Reaching Through the Computer to My Students

I never dreamed I’d teach a class by Zoom. Not after thirty years of pulling stools next to student desks and patting shoulders and telling, it seemed, by the very air we breathed together whether the rhythms of the classroom were working. But I was teaching a college class as an adjunct when Covid-19 crashed into education. And like teachers around the world, I was thrust into a completely different venue.

I found that on Zoom I couldn’t read the room. And I realized how much I had come to depend on the collective signals students gave me in a face-to-face classroom. Was there a restless shuffling or an alive, reflective silence? Were students tilting their heads in wonderment or gazing off into the weekend? On Zoom I couldn’t quite tell.

What perplexed me even more was how to create memorable moments. Emotion makes students care, and it anchors concepts into long-term memories. Students recall peaks and valleys, but on Zoom, I seemed to be leading them along a straight, flat line.

My feelings of inadequacy took me back, way back to my first years in the classroom. In those years, I found it hard to come out from behind my podium. But it was only when I moved into student territory that I made meaningful connections with students.

Somehow, I realized, I had to reach through the computer to my Zoom students. I’m sure there’s lots for me to learn, but here are a few ways I found to reach toward students:

  • Drop by breakout rooms. I often introduced a concept and then sent students to breakout rooms to discuss it or generate questions about it or apply it in a case study. As students worked I rotated through the rooms, partly to check their progress but also to make more personal connections with them.
  • Draw out introverts. In a Zoom classroom, introverts can hide, so set them up to speak. I ask students to write a response to a question I asked. Then I sent them to breakout rooms to read responses to each other and asked each group to select one response to read when the class rejoined. This activity and others—like the chat tool and thumbs up or down button—helped the class hear more voices.
  • Ask students not to mute. This goes against every Zoom etiquette list I’ve seen, but I found that muted students tend to be more passive and more apt to multitask. And the natural sounds of the classroom—clicking keys, pencils scratching across paper, throat clearing, and even the bark of a dog or the wail of a siren—made us seem like real people together in one space. Unmuted, students were more likely to make impromptu interjections of agreement or confusion or dispute. They were also more likely to interact with each other. And we actually began to discuss.
  • Change positions. I’m taking my computer to my rocker, I’d tell students, to read you a story of a student with autism. So change your seat, too. Get comfortable while you listen.
  • Linger after class. I learned not to end class, just to stick around as students gradually said goodbye. Often a student or two would stay—to ask a question or tell me what they didn’t want the whole class to hear.

I’m hoping to open a classroom door next year. But if I’m still teaching by Zoom, I hope to find more ways to reach through the computer to my students.

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