Zoom: the case for the defense

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Many of you out there are suffering from Zoom fatigue – for good reason. If you’re a school person, you may already be doing either six-hour instructional stints on your screen or, God help us – PD sessions. I have to temper that last snarky remark. Although I hated PD through all of my teaching years, it may actually be useful under the present circumstances by focusing on skills and strategies for online teaching that are not part of the toolboxes of even the most seasoned teachers and administrators. If you’re part of an organization or business that is working remotely, you’re also likely to be obligated to hours of Zoom staff meetings or sessions with whatever kind of client your group serves.

I have the luxury of being essentially untethered from the institutional world. My encounters with Zoom are of my own choosing and design. I communicate with friends in ways that don’t match the pleasures of joining them for dinner or seeing them at an event, but I’m pleased to see their friendly faces and chat with them in ways that feel more natural and comfortable than a phone call or even FaceTime. My other Zoom encounters involve groups that I choose to be in touch with or educational opportunities that interest me. This may account for my more positive feelings about the tool, but beyond that I’ve been thinking about instances where it’s actually enabled situations that were not possible without it.

  • Every Sunday morning one of our nieces convenes a family meeting from her home in Santa Fe. She’s able to bring together people from Chicago, New York, Boston, Columbia, Maryland and New Haven who might otherwise see each other only once a year, if at all. My granddaughter in Columbia is getting to know relatives who until now have been mythical characters in her life.
  • We are part of a Jewish group that gathers for Sabbath services every other Saturday morning. Over the years, our members have scattered across the globe, but thanks to Zoom, they can now join us from places like Copenhagen and Tel-Aviv. We have a unique relationship with a community of Ugandan Jews. Some of us have visited them in their villages and have hosted them when they have come to study in the US. Now they can join with us at these bi-weekly meetings and even step up to lead parts of the service. Zoom has definitely shrunk the globe.
  • At an annual meeting of progressive educators in February, a group of us discussed ways to use restorative justice practices to address the chronic problems of racial tension that have plagued this otherwise admirable organization for decades. Normally, we struggle to find a way forward when we’re together for a long weekend, then return home, not to resume our efforts till the following year. It’s no wonder that we have felt stalled, unable to progress because of the discontinuous contact. However, thanks to Zoom, the group that met in February has been meeting weekly to apply those practices to our small cluster and to ponder how to apply what we’re learning and experiencing to healing the larger group. Zoom has created continuity to our work.
  • This next example I borrowed from a friend. Months ago, long before Covid’s intrusion on our plans, he had signed up for a conference of several weeks in Jerusalem. He was disappointed when the original plans for the conference fell victim to border closings and travel restrictions. However, the conveners decided that those plans could morph into an event that, with the help of Zoom and other technologies, happen remotely. The result was that once this was announced, the original group of 100+ participants blossomed into an international audience of 7-8,000 learners. Zoom creates new opportunities for inclusivity.

Finally, here’s what originally sparked my interest in how Zoom has expanded our social and professional options and opportunities. Although I visited many classrooms in the pre-pandemic era, there were three that became my professional lode stars.  Kimberly, Roxana and Alex have made occasional guest appearances in my postings, so they won’t be strangers to the brave souls who have been regular readers. So, to mash a few metaphors, I felt the earth shift under my feet when I realized that two of the three were leaving Chicago, bringing an end to our idiosyncratic collaborations. There would be no more regular classroom visits and the brainstorming sessions that were rooted in that shared experience.  Alex was moving to Los Angeles to be with her new husband when he began work at the Jet Propulsion Lab and Roxana was heading to New York after the happy news that her husband was accepted to Cornell Medical School. At least Kimberly was firmly rooted in her school in a Chicago suburb.

Then came the pandemic and with it the realization that even if no one had moved, the in-person classroom visits would no longer be possible, so why not consider just continuing our work together remotely,  with the support of Zoom and other online tools? Now, I am shadowing classrooms in the three largest metropolises in the country. All three of these amazing teachers and their colleagues are attacking problems that are universal. First, how do I gain the trust of students I’ve never seen and build the kind of relationships that make learning possible? As I’ve said in previous entries, as horrendous as the leap into online learning was in the spring, the teachers had been with their children for six or seven months so there was a reserve of trust to draw on. Not so for the fall start up. In my exchanges with Alex, I encouraged her not to be too quick to jump into content lessons before the groundwork was laid. This week she sent me a mini unit she created called Getting to Know You, which she also shared on Face Book for other teachers to draw on. It includes a video of her displaying five objects that are important to her – her violin, her Ultimate Frisbee uniform and accompanying Frisbee, a map of her world travels. There’s a deck of slides with similar personal material. Most important, there are very clear instructions to guide students through the creation of their own slides and videos and how to post them for Alex and their classmates to see. It felt like just the right way to come out of the gate.

There’s a second issue common to all three teachers which we can call the permission/forgiveness dilemma. In one form or another they’ve each received plans not of their own creation to guide their instruction. The question is how much latitude do they have in deviating from what has been prescribed? Kimberly’s resolution is the easiest. She’s well-established in her school and proved in the spring her ability to design curriculum that is engaging and challenging. No one is going to question her. Alex is teaching middle school history from a curriculum that gave me a fright when she sent it because it looks like the plan from which I was taught seventy years ago. She has questioned colleagues and administrators about how much latitude she has, but in the end, she’s going to face the choice of whether to ask permission beforehand or forgiveness after the fact.

 Roxana is facing a similar challenge in her very different New York setting. She’s teaching in a Bronx charter school whose social justice values, to her delight,  are very explicit. She has been given a curriculum which focuses on a lot of important civic and political issues, but she’s also been handed lesson plans designed by other teachers. With her considerable experience as a social justice educator she wants to be respected professionally to design her own lessons within the context of the topics in the curriculum. Just how far she as a newbie teacher can stray from the path poses another version of the permission/forgiveness dilemma.

Without leading you further into the weeds, these are a few examples of how Zoom has made possible my continued collaboration with the teachers I’ve been working closely with in recent years, several of whom I thought I had lost to geography. There’s one more possible step to really solidify and deepen our work together. The teachers are checking to see whether their district policies will allow me to sit in on their class Zoom sessions. That will be the equivalent of my regular visits to their physical classrooms. So, let’s forgive zoom for its shortcomings as a poor equivalent for face to face teaching and be grateful for all it makes possible that was previously beyond our reach, both in our professional work and in our personal lives.

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Marv Hoffman

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