This week I asked my students to send me a short piece of homework about the frustration they feel with Zoom lessons. The response was vitriolic and immediate: Where do I begin? I can’t concentrate on here; I miss my friends; I’m not learning anything at all…
Perhaps I shocked them with my equally vitriolic outburst: You think I enjoy it? You think I’m getting much out of it, when I can’t be with you and feel the energy and creativity and try to inspire your love of learning?
Their answer was a very simple one: Find us some other way to learn.
I’m looking. I’m searching, I said. I promise you, I am.
Can somebody please explain to me what on earth we are doing? Trying to fight a virus with a screen, dehumanising ourselves, unable to hear two voices at one time or to feel real laughter, real tears.
I’ve been trying to teach poetry. My first attempt was Mary Oliver’s ‘The Sun’, all about the beauty and the wonderful vitality of the world of nature, over the mistaken and dangerous pursuit of power, of things. I do not think some of my more mature students missed the irony here.
A breaking news story this week: students at one of the top schools in Israel are on strike from Zoom learning because only a tiny percentage of the Bedouin population in the south of Israel have access to computers and internet.
It looks like our government have gone crazy for power, for things.
Students don’t need to be taught on a screen. If this were something which worked, we would have discarded teachers years ago and just set the students lessons online. The whole point about education is not to give knowledge to students – they have the internet for that, or libraries, or older generations. No. Teaching is to inspire students, to imbibe them with a love of learning.
Perhaps I am coming from a fairly unique place. I teach in a Waldorf high school, where the ideology is based on a threefold learning process: engaging head, heart and hands, or in other words, thinking, feeling and doing.
It is supposed to inspire each individual student to develop their own unique abilities. Activities are often artistic and practical, while also managing to fit into the curriculum.
Whereas in many schools, subjects are taught, in Waldorf schools subjects are ‘experienced.’
A few weeks ago, I did an eight hour Zoom course on my most beloved writer, Etty Hillesum, with people I respect and love, people who inspire me. And yet still I found it difficult at times to feel inspired! How much more difficult with a subject you find challenging, or in a Zoom room of people with whom you don’t feel comfortable (especially with your face on a screen – many of my teenagers are too self-conscious even to turn the video on!)
So, what do we have on Zoom? I can start each lesson with a game. I can send the students away into breakout rooms to discuss a concept. We can share ideas and drawings on a whiteboard. I can share my screen, as they can, and share music and art and stories and poems. I can send them away at the end of each lesson to work on something for next lesson.
But what can’t I do? I can’t make all my students come to the lesson in the first place. Those who don’t like learning online, don’t show up. I can’t make everyone contribute. Those who are shy of the screen say nothing. I can’t even make them turn their camera or audio on – I can only request it. Many teachers have joked about the benefit of being able to mute all their students. If only I could unmute them! And yes, in a classroom, I can. I’ve been a teacher for nearly twenty years. In that time I’ve had many wonderful lessons – wonderful for me and wonderful for the students. I know because I’ve felt it, and they’ve told me. We’ve enjoyed eating at the feast where Banquo’s ghost appears, in Macbeth. We’ve meandered into meadows to learn about imagery using nature and how to create it. We’ve marched through the corridors learning the beat of different meters, how to understand a poet’s use of punctuation.
I’m not going to bore you with the list of endless possibilities a teacher has when her students are with her and she can feel their emotions and be energised by them and energise them with the brilliance and wonder of literature.
Some people, I’m sure, will want to tell me now of all the benefits of Zoom. Or they will tell me ‘at least we have Zoom’ and ‘at least we have something’. I disagree. For me, Zoom is killing poetry. It’s killing art. It’s making everything dead, on a screen, with no feeling.
Yes, on Zoom, sometimes I inspire my students to think, and to write. But to feel? Truly?
Why are we fighting a virus with technology, when we berate that very same virus for killing without discretion, without emotion, without thought?
Have we got the courage now to stand up and say: Zoom is not enough. How about we cancel this year of ‘structured education’ and try something else?
I understand I am putting myself in the firing line. Possibly with my school, who might be upset to hear I am not embracing the opportunities I am given and teaching my students the best I can. But if they think that, they are mistaken. I am trying my best.
I just think we are trying in the wrong way.
All over this country, this year, and in other countries too, education will be disturbed by people going into isolation, classes divided, schools without the ceremonies and assemblies which bring a school together (especially one like mine.) We tried to do an assembly on Zoom. It just made many of us sad.
So I’m suggesting we do something entirely different.
That we use Zoom to communicate with our students, to check in, to say hi. But for each subject we set the students a project where they can work independently (or sometimes with each other) diligently, creatively, and with their whole heart. Each teacher could design a project every couple of months, so by the end of the year the students have an array of projects they have accomplished during this, the dreaded Corona, year.
(Please God, just be one more year and be done with it!)
So, for example, I suggest for my subject, English literature, the students do a mini project on the poems of, for example, Mary Oliver. They could put together a small booklet of their favourite poems by her, and do a commentary on each, and a piece of artwork inspired by each. And the project can be as freely structured as that – to allow freedom and creativity. For them to actually feel the poet, and identify with her.
This cannot be done on Zoom.
Perhaps the conclusion is I am using Zoom in the wrong way. Perhaps I should just be setting my own projects and using Zoom as my own form of check in. Perhaps I too have been uninspired by the authorities, and have misunderstood the opportunities available to me.
And so I am using this space as a plea to all teachers – and if you agree with me, please do share this so we can make a difference – to use Zoom as a tiny helper in a much wider cause: to try to inspire our students in this time of death, isolation and despair. We teachers are needed everywhere to re-energise, inspire and engage our students, even more so now.
So let’s do our job, and do it well, and decide not to Zoom.
Not for lessons, anyway.