” that they were not going to lose. I’m sorry, but it’s highly disturbing that the word “fight” was actually used to describe this situation. A solution they had was calling home in the middle of class anytime a student’s camera was not on and insist that it be turned on (or be given a legit excuse from their parent as to why it’s not on). Some colleagues didn’t feel this way in September, but do now. My school even made cameras being on a school policy for remote learning. The policy failed. (Personally, I would have liked an acknowledgement of this, but that’s another issue.)

Given all the variables that have dominated our students lives’ over the past year, many of which I will never understand, I’ve found requiring cameras to be on to be a wee-bit obsessive and authoritarian. Colleagues have told me that they find it useful to observe crinkled eyebrows when a student doesn’t understand something. It enables teachers to connect with their kids because they can see their faces. They’ve also mentioned that some students are sleeping in class and having their camera on would help these students be more engaged.

I get the fuss behind it all, I just don’t buy it. I’m not saying that seeing my students wouldn’t be valuable. It would be, I’d love to see them. I just don’t know if it’s worth the tradeoff of all the energy (and class time) spent trying to demand compliance on something that’s largely out of my control. Besides, I’m already balancing enough…I’m trying to ensure all my Chrome windows are open, manage breakout rooms, make sure that I’m unmuted, and keep my computer from falling off its stand — let alone facilitating learning around math! And don’t let me get started on the workload outside of class and how that has at least doubled my grading and planning time.

Of the energy I have left, I’d much rather spend it finding creative ways to reach students that meet them where they are. I’d rather work towards building trust with my kids to the point where they want to be seen on camera. (It’s still not working, but hey.) And, for what’s it worth, I’m not sure that having my students cameras on would impact my “teaching” all that much. I use quotes here because I don’t consider what I’ve been doing to be worthy of being considered teaching in any sense of the word.

I also think that requiring cameras to be on disregards students’ social and emotional development. It’s a very teacher-centric policy. It overwhelmingly benefits me, not my students. For young people, there’s a heavy social risk to comes with having the camera on — especially for middle and high school students. For these kids, image is everything. This is true with their in-person interactions, let alone those that happen online, which is an even bigger deal for many of them. Requiring students to have their cameras turned on — even in a controlled setting like a Zoom session — fails to honor this. It ignores the steep vulnerability comes with being seen online. It fails to consider the fear that kids have of being screenshotted by a classmate they don’t know and turned into a meme that goes viral.

I would close there, but there’s another aspect to all this camera talk that I find utterly fascinating…and it has nothing to do with the feasibility or morality of the camera on or off debate. It’s how losing my ability to see my students has affected my other senses. For example, I feel like I’ve been able to pick up on the slightest variations of voice when a student decides to speak in class. Did they just pause? Are they speaking slower than they did two days ago? Why? The same is true for the chat. I’ve never paid more attention to my students’ writing than I have now. My other senses have definitely piqued because I can’t see them.

I’m probably over-reading my sparse interactions with students these days, but can’t help it. It’s all I have. To drive this point home further, I do wonder how my implicit biases have surfaced as a result of not seeing my students. Despite my over-analysis and lack of research into the matter, I feel there are very real implications for my teaching in this area. Given that I’ll never actually get see some of my students, I may never know how my biases have shifted in the virtual world. It’s interesting to speculate, though.


Back in the building

This week was crazy. Students and staff were back in the building. There were many emotions.

For one, seeing students for the first time in months caused some first-week-of-school jitters. There was a newness present throughout the building that was undeniable. Excitement and hope filled the space between us as I sat with students during their lunch and bantered. It was fun, but also awkward. I didn’t really know what to talk about with them given how synthetic our interactions have been. Some students expected me to instantly recognize them, although I’ve never seen them before. It’s odd feeling to be standing in front of someone with whom you’ve had daily interactions with online for months, whom you’ve showed parts of your apartment, family, and home life…yet whom you’ve never seen in the flesh.

Those jitters were mixed in with thankfulness as I reunited with colleagues. Almost every day Brother D and I went for a walk during our prep period for coffee and tea. I didn’t tell him, but I didn’t care much for the coffee or tea. I just wanted to share the sidewalk with him and listen.

Then there was the access to a whiteboard that made doing an example on Zoom so joyful. It made teaching and learning tangible again, things I could grab, hold, erase. I didn’t realize how much I missed getting marker smudges on my knuckles.

For the first time in my life, this week I was faced with the fact that I’ll be teaching math in a gym. With glistening floors and sports banners and locker rooms nearby, I was thrown for a loop. Interestingly, there is a whiteboard there that I used, which makes the experience even more bizarre. On multiple occasions I grabbed a basketball and made layups when a student gave a correct answer. That was a blast.

And speaking of the gym, this week also brought about pain. Physical pain. I enjoy playing basketball so I spent a few of my mornings before school throwing up some shots in the gym. Well, on Thursday, feeling high off of a week of being back in building, I did a wicked spin move in the lane and tweaked my back. I hobbled off the court. Ugh.

On top of all that, there were parent-teacher conferences. This was the cherry on top. When meeting to parents, I found myself reaching for moments that weren’t there. I think I was searching for meaning. I know my students’ experiences with me have been largely transactional, focused mainly on submitting assignments and me attaching a number to their work. But I tried to escape from this fact at conferences and found myself believing that this year has been more than that. Sadly, it hasn’t. Parents and their kids — my students — came and went hurriedly. I was left stranded, wanting more.

Come to think of it, I suppose many weeks over the last year have brought about roller-coasters of emotions that were similar to the one I rode on this week. Maybe this week wasn’t that crazy. Maybe I just decided to write it down.


My two cents (Week of Mar 22, 2021)

For each school day of the 2020-21 school year, I will be writing two sentences to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had that day. This is the 24th post in the series.

Monday (Mar 22)
Today was the first day back at school with students present. Out of nowhere, access to a whiteboard and dry erase markers launched me into a dizzying state of excitement while introducing my students to complex numbers; at the end of one of my classes, a student remarked sarcastically, “Mister, this was one of the best lessons ever!”

Tuesday (Mar 23)
The whiteboard action was so infectious today that, when 5th period opened with a lack of engagement, I held down a playful, two-minute conversation with my whiteboard; I told it how much I missed it’s these last several months and promising to reunite as much as possible with its marker friends. I also had pleasant lunch outside in the courtyard with a bunch of students who opted in for in-person learning.

Wednesday (Mar 24)
Because of in-person scheduling headaches and space constraints, I’m now teaching my ninth period class in the gym. Today, after HR (who hasn’t given one answer over the mic all year) voiced several correct responses in a row, I ecstatically grabbed a basketball from the utility closet and made a layup at nearby basket in her honor (not going to front: I was so happy that it took me two attempts).

Thursday (Mar 25)
After FD left his pod to walk by mine (they were next door to each other) to giggle at me while I was teaching his class, I bee-lined into his room to steal his tablet (he was in the bathroom). I brought it back to my pod, changed his screen name, and turned on his camera; after several minutes he eventually discovered it was me — thanks to his friends who dimed me out — and came into my pod laughingly to retrieve it.

Friday (Mar 26)
In preparation for an AP exam, a colleague had her students come to school for some actual in-person learning (no screens) in the courtyard; having taught many of her students before, I paid them a visit. I was excited, but also awkward; it felt weird to be sharing the same air without two laptops and a slab of plexiglass between us.


My two cents (Week of Mar 15, 2021)

For each school day of the 2020-21 school year, I will be writing two sentences to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had that day. This is the 23rd post in the series.

Monday (Mar 15)
I played a scintillating couple of games of blackjack in ninth period; I’m still searching for our daily “thing”…maybe this is it? Our collective struggle was on full display in our grade team meeting after school; an extended moment of silence swept over the group as we contemplated next steps in helping our most struggling students.

Tuesday (Mar 16)
This afternoon was the second part (of four) on CHRE featuring Gholdy Muhammad. Hearing her speak was insightful and helped me understand CHRT as an “instructional response” to an oppressive and unjust educational system that was never designed for Black and Brown students (where you start matters).

Wednesday (Mar 17)
Tried out an exit slip today that asked students to rate their emotional state at the end of class. I stole it from a ELA colleague; instead of doing a “check in” at the beginning, it was helpful to capture this info at the end to take with me to my post-class reflections.

Thursday (Mar 18)
Today was the first day back in the building since late November; getting ready in the morning triggered some “first day of school” vibes; Seeing colleagues in the flesh filled me with a renewed sense of hope and positivity. The second student-led peer tutoring session happened today between 4-5p (I guess my MfA PLT on building peer-collaborative spaces wasn’t in vain.)

Friday (Mar 19)
I was fairly alone in my choice to come into the building today; after months of solitude, I needed the change of scenery. A subdued day in my classroom was filled with an awesome cogen and the delicate tappings of my keyboard throughout the afternoon.