A week or so ago I posted a tweet that argued that having ‘cameras on’ should be the norm in classrooms. My point was that students need to be actively engaged in order to learn, and that people don’t participate fully and actively when their community is a series of blank screens representing people they can’t see. People don’t share something honest or vulnerable–“what happened to Jonas in this chapter made me angry”–to a group of people who are hidden to them.
My tweet recirculated widely a few days ago resulted in all sorts of outrage. There were some legit concerns and questions but there was also no shortage of people accusing me of wanting to police children, wanting to discriminate against the most vulnerable and believing that children shouldn’t be allowed to go to the bathroom etc.
So here is my response… an explanation of why ‘cameras on’ is so important. Ironically it’s all about building a loving and supportive culture that is equitable and inclusive, which I believe this will post will make clear to those who are are not deliberately seeking to distort what I am arguing.
I’m going to make the case in part with video of teachers who are doing outstanding work. I’m sure not everyone reading this will agree with what I write, and I know better than to expect civility in the replies. But please have the decency to not target your animus at these outstanding teachers who are working hard to do great things for kids and who have generously shared video their teaching. I shouldn’t have to say that. Sadly, I do.
A Clarification: When I say ‘cameras on’ should be the expectation I mean it has to be the expectation of teachers that they will foster as much of it as they can in their classrooms. I get that this is difficult. I understand that many districts prevent mandatory cameras-on. Fine. You can still socialize your students to do it. You can encourage them to turn their cameras on and remind them why it is important and follow up when they don’t. You can and should work hard at it, in other words. And of course this does not mean you should not make logical exceptions because, say, your connection has gone glitchy…or everyone’s suddenly has, or a student is taking care of a sibling at home, or needs to use the bathroom, or any of a thousand things. Of course you make logical and humane exceptions. The point is that community is very, very important in classrooms and deeply lacking for young people right now. Teachers should do everything in their power to build community so students feel like they are an important part of something and so they learn more. Cameras on is the single best way to foster those things.
Context: That last point is deeply important. The percentages of kids who are NOT logging on and who are simply not going to school or are barely attending school are staggering. Every chance we get to make young people feel seen and necessary to the classroom is a step towards bringing them into the fold. It’s important to understand that online learning is a terrible facsimile of the real thing. It’s awful to have to say that because everyone is working so hard to make it work, but the early data suggest that learning losses are massive and that they are magnified for less privileged students. This is a national catastrophe unfolding. Kids aren’t just not learning. Often they’re not even present. as Alec MacGillis described in the New Yorker there are a lot of reasons why … many kids can’t get to class online… but many kids come and don’t persist. They fade away because they feel invisible and distant and disconnected. And these issues are exacerbated by financial hardship. As a top official at LAUSD pointed out, many families “may lack the ability to provide full-time support at home for online learning, which is necessary for very young learners.” There are a lot of parents forced to go off to work and leave their kids to do the best they can at school-from-home everyday without an adult present. And even with one there, it’s easy to disengage. So when you tell me your culture is ‘great’ in your classroom with students you can’t see, I ask you about the kids most likely to drop off the fringes of the screen. The most marginal and at-risk kids. Is it great for them? You sure?
Example: Here’s a video of a teacher named Shelby starting class.
My God what a gift to be in a class like this. Students are greeted by name and feel seen and important and loved—one is called “birthday girl.” Seeing them enables Shelby to do that. She notes to one student that she sees him holding up all his materials with pride. They feel connected to her. She sends them love and they send it back. Belonging is a powerful thing and Shelby does this by making them know they are seen: literally and figuratively. But Shelby is also setting them up for success. Making sure every student has the things they need to be successful at the outset. Cameras help with that too. Regardless of whether there’s an adult nearby to make sure they’ve got everything they need, they’ve got Shelby to help them along. Yes, there are a couple of kids in Shelby’s class who don’t have cameras on–internet issues? Something going on at home? Sure. But the expectation is ‘cameras on’ unless there’s some reason otherwise. And the result is a collective belonging. Community, inclusion and support for kids to make sure they’re successful.
Another Example: Now here’s video of a teacher named Denise starting class.
It shows you more ways ‘cameras on’ can make a profound difference. Like Shelby, Denise greets her students warmly. You can greet a blank screen too, I suppose, but you can’t smile at it as she does and say nice to see you and say something nice about your t-shirt etc. You can’t really make someone feel seen and relevant unless you can actually see them. Then she lovingly asks for cameras on. It helps her to teach and connect and build community. There are ways to ask that are loving as Denise and Shelby prove. You just have to be willing to imagine them. Denise’s lesson is dynamic and draws students in with its momentum. Part of that is because kids understand her procedures. Being able to see them helps her do that: “thumbs up if you understand” is one example. But she can also see them working and see whether they look engaged. Without cameras on, this loving, positive and productive class doesn’t happen.
Did it require work and persistence for teachers like Shelby and Denise to get those cameras on? Yes. But thank God they did it.
More Context: There’s an immense amount of data out there on how we engage online. [I’m not going to cite it here but start with Cal Newport Deep Work if you want to know more.] Our attention is immediately degraded when we’re online. We are more prone to distraction and more distraction is available. (You can see how easily distracted some of Shelby’s kiddos are; they need her to steer them towards focus). This is a bad combination even for adults: the great majority of our online interactions are done in a state of partial attention. Think for a moment of yourself and the meetings in which you turn off your own screen. Why do you do it? Because other people are doing it, which suggests that if they didn’t you wouldn’t either, and because it’s ok to, but also because you want to be free to send a few emails and take care of some other tasks and get up and walk away from your computer and generally be less attentive and accountable. In a few cases there are other reasons—child care—but these are the most common. Your students are no different. They would prefer not to have cameras on. It would be nice to only partially engage and be only partially accountable. Suffice it to say their parents probably feel otherwise. I’ll return to that in a moment.
Another Example: In the meantime here’s Eric’s classroom.
He sends his kids off to read for ten minutes on their own out of a real book—One Crazy Summer, one of my favorites—God bless him. Before he does that he can tell his students are deeply engaged: he can SEE how his students are bought in. They are listening. They are entranced. They have the book out. They are ready. They are ready because he is holding them lovingly accountable for being focused on the book. And they can see each other doing this on their screen. Each student looking at another student holding a book says: everyone is focused on reading. Independent, self-paced work like this is a gift to students but we also should realize that when we assign it, distraction is only a click away. Through the camera, Eric builds a loving safety net. He tells students how much he appreciates them working hard. Tacitly they know he’s noticing whether they stay engaged. His doing so is warm and loving: Mostly he’s telling them how much he appreciates their focus and efforts. They feel seen and important and they are socialized to remain engaged, to resist the temptation to click away. The temptations for distraction online are engineered by some of the smartest people in society to addict young minds to compulsive clicking. He would be a fool to give away one of his best tools to fight back on their behalf: his ability to narrate positive effort. He can tell them that he sees and appreciates them when they work hard because he can see them. This causes them to work hard. It’s accountability sure but it’s loving, benevolent, purposeful accountability. That’s what teachers do.
Quick digression. Accepting that we have authority is our responsibility as teachers. Parents transfer their authority to us and that authority is not authoritarianism. Authority is what parents have entrusted us with. To do what’s best for their children even if it’s challenging and even when their students are not initially inclined to do it. Many of them have migrated here at great danger to themselves from places where opportunity is scarce or rule of law does not reliably exist in order to give their children a better chance. Many of them are working multiple jobs or thankless and exhausting jobs or multiple thankless and exhausting jobs to try to give their children a chance to follow their dream. They give their authority to us to cause their children to do what is most beneficial for them and their chances rather than what is easy. They are counting on us being like Eric.
Final Example: So far I’ve shown you examples of how critical ‘cameras on’ is to building inclusive classrooms and attentive classrooms. But there’s more. Here’s Susie.
Her kids are reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It’s a very difficult book and she needs to know if her students understand it. She Cold Calls one young man—you can’t ask a question simply and easily of someone you can’t see and whom you don’t even know is sitting at their desk… the awkward wait and unclear outcome—is he there??—kills momentum and reminds students that at lot of people are barely listening. The question, importantly, reveals confusion about the text and ‘cameras on’ has made it a lot easier for her to find out. Next, she knows to call on Angel because she can see he has raised his hand. He knows the answer. But also he’s only raising his hand because he perceives himself to be part of a community. He responds directly to Darius because he can see Darius listening back to him. He sees his present classmates and knows he can talk to them comfortably. Their faces looking back at him show they care about what he’s saying. After the reveal—thanks to Angel!—she sees the class’s surprise. This lets her adapt her teaching. She sends them to a breakout room to talk to each other. The peer to peer interaction—kids talking to kids about a book—happens because she can see them and they can see each other: imagine dropping a kid into a breakout room with a blank screen.
‘Cameras on’ is not only a critical tool for making kids feel included and important. It empowers you to understand how they are progressing in their learning. To see them struggle or progress happily or reluctantly. It lets you ‘read’ their responses and teach better as a result. Cameras on allows you to make things move along with energy and pace so classes are interesting and engaging.
Look, I know it’s hard. And I know we often can’t mandate cameras on. But we sure can ask for it like Denise and Shelby to. And then make kids feel the difference like Susie and Eric do. And when kids don’t want to turn on their cameras you can message them and say, “Is everything ok? I notice your camera’s not on” and if they say, “I just don’t feel like it,” you say, “Well I’d really like to see you today” and if she says, “I’m home alone and taking care of my baby brother” you say, “Of course I understand. I love you for being so helpful and can we check after class so I can make sure you didn’t miss anything?”
If You See This As Policing: To the people tweeted to say that encouraging cameras is a means of policing kids and part of some larger effort to ‘control’ them: If the primary thing that comes to mind for you when you imagine teachers and kids seeing each other is ‘policing’; if your first thought is not of course cameras on will let us understand our students, smile at them, see their learning journey, and let us lovingly ensure they are on task and on their way to success, but rather oh the teachers probably have adversarial relationships with their students; they probably won’t try to use this tool to do foster positive interactions then you have lost the plot. If the primary action you conceptualize when teachers can see and interact with their students is coercion, in other words, the problem has nothing to do with cameras and a lot to do with how you conceive of relationships.
Finally re: the frequently suggested idea that we can’t ask kids to turn their cameras on (and therefore help them learn more) because some will be embarrassed by their surroundings. I think this assumption deserves questioning. Why would we assume that people are embarrassed by their home because they are not wealthy? Most people, regardless of their economic status, take pride in their dwelling. It is theirs and simple or complex, they have put expressions of themselves within it. Honestly, it bothers me that people suggest there is something people of lesser means have to be embarrassed about, that not having money is something to be embarrassed about. To start with that conception is problematic.
In the few cases where the home setting poses problems—a kid sitting in a hallway outside his apartment comes to mind… kids from Muslim families where turning on the camera means all the females in the house have to cover up—let’s start with the assumption that families can solve those problems. They have agency and insight and wisdom. Most likely they can find a way to position their camera or use a background that addresses the problem. If not you can devise a solution for your students directly or in consultation with parents or caregivers.
One of the hardest things about teaching is that it asks us, requires us, to do difficult things. And sometimes when smart people are asked to do difficult things that they are not sure they can accomplish the temptation is to rationalize why they shouldn’t do that difficult thing at all… why that difficult but important thing is actually not a good thing at all but a bad thing. This is easier than taking the risk of struggling to do what‘s right.
It’s a very hard time to be a teacher but it’s a much harder time to be a student. Or it’s a hard time to be successful as a student. Many, many students will lose opportunities and suffer lifelong consequences because adults have allowed them or enabled them to do what feels easy in the short run. Of course you won’t be able to get every camera on. Some days you may get none. But your kids deserve what happens when you do so you owe it to them to try.