The following is the evolution of my thoughts about webcam visibility in my virtual classroom. Some of these thoughts are hard to commit to words, but I hope they will help others dismantle the policing of students’ turning on webcams in class.
- I notice that only White students in my honors classes voluntarily turned their webcams on in Spring 2020 emergency distance learning.
- I notice that in my non-honors classes, my summer school credit recovery class, and my summer program for students of color (SOCs) in honors classes, only one out of ~45 students voluntarily turned their webcam on during class.
- I notice that a colleague who previously taught at a private school said that there were no problems with students turning webcams on at her school.
- I notice that students refer to each other by name by reading off the white letters in the middle of the sea of black boxes in the room.
- I notice that I cannot see students’ facial expressions.
- I notice that I do not actually know if students are there behind their computers.
- I notice that I cannot read students’ body language to tell if they are understanding the lesson, or if I’ve lost them.
- I notice that when I lead students through an origami activity, they happily flash their webcams on to show what step they’re on, or what they’ve made, and then quickly turn their webcams off until they’re ready to show the next step.
- I notice that when I’m working with a student 1-on-1 during office hours, about 25% voluntarily turn their webcams on.
- I notice that for several students, while they had their screen shared as I was helping troubleshoot their work, they would sometimes click back to their Zoom tab to watch my face as I was talking to them, even though their own webcams were off.
- I did virtual restorative circles with my classes immediately after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, in which I explicitly invited students to turn their webcams on in their breakout rooms to process the events together as a community. I noticed that everyone who had a working webcam did. (And then turned them right off when we went back into the main room and next class.)
- I feel uncomfortable when I’m talking into a sea of black rectangles, and I don’t know who is listening.
- I feel uncomfortable when I tell a joke and I cannot see if anyone is laughing, even silently.
- I feel alone if I am talking to a sea of black rectangles and no one is responding.
- I feel nervous when I ask everyone a question, and there is not one response.
- I feel unbalanced when I have to have the webcam on me, with my tired face and unpresentable background, but the students don’t have to.
- I feel like I’m being surveilled, when the students can see me, but I can’t see them.
- I feel worried that I am not reaching the students because I cannot see how they are feeling.
- I feel concerned that I will not actually get to know my students, that they will not actually get to know me, and that they will not get to know each other, because only they can see me.
- I feel betrayed if I think a student is receiving credit for attending class because their black rectangle is present on my screen but they are not physically behind that black rectangle.
- I wonder if there is something tied to race and webcam visibility.
- I wonder if there is something tied to class and webcam visibility.
- I wonder if there is something tied to adolescent development, identity building, self-image, and webcam visibility.
- I wonder if there is something tied to power and webcam visibility.
- I wonder if my students feel as awkward about this classroom space as I do.
- I wonder if I can still build community in my classroom if I can’t see my student’s faces.
- I wonder if my students can still get to know each other if they can’t see each other’s faces.
- I wonder if my students feel safer in my classroom because their webcams are turned off.
- I wonder if my students feel surveilled when their webcams are turned on.
- I wonder if my students are able to focus more on thinking and mathematics because their webcams are turned off.
- I wonder if my students are safer from discrimination based on race because their webcams are turned off.
- I wonder if my students are safer from harassment based on appearances because their webcams are turned off.
- I wonder if my students are more relaxed and less tired than I am during my class because their webcams are turned off.
- I wonder how I’m supposed to teach if I can’t see who I’m teaching to.
- I wonder if my students are able to take more academic risks in class because they don’t feel the webcam constantly watching them.
- I wonder if my students are able to be more patient with themselves and with each other because they don’t have the webcam constantly watching them.
- I wonder if my students feel more comfortable with their webcams off.
- I wonder if my colleagues know not to police webcams in their own classes.
- I wonder if my school will continue to hold a “we will not make a policy about webcams” policy about webcams.
- I read up on the relationship between mirrors and trauma, as explained by Karen Costa. I try to spread this writing to colleagues, deans, administrators, and other co-conspirators on Twitter.
- I make the connection between a history of surveillance and policing regarding cameras in the United States. I reread about Foucault’s panopticon and recall that some students made comments about the security cameras that were installed at the end of the hallway near my classroom back in school, while other students didn’t even notice.
- I read up on adolescent development, and how for a slew of developmental reasons, identity questioning and identity building building, including race, many students may not like how they look right now. I realize that in in-person schooling, one never has to see what they look like, unless they walk past a darkened classroom’s door window or go to the bathroom. An hour at a time of constant self-monitoring is exhausting (even for me).
- I develop new strategies for building community that doesn’t require students to turn on their webcams.
- I develop new strategies for checking for understanding and checking for engagement during content instruction that doesn’t require students to turn on their webcams.
- I try out these strategies in my own classroom, and share these strategies with my colleagues.
- I actively remind colleagues to turn their webcams off when the presenter is about to show a video, to save bandwidth.
- I proactively seek out administration and my superiors to continue to reinforce their good decision to not police webcams.
- I make no mention of webcams or their requirements in my introductory email to my students and their families, or during class.
I pause here. I invite you to jot down your own list for Notice/Wonder/Feel/Act. Next, I will share strategies I’ve developed to check in and build community with students despite not having their webcams on.
Notice/Wonder is a strategy developed by The Math Forum, which was expanded to Notice/Feel/Wonder/Act by @Laurie_Rubel.