Estudiantes, Cameras On! (some of the time, please)

A few reasons this Spanish teacher mama wants her students to turn their cameras on in the Virtual Classroom

After participating in many discussions around the potential benefits and harms of cameras on and off in the Virtual Classroom, I am that teacher that requires her students to turn on their cameras at the beginning of class. After several months now of distance learning, I have formed some pretty definitive ideas of what I need to see and have my students see on Zoom. I would say that more than half of my students have terrible WiFi, and many are attending school in cramped apartments with siblings and other housemates nearby, so turning their cameras on for the whole lesson is not feasible or necessary. But, it is still important and here are my reasons why:

  • Many adolescents have been disengaged socially since March 13 and have limited opportunities to see and interact with other adolescents outside of their family groups or social media friends. Communication is visual, as well as aural, and seeing faces is an important part of human development and human connection. For our own sense of well-being, we all need to see each other, particularly as language learners – and getting facial visual cues is extremely motivating and often essential.
  • After a week and a half of testing the waters with my students and encouraging turning their cameras on through fun games and my own need to see them so that I could start to learn who my students were, I realized that the students were quickly succumbing to the awkward peer pressure of “don’t be different” and “don’t turn on the camera until absolutely necessary”. I noticed that Latinx students were much more likely to turn their cameras off (although not exclusively), and I didn’t like the precedent that such an ethnic divide of “engagement” might exacerbate. 
  • Listening to many educators and parents talk about these issues throughout the summer and the early fall, I heard from many moms who wanted their kids to turn their cameras on more due to their kids’ interest in playing video games and tuning into other social media during school. They are asking for more accountability and engagement with on-line school and want our help in keeping them engaged in school, well-known by their teachers, socially engaged with other students, and off of social media and videogames.
  • I have listened to teachers and parents in the African American and Latinx communities exhorting teachers to not assume that Black and Brown kids are living in situations in which they might be ashamed of their homes. Some have been asking that teachers keep expectations high for all kids and to make sure that the parent is involved in decisions around the kids deciding to keep their cameras off during camera-on times in class. My students are mostly in tight quarters sharing spaces with others. Through the screen in class, we are sharing our pets, our siblings, our stuffed animals, and our household members, along with our messy rooms, piles of clothing on the bed, and sheet covered windows. And we are okay.
  • Because I need to be able to see my students in order to get to know them, learn their names, and connect with them, I knew from Day 1 that I would be a much better teacher if I could see them part of the time. 

For all of these reasons, as well as being a mother of a teenager and being part of the milieu of parents of teenagers going through this challenge, I set out to create a more equitable and transparent policy that would keep more of my kids feeling safe with one another in the new cultural landscape of the virtual classroom – it often feels safer for teenagers if the teacher creates a rule or boundary that sets kids up for a certain type of equitable engagement and decreases the opportunity to give in to the peer pressure.

My rule is simple: turn the camera on at the beginning of class as I take roll with the question of the day. See each other, hear each other, start to get to know each other and take that leap! We are all in this together. And if your camera isn’t working or there are other issues, let me know in a private chat. The feeling in my classes immediately lightened up because we could see each other for a few minutes each day. I could start to remember who my students were and learn about each of them. I could immediately diagnose students with a variety of tech issues, and I didn’t need to focus entirely on individual chats which were overloading my circuits. It turned out that several students who had told me on their surveys that they had no issues with computers and wifi connection, actually did have issues and I was able to get them the tech support, new computers and new Hotspots. I was able to figure out who really needed to have their cameras off, and understand the different issues as to why. And students were more engaged. And, as with all of my “norms” or “rules”, I continue to be flexible. At the end of almost every class, I go into English for the benefit of those who are struggling with the Spanish, and I ask them to reach out to me, to stay after class, to write me an email, to come to my office hours if they need to ask me about anything or need help with anything. And lots of students have done exactly that.