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.


A week ago, one year later

A year ago, exactly one week after my school shut down because of COVID-19, I wrote a blogpost. It attempted to capture “regular” moments from the week leading up to what resulted in schools closing down for the year. The moments were small, innocent, and utterly unspectacular; they were clueless as to what was about to happen only days later. After a year of remote learning, so much has changed. Similar to what I did last March, I wanted to reflect on the past week to see how.

A week ago, my student AP organized and led a peer tutoring session from 4-5p. It was really something when she shared the screenshot of who attended with me. My students don’t attend my office hours, so supporting students so that they can support themselves has been a goal for a little while.

A week ago, I developed two new virtual handshakes with students. One was with RV and based on the Anime character Bokuto (part 1: Hey Hey Hey, Part 2: Hey Hey Hey). The other was with MB and based on Harry Potter (Part 1: Expecto, Part 2: Patronum).

A week ago, I moved my hodgepodge stack of books and puzzle boxes — which I place my laptop on when I teach (standing) — to a new area of my small bedroom so that I wouldn’t need to dismantle it every time I want to get into bed.

A week ago, NA made my day when she showed our class a unique cutting utensil used by her family. It was like a knife, but in the shape of a crescent moon.

A week ago, I met with colleagues on Zoom after school to discussion how compassion is showing up in our teaching. It’s an ongoing project. At this meeting, we each shared something compassionate we saw in one another that may help us better reach our students.

A week ago, I met my co-generative dialogue met for the 16th time this year. We discussed the possibility of allowing some students to leave (or not attend) class once a week for independent study. Meeting with them this year has been a transformative experience for me and my practice.

A week ago, I asked my students to complete a form soliciting ideas for playful, 5-minute debates that we could have in class (e.g. which flavor of gatorade is best?). I’m also interested in collecting some data for some potential statistics lessons.

A week ago, a bunch of teachers from my school gathered after school to discuss chapters 10-14 of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. We’ve been meeting every other Wednesday to discuss a book or podcast since last summer. I look forward to these professional dialogues, their mood-lifters and thought-provokers.

A week ago, I still hadn’t given an exam in remote learning. Exams on Zoom have always seemed unrealistic and unnecessary. Leaning into the uncertainty that circles assessment these days is more my style.

A week ago, in a private chat my colleague BD and I acknowledged just how much we can’t wait to shoot around in the gym when we get to school. I asked him maybe we could do it on Saturday mornings this spring.

A week ago, MM, who for weeks had been mourning the deaths of two close family members, caught me in a breakout room and said that he was finally starting to feel better. He had found closure. I had excused most of his work up to this point. He was thankful…and ready.

A week ago, I met with the Future Educator’s Club after school. It was only three students, and has been the same three students for months, but they still wanted to meet. I applauded them and we made plans to have guest speakers at the next few sessions. If I’m honest, I’ve been disappointed in my ability to find direction and recruit members for the club.

A week ago, I recorded the 15th episode of the “staff podcast” that I started with a colleague on a limb in September. It consists of informal conversations with staff members at our school. We just get together, hit record, and talk. In a lonely school year, the podcast has been therapeutic. I’ve really enjoyed our conversations.

A week ago, I learned that schools were opening back up on March 22. After reopening in September for a couple of months, we have been closed since November.

A week ago, I signed up to get my vaccine. It was a symbol of hope that I will soon be waking up from this nightmare of a year.


A Mathematician and Me

Mathematician, Scientist, and Inventor Dr. Valerie L. Thomas (1979)

I made a choice and had to face the consequences. If I didn’t study and my grades weren’t what I thought they should be, I couldn’t blame anybody but myself. Also, what I needed to do was be in class on time, sit up front, be well rested, and, if I didn’t understand, ask a question.

That was part of the remarks of Dr. Valerie L. Thomas, a mathematician, scientist, and inventor who visited my class last week to speak to students in my 5th period class. Dr. Thomas has held high-level positions at NASA, including helping oversee the early development of the Landsat program, and is the inventor of the illusion transmitter, which NASA sill uses today.

Her visit was the culmination of an assignment I gave my students that was a tribute to Black History Month. It was called A Mathematician and Me. I stole the idea for the assignment from two school colleagues, one of whom is my antiracist penpal Stephanie Murdock. (Murdock and her co-teacher actually joined my class for Dr. Thomas’ visit.) The assignment asked students to research a Black mathematician of their choosing and write a short profile of them. In the profile, they also had to share why they chose the mathematician and how they can relate to them. To help them find a mathematician, I gave them resources like the Not Just White Dude Mathematician spreadsheet curated Annie Perkins, Mathematically Gifted and Black, and Mathematicians of the African Diaspora.

One of the silver linings of remote learning is that we’re all just a Zoom link away from each other. So, as an extension to the assignment, if my students chose a living mathematician, I offered them extra credit if they invited their mathematician to be a guest speaker at our class. (The mathematician didn’t need to respond for them to receive the extra credit.) A handful of students took me up on this opportunity and emailed their mathematicians to invite them to our class for a day. Dr. Thomas graciously responded to one of my students and volunteered to speak to us.

She talked to us about a lot. With a warm, calm, inviting demeanor, she told us about her formative years with mathematics and, as she got older, how mathematics became a bigger and more important part of her life. She worked hard and, although she took no advanced mathematics before college, she was insistently observant, curious, and precocious. For example, she shared how she would always sit in the front of the class and ask a question the instant the teacher said something that she didn’t understand. (This is precisely how she learned about proof by induction.) She shared several other interesting stories that were peppered with both insight and humor. She thoughtfully responded to all of my students questions.

If I’m honest, I’m still a little shocked that it all happened. I’ve never had a guest speaker in my class, let alone someone with such expertise and prestige. In addition, because her visit aligned with Black History Month, it provided an incredibly unique experience for my students and I that I could not have anticipated. With her visit, she not only shared her fascinating mathematical journey with us and offered up advice, but she helped all of the outstanding Black mathematicians my students researched this month come alive. She helped their stories and achievements travel through time and arrive at the present moment in the form of a Zoom call. She gave all of them a face and a voice.

I’m immensely thankful.