What It's Like Teaching On Zoom To Students I've Never Met, And Often Not Seen Or Heard

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I looked on the chat board and saw that one of my 7th-grade students had, once again, posted a picture of a McDonald’s meal. This meant that they needed a break and wanted to tell me about the Travis Scott meal at McDonalds.

Ms. Osman: What did you learn about the Travis Scott meal?

Student: Miss! This meal is craaazy. I heard that people are just going up to the window and telling the workers, “you know what I want.”  (poop emoji and laughing crying emoji)

Ms. Osman: How would the worker know what they want? 

Another student: Idk. But I don’t like Quarter Pounders. 

Student: I don’t like Big Macs In & Out’s better

I let a few more minutes of this go on. I’ve been trying to build in time for the students to chat with each other, especially since they haven’t seen their peers this whole year. This is a crucial part of the school experience, and as middle-schoolers, a time in their lives to learn how to properly socialize. It also allows me to get to know them as well. 

In history, 2020 will probably be remembered as the year of despair. Just in the U.S., hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, millions are unemployed, and even getting to spend time with friends and family is severely limited (if even possible). 

One of the most affected areas has been education. Every community is handling schooling differently: Classes are in-person in some places, virtual in other areas, and hybrid elsewhere ― the latter a nightmare disguised as “parental choice.” 

In Los Angeles, where I reside, we have yet to return to physical school, and I’m not sure we will at all this year. I conduct my 7th and 8th-grade classes on Zoom and use nearpod (a platform similar to PowerPoint that’s interactive), as well as our online curriculum. 

I have been teaching since August and I have yet to meet my students in person. For most of them, I have no idea what their voices sound like, as they rarely come off of mute. I also have no idea what most of them look like, as they do not turn their cameras on. (I do not make it a requirement that they turn on their cameras because this would cause equity issues). Therefore, our primary means of communication is through the chatbox on Zoom and through nearpod. 

Through the chat, I have been able to discern some of my students’ personalities. There are some who speak entirely in either emojis, gifs, slang or popular text abbreviations. I have learned that alr = alright, sus = suspicious, ofc= of course, and hbu = how about you. A picture of an avatar from the online game “Among Us” seems to be a compliment. Pictures will appear that are related to the reading, ranging from ducks to pigs to anime characters. I am still learning this particular language they speak in, but they are quite happy to translate.

Some ask me everyday questions about my life, usually in the middle of a reading, such as, “Do you have any pets?” “What is your favorite Mexican dish?” and “Miss, do you have a spider plant? You should get one. It will bring harmony to your life.” 

I have learned which students advocate for themselves, as they privately message me questions. I have learned which students have annoying siblings, as they announce that they yelled at that brother or sister and their phone got taken away. I have learned which horror movies my students love (Halloween, Child’s Play, Train to Busan, and It) and which ones they don’t (The Curse of La Llorona is nowhere near as scary as their abuela’s retelling of the myth). 

A few teachers have told me that they shut off the chatbox entirely so that the students cannot talk to one another and are forced to keep their cameras and mics on. This seems, to me, like a way to silence their students. 

Our students are often isolated at home. We don’t know much about their home lives, so school (even online) is designed to be an outlet for them. Many adolescents are conscious of how their voice sounds or what their homes look like. There may be noise in the background from other family members working and attending school. They may be working in the bathroom because it is the only place that is quiet.

To demand that they keep their cameras on is to not take their needs into consideration, and to not provide them another outlet to ask questions, share answers, and chat is cutting off their voices. Neither one is an ideal start to forming a strong relationship, which is necessary for students to succeed. 

Our discussions are continuing to evolve past Big Macs (although we recently had an argument about ”Die Hard” being categorized as a holiday movie). I am currently teaching World War II, and had the following conversation with my students:

Student: Miss, how did this happen? How did the Germans just let six million people die?

Student 2: I can’t believe so many people went along with the Nazi Party. 

Student 3: America wasn’t much better. Look at Japanese internment camps. Are we going to learn about those Miss?

Ms. Osman: We are going to study those. And the questions you are asking are ones that are still being asked and studied today. 

Student 2: This is making me so sad, Miss. It’s like nothing has changed. 

Student: Me too. 

Ms. Osman: Let’s take a quick break. Why don’t you tell me what’s been on TikTok lately?

While I do not know what so many of my students sound or look like, I do have a sneaky feeling that I would be able to tell who most of them are if we were to go back to physical class tomorrow. One of my students has told me multiple times that he is a “baddie,” even though he has admitted that he is polite to everyone he meets. 

Another student requests that I play ’90s R&B every time I ask if they would like some background music. Others have a continuous banter about the pieces we read, often commenting when they feel bad for a character or feel that an ending is “messed up.” 

One student is rather bleak, once remarking at the end of ”The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Well, at least the narrator only killed the old man. He didn’t try to eat him.”

I wish that we were in person. I would love to be able to have a holiday party with my students. I would love to be able to have them visit during lunch and regale me with tales of their day or give me a rundown of what’s cool (TikTok) and what’s not (Twitter. That’s for old people). 

Instead, I learn these things through a chatbox. I am sure that being exposed to and using apps such as Twitch, Instagram and their beloved TikTok has better prepared them to form relationships through text, but it’s still quite new for me. 

I often wonder how this year will affect my students. Are they learning? How will not socializing in person affect their social skills? How will students whose only outlet was extracurriculars and who needed school as an escape from their wretched home lives fare? I have to remind myself that not I ― nor any teacher, for that matter ―has the answer to these questions. 

What I do have control over is the relationship I build with my students. Throughout the semester, I have had a few students write me thank-you emails, stating that my class has made them better writers and readers. I have one student privately message me every day to see how I am holding up. 

We have little celebrations known as Fri-Yays. We occasionally color online as a form of meditation. My students recently taught me how to play Among Us. Through a mix of emojis, slang, and traditional English, we have formed an entirely new form of communication. And that is helping us get through these perilous times, together. 

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