The Great Zoom-School Experimentapril 3, 2020
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In some ways, the Lang School, a small, private school in the Financial District, was well-suited to the age of the coronavirus. Lang, which has students in grades two through twelve, is a “2e” school, which stands for “twice exceptional.” The term refers to gifted students who also have some form of learning disability such as dyslexia, ADHD, or mild autism. Such students present all kinds of teaching challenges, and so Micaela Bracamonte, the founder and head of school, said, “I seek out teachers who are flexible and improvisational and adaptable. A lot of them have an arts background.”
On Wednesday, March 11th, the day the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 was officially a pandemic, the school’s staff sprang into action. They spent two days setting up the transition to remote learning—configuring Zoom, developing lesson plans. Online classes commenced on Tuesday, March 17th. By Wednesday, Bracamonte was getting frantic e-mails from the parents of second and third graders. For those students, she said, “it was clear that it was a disaster.” The problem had to do with the teaching format. Older students were taking live classes via Zoom. But the New York State Association of Independent Schools and other pedagogical authorities had recommended “asynchronous learning” for younger children. The six- and seven-year-olds were given assignments to complete on their own time, with their parents acting as presumed enforcers. The result was a “mini revolt,” Bracamonte said. “The kids were just not doing the work. And the parents were exasperated.” Many had given up. “We were getting lots of e-mails saying, ‘I just don’t think she can handle this remote-learning thing. I’m going to take her out to play at noon.’”
Bracamonte decided that the experts were wrong. “Everybody’s telling us that ‘asynchronous learning’ is the best practice for this age. But think about it. There are really no best practices. We’ve never been in this situation before! Nobody has a clue what to do for any population of kids, much less ours.” She called a school leadership meeting, via Zoom, and told the staff to switch gears again, and prepare to teach live video classes to the second and third graders. The teachers were hesitant. Lang students tend to be “exceptionally impulsive,” Bracamonte said. Wrangling them can be a challenge under normal conditions. “The teachers were afraid that the kids were not going to coöperate, and they wouldn’t be able to manage a virtual classroom.” But she insisted that they try it.
Last Tuesday, at 9:40 a.m., the second and third graders logged onto Zoom for one of the staples of Lang’s curriculum: an occupational therapy class, where they practice fine motor skills, such as handwriting, and learn how to manage more intense physical activity. (The school’s campus has a small gym with a climbing wall, treadmills, and swings.) I logged on shortly before the class’s start time, and chatted with the teacher, a burly, bald, and bearded occupational therapist named Michael Ryan. The students began popping up on screen. Rosa had messy blond hair. George wore a striped sailor shirt. Emmeline had brown hair and bangs, and was cuddling a cat. Ronan was not present. Nicholas was present but not visible on camera; a few tufts of his blond hair appeared at the bottom of my screen. The kids had set their own screen names: “cat and dogs,” “stampylongnose,” another “stampylongnose,” and “diper.” (When Ryan reminded them to pick something “school appropriate,” Rosa changed “diper” to “Spectrapod snow squall.”)
Ryan greeted the students with a bright “Hey!” and issued a series of directives, to get order: “Guys, when we start the class, I’m going to ask everybody to not change their screen names . . . No screen sharing. I thought I turned that off . . . Nicholas! I need you to tip your camera down so I can see you.” Ryan and the students were holding balls of green therapy putty, one of several fidget tools they’d been given to satisfy what Ryan called their “need for motion.” My screen filled with movement as they played with the putty: smashing it, rolling it into balls, yanking it into long strands. Legs and arms flew, bodies rocked. I found myself feeling faintly seasick. The noise level crept up. Rosa leaned into the camera, pulled at the corners of her mouth, and grimaced. Emmeline stuck her putty to her face and chanted, “I have a putty cheek! I have a putty cheek!”
At this point, one of Zoom’s advantages became apparent: it has a mute function. Ryan muted the students, and silence and order were instantly restored. He outlined the day’s schedule: Tabata exercises, a finger warmup with therapy putty, cursive writing, and typing practice. Then he put on music—the theme song from “Rocky”—and announced, “All right, guys, we’re going to start with jumping jacks. Push your chairs back! Let’s go!” The children jumped up and began bouncing to the music, in their living rooms. Ryan led them in a series of exercise moves: “Balance on one foot! . . . Tree pose! . . . Now punch!” Ten minutes later, they were panting. “Phew!” he said, unmuting them. “You guys killed it!”
“We killed you?!” someone asked.
“No, you killed it,” he said.
All across the world, students and parents are involved in a vast cyber-education experiment. Public schools in forty-six U.S. states have closed, and New York City’s 1.1 million public-school students have moved to remote learning, many using iPads and Chromebooks distributed by the city. Day-care centers were doing sing-alongs and circle time via video chat. Parents were moonlighting as technical assistants and home-school instructors. (Many were Tweeting bleak updates: “All control has been lost. Please send help”; “Fed the math homework to the dog myself”’; “Day 6(?) of #homeschooling and the four year old has started saying ‘yes, master’ to my every instruction.”)
For the Lang School, the week progressed, in the students’ living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms, which soon became familiar. In English Language Arts, they practiced essay writing, working on documents from a shared Google Drive. (Emmeline’s essay was called “My Home,” George’s “The dog run,” and Ronan’s “Place thingy.”) In Speech class, they studied the art of conversation, learning to respond politely to openers such as “I’m going to a concert tomorrow night” or “I got a new puppy this weekend.” After class, the teacher, Judy Nussbaum, a speech-language pathologist, told me that Zoom has its advantages as a teaching medium. “Some kids are coming out of their shell more and advocating for themselves,” she said. The chat function was especially helpful. “I have kids who are chatting me all the time with questions, asking me to clarify or repeat something.”
Online, the various Zoom functions—screen sharing, screen names, chatting, the mute button—seemed to be a locus for negotiating student-teacher power dynamics, which might otherwise have revolved around recess or classroom privileges. During Lunch Bunch, an informal session of eating and talking, Ronan pressed his homeroom teachers, Brennan Chandler and Ryan Pierce, for expanded chat abilities. “Can you enable chat so we can chat with other people?” he asked.
Chandler said no. “I’d prefer for you to talk to each other.”
“But I like chatting, because you can send files. I have a file I need to send to Rosa.”