The last time I visited a classroom, where instruction was occurring, was in March. I was overly excited at the prospect of “seeing” students again. So, about two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit my first class, albeit virtually, in my new role. Once the teacher “admitted” me, I was instantly dismayed at seeing 20-plus dark squares. The teacher, who must have been slightly embarrassed, asked the students to turn on their video cameras; I shared that it was okay if the students opted not to turn them on. I was a stranger to them. They did not know me, and I did not know them. Fortunately, there were a few video cameras on, including the teacher’s webcam. Awkward? Yes, it was very awkward talking to dark squares and a few inquisitive looks, but I felt strongly that if I just talked about who I was, why I was here, and my enthusiasm for wanting to be with them in that moment, some would turn on their cameras. And, they did. One by one, albeit not all of them, students began to turn their video cameras on. As they turned their cameras on, I thanked them and commented on their smiles and how excited I was to see them. I mentioned nothing about their learning space; instead, I focused intently on just listening. I asked how remote learning was going and what, if anything, we could do as a district to improve their remote learning experience. Although zero students talked to me aloud, several used the chat feature to respond to me privately. Fortunately, the teacher allowed me to serve as a co-host, which enabled students to interact privately, if they chose, with me.
This experience propelled me to write down my thoughts. Do we really need video cameras on? Why? And, for whom? In that moment of visiting that particular teacher’s classroom, I wanted video cameras on. I still want cameras on, but as I reflect on that experience, I am convinced I wanted the video cameras on for selfish reasons. I wanted to see the faces of every single student because I missed seeing students. Period-no fancy excuse and no educational explanation. I have heard and read the arguments that video-cameras on allow teachers to monitor student engagement. How so? The word engagement is ubiquitous and ambiguous. Engagement to you, unless clearly defined, may look entirely different to me. When students were physically present in your classroom, how did you monitor engagement? I assume, although I could be wrong, some teachers monitored engagement through frequent checks for understanding such as: whiteboards, thumbs up, turn and talk, small groups, etc. I posit that these aforementioned checks for understanding are still viable options given the learning platform your district uses. However, by mandating that our students turn their video cameras on, to what extent are we invading their space? I think about the plethora of meetings via Zoom, Go To Meeting, Google Hangout, etc and the countless guests who have entered my home. More than half may have never received an invite had Covid-19 not made its debut because we do not know each other and quite frankly, I just do not invite anyone over to me and my family’s home. Thus, I am intentional about the space I allow folks to see. I can do that. If I want to use a green screen to prevent unwanted guests from entering, I can do that too. If I choose to, I can limit their view to one area that is less intrusive. I bet many of you do the same. Our students may not have the options we have.
Might I also suggest that video cameras on allow for increased surveillance? Consider three separate incidences out of Colorado, Louisiana, and New Jersey where a teacher observed what he/she/they thought was a gun sitting in a student’s learning space. In each case, the students were African American and two of the three students were suspended from school although the “guns” were confirmed to be toy guns (Elfrink, 2020). Without knowing what the teacher actually saw to prompt him/her/they to make the call, I can admit that I might have notified school officials as well; however, this begs the question, what are we paying attention to? A case study out of a North Carolina school system included students’ thoughts on school surveillance, which I apply to classroom surveillance. When students know you are possibly watching their every move and learning space, “it may have the effect of inducing passivity…they are less likely to develop into people who believe they can and do own and control their thoughts and actions” (as cited by Fedders, 2019, p. 1711).
How might we help teachers with the realization that students just might not want to turn on their video cameras yet? We might claim we need cameras on because we do not know if our students are “present” or engaged. Well, newsflash, some of our students were right in front of us before March and were not “engaged.” Let’s consider how “engaged” our students were pre-Covid-19. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2019), the average national reading score for 8th graders as measured by the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was 262. For the students of Illinois, the scale broke out as follows: White students-274, Black students-246, Latinx students-255, Asian students-290, and for students who identified as having two or more races-263. Notice the disparity? I recognize this is only one measurement, but this disparity shows up in other areas as well. Just four years ago, the number of schools, in Illinois, reported as having extreme, high, or significant chronic student absenteeism stood at more than 2,000 schools (Chang, Bauer, & Byrnes, 2018). Taken further, during the 2018-2019 school year, 31% and 24% of African American and Indigenous students respectfully were chronically absent compared to 13% of White students (ISBE, 2019). Other disparities, when disaggregated further, show up in grade point averages, access to more rigorous and challenging course work, and the like. The point I would illustrate is that let us not tout that cameras on will change the current landscape. Rather, let’s admit we miss our students and we want to see them. I believe this confession may fare better than any mandate requiring students to turn on their video cameras.
A recent post in Edutopia explored the value of a camera-option policy, which was similarly titled (Venet, 2020). Thus, school districts might consider a camera option policy as a viable solution. Without clear expectations, teachers may arbitrarily develop and enforce rules that only harm students. As an example, my high schooler has six teachers and of the six, three teachers deduct points if students do not have their video cameras on. When discussing video cameras during distance learning, one student stated, “My room is my private space. I don’t like having my camera on and people being able to look at it and judge my posters or how messy or clean it is” (Johnson, 2020). Full disclosure, because I believe my children’s teachers and peers might videoscope, we are deliberate about the space they use and what is visible to the “guests”. At one point, I had my oldest daughter sit in front of a row of books where one might infer the types of conversations occurring in our home. These books ranged from, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein to The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Again, we have options and we elect to have our children turn their video-cameras on. I’ll say it again, we have options and therefore, we choose to have our children turn on their video-cameras. If your students turn on their cameras, will you really see them? Will you see them for who they are and the potential they possess? Will the learning and relationship outcomes change for the better?
In closing, how might we, then, reimage teaching and learning in an environment that does not resemble what we’ve grown unaccustomed to? This is the million-dollar question and one that I, like many others, are grappling with. To assist me and perhaps you, I would bring your attention to the Learning Policy Institute. Here, Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues provide 10-priorities to guide us as we think about reinventing schools during the time of Covid-19. All 10 are critical, but because I was fortunate to have just led a professional development session on culturally responsive teaching, I encourage teachers and school officials to begin with priorities four and six. These two priorities emphasize providing supports for social and emotional wellness and emphasizing authentic and culturally responsive teaching (Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A., & Edgerton, A. K. (with Badrinarayan, A., Cardichon, J., Cookson, P. W., Jr., Griffith, M., Klevan, S., Maier, A., Martinez, M., Melnick, H., Truong, N., Wojcikiewicz, S.), 2020.
I get it. I want to see students as much as the next person, but I also get that this level of intrusiveness does not, in and of itself, revert to positive student outcomes without first creating trusting and inclusive learning environments. Thus, the abdication of a student’s private space is something I believe we should avoid. The loss of freedom and self-expression is something our Black and Brown children know all too well, already.
Chang, B. (2018, Septmber). Data Matters: Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Success. Retrieved from Attendance Works: http://www.attendanceworks.org
Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A., & Edgerton, A. K. (with Badrinarayan, A., Cardichon, J., Cookson, P. W., Jr., Griffith, M., Klevan, S., Maier, A., Martinez, M., Melnick, H., Truong, N., Wojcikiewicz, S.). (2020). Restarting and reinventing school: Learning in the time of COVID and beyond. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
Elfrink, T. (2020, September 25). A teacher saw a BB gun in a 9-year-old’s room during online class. He faced expulsion. Retrieved from The Washington Post on: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/09/25/louisiana-student-bbgun-expulsion/
Fedders, B. (2019, September). The Constant and Expanding Classsroom: Surveillance in K-12 Public Schools. North Carolina Law Review, 97(6), 1673+
Johnson, S. (2020, August, 26). On or off? California schools weigh webcam concerns during distance learning. Retrieved from EdSource: https://edsource.org/2020/on-or-off-california-schools-weigh-webcam-concerns-during-distance-learning/638984
Illinois State Department of Education. (2019). Chronic Absenteeism. Retrieved from Illinois Rport Card 2018-2019: http://www.illinoisreportcard.com
U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2019 Reading Assessment.
Venet, A. S. (2020, September 24). The Value of a Camera-Optional Policy. Retrieved from Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/article/value-camera-optional-policy