Ahh, Zoom - when I was a kid, Zoom was a television show on PBS with a bunch of teenagers who taught us all how to swing our arms in this weird way (my Gen X friends know what I am talking about). It is also a wonderful book by Istvan Banyai that I use in workshops to hopefully get people to broaden their perspective. But in today's masked landscape, "Zoom" most commonly refers one of the online platforms that we are using to stay in touch with multiple people, whether it be for work, school, or socializing with friends. What am I learning about the use of Zoom, or other interactive web platforms, in all of these places?
I have a very good friend whose daughters were crushed that their elementary classrooms weren't going to be able to have their online face-to-face meetings due to security issues. It literally brought these two little ones to tears as these days are their favorite days of the week! They love seeing their classmates and their teacher, and look forward to the interaction. And my teacher friends go on and on about the reassurance they get from seeing their students in person to confirm that they are OK. I know families that are staying in touch with their loved ones by an online app, watching birthday parties, having weekly check-ins and even trying to play games over the app! I, myself, have "Coffee with the Girls" every week, and my husband and I have had virtual happy hour with our friends in Buffalo. The ability to actually see faces is priceless, especially when you have been looking at the same ones for weeks on end!!
Although I love exploring the possibilities that virtual PD affords (think of my gas savings!), I have to admit that my two large online meetings didn't go as well as I had hoped. These meetings were with participants that I really don't know well and, with large groups, it was necessary for everyone to mute their screens. It became a lecture, with occasional thumbs-up, or a line in the chat feature. I know that there are possibilities for breakout rooms with smaller groups, and other upgrade features, but I have to say how ineffective I felt as a trainer. It was like watching the opening song of "The Brady Bunch", except they couldn't look up and down at each other with smiles and nods. I was unable to send them interactive materials ahead of time, and, even if I had, they wouldn't have been able to interact with the materials AND their peers at the same time. Those conversations and hands-on opportunities are priceless in deepening knowledge, and relationships!! I asked my own two teenagers how their online interactive classes are going and they agreed with so much of what I was feeling. Their classes were more about getting information and not really so much about processing the material, or interacting with each other. Although both of their schools have offered wellness opportunities for kids to log in for chats, neither have chosen to do so. They instead contact their close friends - and discuss everything but school!
I realize the need for continuing learning, and how amazing it is to have platforms that let us connect in this way, but, unless you have established strong teacher to student relationships, and student to student relationships, you are only providing content. It makes me think about the importance of creating those interpersonal relationships at every grade level, and how that might make some classrooms more successful in this challenging time. If high school students really only talk to 2 or 3 kids in their Geometry class, their online experience will be totally different right now than a 3rd grader whose peers have become like family to them. Those classrooms that established healthy camaraderie can do mental health checks on each other, and those are invaluable to some of our struggling students, and parents!
As I was thinking about the "ugly" portion of this blog, I automatically thought of the funny things that I could include - the people who check into meetings in their rumpled pajamas with bedhead, or in their sweaty workout gear, the overall lack of etiquette that seems to be OK as I watch people snack or play with their cat during a meeting, or I could even mention my own growing "root" problem. But the "ugly" for me really comes down to the situation that we find ourselves in with this quarantine. Platforms like this are so successful because we CRAVE human interaction. We want to see people's faces; we want to have conversations that go beyond words and actually involve body language and expressions.
I think, then, that the lesson I am going to walk away with continues to reinforce the importance of social emotional learning, the need to build relationships, the innate desire to have face to face interaction with others, the importance of technology as a tool, but not to the exclusion of learning how to communicate effectively with others. It makes me really think about how differently we should be looking at the start of our next school year. If there should be a second wave of this virus in the fall or winter or spring of next year, what would you do differently this September to make sure that your online classes are as effective as they can be? What relationships would you work on? What discussion strategies would you be teaching? How are you changing up the routines and procedures that you normally teach first to include those that recognize the importance of getting to know each other, building a community, giving students some voice, and helping them to be independent learners? How can I incorporate this technology even when we are not in a health crisis, so that we can maximize its benefit in case of emergency?
As I think about our "new normal", there are some things that I know for sure. I am so grateful that online platforms like Zoom exist so that I can continue to see the faces that I love. I am inspired by the number of educators I see using technology to connect, motivate, nurture, and teach students of all ages. I know that resiliency is built when people are placed in challenging situations and we are demonstrating our strength, our optimism, and our perseverance by continuing to provide academic and emotional support to all of our students and families in a myriad of ways. So as I look at the faces of educators - behind masks, or on my computer screen - please know how humbled and impressed I am by your continued commitment to children, and I can't wait until I can shake your hands and tell you in person!