Disclaimer: What follows should in no way serve as an argument for or against the school opening debate. It is not a cautionary tale. It is not intended to be subverted into an argument to persuade us to open schools unsafely in September, even while it illustrates the absurdity of Zoom as a classroom substitute. This is simply a first person account of one half-hour third grade Zoom poetry lesson on one particular day, among many thousands of imperfect remote learning experiences which began in early March of this year all around the country.
I roll out of bed at the extremely leisurely hour of 9:37 AM to take a quick shower, dress in what amounts to casual Saturday afternoon barbeque attire, and start up my Mac to get a Zoom session going for my first group of eight third-graders, scheduled from 10:15 to 10:45. My only real responsibility to my own children this morning, my pandemic reality, is to shove a fully charged iPad into each of their beds (with headphones) and make reasonably sure they are somewhat vertical.
Next, I open my laptop to the Zoom and Kindle apps with the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening” already cued up. I begin the concentrated task of wrestling with my Zoom settings before the eight students descend on me like, well, energetic third graders in front of screens. There is no real comparison.
Zoom Setting Options:
Mute participants on entry. Essential. Without that in place to start, a cacophony of giggling, shouting, and random discussions about the relative strengths of Roblox over Minecraft would make it impossible to begin. For all of Zoom’s faults and complications, I have indeed fallen in love with the “Mute All” button, and wish it was a function I could employ everywhere in my life. A magic tool that anoints me all powerful. A wave of the wand, or in this case, a click of my mouse, silences my class stunningly and completely, almost making mouths vanish off their little faces, as if in a macabre Twilight Zone episode.
Participants can unmute themselves. Unchecked. Definitely. Defeats the whole purpose of my magic powers otherwise. These are not adults. They have no semblance of a frontal lobe to curb their impulses to say whatever random thoughts enter their brains. Anarchy would reign.
Participants can change their names. Well, this is a tricky one. I leave it checked. On Zoom, upon entry, the name under the picture usually defaults to the name of the owner of the device. Of course I know my students’ names by now, but sometimes a student is using a parent’s or sibling’s laptop or phone or iPad. Parent and sibling first names are not usually my wheelhouse, students do not always remain on screen through the entire session, and I need to know who they are and where they are. Despite the pitfalls, I leave it checked.
Participants can add and change their virtual backgrounds. Checked. Believe it or not, this is just me trying to be nice. Folly, but I keep it. This damn pandemic with all its social distancing and stay at home orders have made this year a bummer all around for kids. If my students want to try on a Darth Maul Jiu Jitsu background for size, or have LeBron James towering behind them while they learn poetry, more power to them. So little opportunity for fun these days. Why not?
There are more settings, to be sure, Chat, Breakout Rooms, Co-hosting, Screen Sharing, Annotations. But it’s already 10:12, so I stick with the basics.
I click on “Join a Meeting,” sit up a bit straighter, as though that will solve all my problems, and begin to see the names of my students filter into the waiting room. While the “Zoom Bombing” phenomenon has never occurred during one of my lessons, our school Zoom accounts have been set up to default to add everyone to a waiting room, and wait to be admitted by the Host, to avoid that possibility.
Usually I admit students one at a time, but I’ve got a lot to cover in just a half hour, and I see most of my students’ names (although there’s one I don’t recognize—DeezNuts!?) so I hit the “Admit All” button and watch them fall into place. They fill out my screen in classic Brady Bunch configuration, 3 x 3 block grid, with me in the bottom middle, a.k.a. Mike Brady’s spot.
Disclaimer #2: WryTimes recommends having a working knowledge of the Brady Bunch opening credit sequence from this point on.
Other students are in various states of inattention; Alice (the Brady housekeeper) in the middle square, practicing ballet moves way off in the background, but courteous enough to keep herself in view of the camera; Carol Brady, top center, trying out a VSCO Girls background that, with green-screen wackiness, partially hides her head and neck, so she is just a disembodied floating face. “DeezNuts,” in Jan’s spot, thankfully is no Zoom Bomber, but one of my most reliable students, just testing the limits of my Zoom settings by changing her name.
I look to Bobby’s spot, bottom right in the Brady grid. His camera is facing toward the ceiling so I can just make out the top of his forehead and bushy black hair. “Hey folks,” I say, “can you please put your camera so I can see you? I’d like to go over the poem that was mentioned in the book yesterday.” The time is 10:19.
Greg’s spot, top right, is waving at me frantically. I unmute him, as he is near conniption fit level at being kept out of any conversation for so long. Greg tries to speak but I hear nothing. “Greg, I think you’ve got to unmute yourself, I’ve done all I can do. Can you hit the mute button on your end?” Greg holds up a sign he has hastily written, having nothing to do with his sound problems, asking if he can be a co-host. (Co-hosts have all the controls and settings at their disposal.) No way, Greg, sorry. Thumbs down emoji.
Cindy, in the bottom left corner, raises her hand, and I quickly unmute her. (We decided weeks ago that the virtual hand raising emojis were pointless.) She waves more determinedly even as she is already unmuted. “I know what’s wrong with Greg. He’s got to activate his microphone in settings. I can show him. Greg, go up to the Zoom menu and…”
“Cindy, wait,” I interrupt. “Greg will figure it out. He’s a smart guy. Or he can just listen. Greg, try logging out and logging back in, and when it asks to activate your mic, press ‘Accept,’ not ‘Cancel.’” I realize Cindy’s advice was faster, but too late, Greg has already disappeared.
“Ok, let’s get started—”
Marcia, top left, who has had a picture of a prototypically cute internet puppy covering her box since she entered, suddenly appears and waves her hand at the camera. I begrudgingly unmute her, not sure yet that she has earned that privilege, as she just appeared in person for the first time moments ago. “Mr. Brady,” she asks, “Do we need to do all our voice notes in Spanish?” I’m a little annoyed by the non-sequitur, and I glance at the clock: 10:26. This is getting out of hand.
“Okay, okay. DeezNuts, everybody. Please change your names back to your own so we can begin. And make sure your cameras are on.” I add the somewhat imperious, “I’ll wait…” to punctuate my impatience.
While my frustration is building, I remember that I know these kids. Very well. They’re good kids, and they will get their acts together and even learn some poetry.
I will admit, my finger hovers over my magic “Mute All” button, but I hesitate, take a cleansing breath, and instead forge ahead. “Let’s take a look at this poem together, from the book we read the other day, ‘Stopping by the Woods On a Snowy Evening.’”
I use my finely honed Zoom skills to quickly share my Kindle app with the poem on all their screens, and just before the Brady grid dissolves to what amounts to a comic strip down the left side of my screen, narrowing down to only four random faces. Now that I am sharing the poem, I won’t see them all at once anymore. I’m at a distinct disadvantage. I also have no idea if Greg ever worked out his sound issues.
“Would someone like to read the poem through for us in a nice, clear… Hold on.” I stop. There is already a flurry of errant blue and green streaks scribbling frantically across the screen, obscuring the poem’s first lines. Annotations. Shit. Totally forgot about them. Third Grade scribbles turn very quickly into representational drawings, both appropriate and, shall we say, less so.
I go up to the menu. I do have an arsenal of secret weapons to flush out the criminal element. Under the “More…” icon, I quickly drop down to the menu item “Show Names of Annotators.” It might as well be called, “Show Names of Anarchists, Antifa, Nihilists, Subversives and Insurrectionists.” I check it.
Then, without even looking at the name of the agitator, I shut the whole operation down by clicking “Disable Attendee Notation.” The red and green scrawls now have a beautifully clear flag hanging off them with the name Greg in an almost mocking, unassumingly pleasant font.
“Okay,” I continue, ignoring the name, hoping the few moments I pause with the name hanging there, a public shaming of sorts, will be enough for Greg. Then I select the last of my weapons, “Clear All Annotations.”
“Who will read the poem for us?” As my reliable Jan, a.k.a. DeezNuts, does an admirable job reading “Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening,” even, God bless her, stressing the rhymes at the end of each line, I quickly multitask, scrolling through the student comic strip to see if anyone is possibly still paying attention. I also underline the last words of each line in multiple colors, to highlight and emphasize the advanced rhyme scheme of the poem. (I’m sure you are well aware of all the complexities so I will spare you the lesson. Oh, I can’t help it: See Appendix A.)
It’s 10:41. Four minutes to discuss not just the rhyme scheme, but evocative language and more subtle meanings hanging off each of Robert Frost’s melodic lines. I weigh the possibility of doing this hard thinking on such a rushed time table. Over Zoom. In a pandemic. With Third Graders. When all they want to do is bust out of their houses and play. Or at the very least, lay hands on the damned Annotation tools. I do not try.
After we identify the AABA BBCB CCDC DDDD rhyme scheme, it’s a wrap. We will analyze and dig deeper next time. I let them “annotate” the hell out of the poem for the duration, watching named, colored flags fly furiously around the screen. I unmute them for a quick goodbye, then click the “End Meeting For All” button so I can erase the annotations to get ready for the next group in two minutes.
A dialog box pops up before Zoom quits: “Would you like to save a transcript of your meeting’s chat?”
“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”
by Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep. ❏
Ben Lesch is recovering in Connecticut from 29 years of teaching elementary school in New York City, but still occasionally enjoys a good Hostess cupcake.