During the first week of school this fall, I noticed one of my students, Katie, laughing hysterically while we were on Zoom. She was in a room with bright yellow walls, white trim, and lots of windows. I thought I saw a small plant on the windowsill. It was difficult to tell online, but it looked like she was sharing her humorous moment with someone sitting near her — perhaps a sibling, or a friend. One minute she’d be in front of the camera on her computer, the next her head was turned to the side. Her audio was muted, so I couldn’t hear the laugh, but I could see her mouth open in a guffaw, her head tilted back unselfconsciously. In a desperate attempt to connect with her and other students while eLearning, I asked if she would like to share with the class what she was laughing about. We could all use a chuckle, I said awkwardly, with a slanted smile. I watched her lean in towards the computer. She’s going to tell the class, I thought to myself, confident I had been successful in making a connection in this first week of school. I was wrong. Instead, she turned off her video and her little square on Zoom went black.
I teach high school English to freshmen and seniors in five 70-minute classes, and like many educators in the country, we have gone remote. Despite the challenges of teaching online — new tests of our adeptness with the technology come up every day — my colleagues and I are grateful that our school is taking measures to ensure everyone’s safety. And we are fortunate, too. Every student in our district received a Chromebook, and the school set up internet hot spots all over town. Globally, of course, things are much different. The New York Times recently reported that 463 million children worldwide lacked access to remote learning when schools closed last spring. We are lucky teachers. We are exhausted teachers, too. We are trying to move through a literature curriculum designed to help students discover who they are in the world while Google and other software platforms infiltrate the field of education everywhere there is wifi. Before the pandemic, students were already addicted to social media and various modes of technology. Now, in order to teach, I’ve become complicit in perpetuating this addiction. I’m trying to create conditions for students to discover themselves through the literature we read while using software platforms that already encourage them to constantly watch themselves online. Without the safety of a physical classroom space where no one is recorded, this new way stands in opposition to engaging in a creative process, free of being surveilled.
The Freshman English curriculum I teach begins with creation myths from around the world. We talk about the phenomenal questions people asked in these origin myths, and how many of these stories begin with a peacefulness that ultimately declines — a fall from innocence and grace over time. We discuss Adam and Eve in Genesis, who move from an uninhibited nature to an awareness of their shame. As an example, we talk about little kids who, at a pool or a beach, run around naked unselfconsciously, unaware of what they look like. I ask the students to think about a time when they, too, were young, before they knew what shame was or what it felt like. We also read origin stories from China and Uganda.
Another creation myth we read is the “Four Ages” from Ovid’s first book of Metamorphoses. The myth, written in 8 AD, describes humans’ progression from peacefully coexisting to becoming increasingly violent and selfish through the four ages: Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. The weather is still warm at the beginning of the school year, and the day we were reading about the Golden Age was a beautiful, sunny day, not unlike the description of the nonviolent Golden Age itself:
Spring was forever, with a west wind blowing
Softly across the flowers no man had planted,
And earth, unplowed, brought forth rich grain; the field
Unfallowed, whitened with wheat, and there were rivers
Of milk, and rivers of honey, and golden nectar
Dripped from the dark-green oak trees.
Once we read about the Golden Age, I gave the students a “screen break” and suggested they step outside and get some fresh air so they could get away from their computers. I also wanted them to get a real sense of the Golden Age by going outdoors. After the five minutes, back on our screens, I sent them a link to our virtual whiteboard using the online tool, Padlet. Students were to upload images of their interpretation of a “Golden Age.” “But we were just outside,” one student wrote to me privately, in the Zoom chat. “I know,” I answered, sighing. Her frustration was apt — she had just experienced a real, experiential Golden Age outside, and then was asked to recreate an artificial, virtual representation. I mumbled something about looking at the Golden Age as a metaphor, and besides, I had to give them points for work they had done.
In order to teach online, educators have become beholden to accessorizing our lessons with the latest software platforms, talking with our colleagues about which digital board is superior, which program makes better videos, which is more collaborative with students when we screen-share. Asking another teacher which application would be best for sharing images of World War One, for example, when we read All Quiet on the Western Front is like asking, “Does this scarf match these earrings?” The technology must complement the curriculum. The novelty of Zoom and Google Meets wore off last spring — “Let’s introduce our pets on our laps!” and “Look, there’s my teacher’s kitchen and she made cookies!” — when schools were first shut down. Now, students and teachers are screen-fatigued, though the hunger for social interaction on their faces, plus the fixation of watching themselves in real-time, is palpable.
It was a bit cooler the day we read about the Silver Age, which, as Ovid tells us, brings all four seasons and the need for humans to work for their food and build their homes:
That was the first time when the burnt air glowed
White-hot, or icicles hung down in winter.
And men built houses for themselves; the caverns,
The woodland thickets, and the bark-bound shelters
No longer served.
I asked students what their favorite season was. No one answered. I waited, and in another 30 seconds or so, a student began typing. “I love fall fashions,” she wrote in the Zoom chat, “but I don’t go out anymore so it doesn’t matter.”
Last fall, before the pandemic, when we were in-person at school — a time I’ve come to think of fondly as a Golden Age of teaching — we read the Four Ages in the classroom. The Bronze age indicates a shift in the human psyche from peaceful to a defensive posture, anticipating the violence and alienation that will come in the Iron age:
Then came the Age of Bronze, and dispositions
Took on aggressive instincts, quick to arm,
Yet not entirely evil.
I asked students to stand up and show us what Ovid meant when we got to this third age.
One student stood at his desk and put his arms in front of his face, as though ready to protect himself. Another pretended to hold a rifle at attention but was clear to not to point it away from himself. Someone else stood up, a dancer, and moved her jazz hands in front of her eyes, tight, close. Soon other students stood up as well, using their bodies to express the Bronze Age.
“They’re not violent just yet, but they’ve become a bit more aggressive, and they’re ready if they need to be,” one of them said when I asked them to explain “quick to arm” in their own words.
“The Bronze Age is only two and a half lines,” another student said.
“Yeah, but it’s a huge shift,” another responded, “in terms of being aggressive at a moment’s notice.” A student mentioned the increase in school shootings in the U.S. Another added, “Dude, our generation has, like, never lived in a Golden Age.” I sat on top of my desk with my legs crossed. A few students laughed when one of my shoes, a black Dansko clog, a common teacher-outfit staple, fell off my foot. I hadn’t noticed. Then one student kicked off her shoe, (a pink Converse high top) and played with it with her other foot while we talked. We had brought ourselves fully into our bodies that day, and outside of ourselves, too — none of us watching what we looked like — the students standing, me sitting (an organic odd switch of classroom roles) and as a class, we discussed big and small things until the bell rang.
Teachers and students both miss being physically in the classroom — it’s a performance space for all of us. My classroom has bright turquoise paper covering all the bulletin boards. The paint color is a drab, dirty light gray, so I’ve tried to brighten the room wherever I can. In some places, taped over the turquoise paper, I’ve got some homemade paper I bought, white and thick with bright colored polka-dots all over. Near my desk is a large yellow poster with the 1967 slogan made famous by its opposition to the Vietnam War, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” In the ’70s, my mother used to wear a necklace with the same design. I have it somewhere in a drawer. Now I have a digital picture of the poster on my website — a fortuitous reminder, perhaps, of the Iron Age many believed we, as a country, had reached after the war. I have a Jack Kerouac poster that says On the Road in French that I bought at the Manuscript Museum in Paris. A “Make Art Not War” red and black poster is at the front of the classroom next to another bulletin board dedicated to student artwork. I’ve got Marc Chagall and Edward Hopper posters, a sign about the murder of Black and Brown people killed by the police, other signs in English and Spanish with pictures of teenagers. Also: a map that shows different sizes of the world based on population and resources is at the front of the room; small red and yellow and blue posters I bought when I saw Romeo and Juliet performed a few years ago, quoting Sampson, who says at the beginning of the play, “I am for you,” and when Mercutio tells Romeo, “You are a lover.” Signs with examples of metaphors, similes, illusions, hyperbole, alliteration, hang in each corner.
Of course, it’s not the material things that make a space, but the experiences that occur in it. Still, a teacher’s classroom space becomes the students’ space too, a communal, familial space, a tactile collection of things that become metaphors, as the community is built throughout the school year. I suppose the day we read about the Bronze Age online, I could have asked my students to stand at their cameras and show us their body posture that fall day, but I decided not to. It felt inappropriate to ask students to use their bodies to express a violent disposition while staring into the tiny light on their screens. And I’m scared now, too, that things we say and do in class could be taken out of context. We are all under surveillance. Some lessons are recorded, anyone could be watching our class.
Before last March, I was already using the Remind app to text my students — it allows you to text from your phone without revealing your phone number, and was also using Quizlet, Quia, and Kahoot. As a school, we were already pushing out Google Documents through Google Classroom, already made our websites with Google Sites. Since the pandemic, in addition to using Zoom and Google Meets, I’ve used Padlet not only for Ovid’s Four Ages, but also to create a visual timeline for when we read about the Little Rock Nine. I’ve downloaded articles with PrintFriendly, a program that converts them into PDFs from newspapers where I don’t have a subscription. I’ve used Jamboard with seniors to upload videos the students found — and then made their own — to help with writing the college essay. Jabber is a phone app that shows my classroom phone number on the caller ID when I call parents and guardians from my cell phone. Other software platforms we can use are Twitch, Slack, Flipgrid, Pear Deck, Kahoot, Noodle Tools, Swank, Book Creator, WeVideo, Goose Chase, Squid, EdPuzzle, Poll Everywhere. Some teachers have their students make TikTok videos, trying to repurpose the very technology students are addicted to into educational lessons. Other teachers have created a Bitmoji classroom where everyone’s avatar gathers in a virtual classroom together. Even though you can design your avatar with gray hair and wrinkles, no one ever seems to look older than 40. I have a Bitmoji I use when my video is off. I’m carrying a large stack of books, seemingly weightless, with a wide smile. I gave in to the software when I created my Bitmoji, but my servitude to the software stops with my avatar. In protest against the technology which makes school look like a video game, I won’t make a virtual Bitmoji classroom.
Besides, we’re all watching our real selves anyway as we watch each other. It’s become impossible to escape our own image. While I’m teaching online, I can see my shoulders rounded, my neck crooked, eyes squinted while I’m trying to teach in the small box alongside my students in gallery mode. Some teachers have dance parties with their students on Zoom, chair yoga, or calisthenics, trying to emulate the physical classroom as much as possible to recreate a sense of playtime.
When I was a child in the 1970s, decades before social media, children relied on their immediate surroundings and creativity to generate playtime. Like one of my students who sits in her bedroom during our class, the walls slanted, my childhood bedroom was similarly dormered. The windows in my room were triangle-shaped to fit the pointy attic walls. When I was a kid, I often watched the sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati, a show that ran from 1978 – 1982 about a struggling local radio station in Ohio. My father, who attended undergrad in Cincinnati, liked to call the show WCRAP, though he often watched it with me anyway. One evening after seeing the show together, I got the idea of making my own radio station with the triangle windows in my bedroom. I liked how radio stations were set up behind glass walls. If I opened both of my triangle windows as far as they would extend, the bottoms would touch and I could slide myself in the small triangle-shaped space and look out at the rest of my bedroom from behind the glass. My radio station was called WLIZ and I made a sign with black and purple crayons and played my records. I pretended that people from all over the world were listening to my radio show, but I knew that no one was watching me, no one wondering what I looked like. I was confident, in my body and outside of it, too, planning what records would come next in the queue for my make-believe listeners. Now, I wonder if my students have ever, in their lifetimes, experienced this kind of freedom from self-consciousness.
One time, a couple of years before the pandemic, I caught a glimpse of myself in a night class I co-teach at Northwestern University. During the first hour of the three-hour class, I could see Lake Michigan from the huge classroom windows, but as the sun went down, the glass slowly turned into mirrors. I was answering a student’s question about Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Freire’s theory of the banking model of education when I caught a glimpse of myself in the window. I was talking, it turned out, as I saw reflected in the window, with my hands. A pencil was tucked behind my ear. For just a moment I felt like I was standing outside of myself watching myself, and I quickly looked away. My face turned hot as I became aware of my reflection in the glass. Anyone who has taught knows that you bring your whole body and mind into teaching. I’m in the moment, excited, moving around the room, usually sweating, at times not noticing when one of my shoes comes off during an intense discussion or when a student might tell me that I’m simply reading too much into the prologue of Romeo and Juliet. But like the humans falling from grace in the origin myths we read at the beginning of the year, I had experienced a moment of disenchantment, an awareness of self, and I became self-conscious.
Last week, after teaching my classes, I decided to drive to school to pick up a few materials from my classroom, check my mailbox, and walk the halls I used to walk endlessly — four miles each day — when we were in person. Except for a few adults, the building was empty. After my temperature was taken at the entrance, I stood in the hallway alone. The floors were spotless and shiny, a stark contrast to the end of a typical school day after swarms —thousands — of students have flooded the building for eight hours. For a moment, I thought I had vertigo. I was exhausted from having taught all day, and yet I was standing in a school vacant of students.
I felt like I was in some postmodern art installation, as though my fatigue from teaching had happened in some intangible virtual reality — which, of course, it had. I thought back on a trip to Paris with my father decades earlier in my 20s — a Golden Age moment, to be sure. One evening, we stumbled upon a small church where a few musicians were playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. We had come early, and the musicians’ chairs were at the front of the church, the instruments on the floor near their seats. The musicians weren’t there yet, but music was being played from somewhere inside the church. My father leaned towards me. “The music plays,” he whispered, “while we watch the empty chairs and instruments.” That’s a bit of what I felt like as I stood in the hallway at school. But inside the church in Paris, the musicians soon played. They were in their bodies, unselfconscious — not watching themselves — just reading and playing their music. I remember looking up at my father while the music filled the church in a brilliant cadenza of strings. I’m now older than he was on that trip, and looking back on it makes me remember these Golden Age moments — an innocence known to younger years.
I walked to my classroom and sat at one of the student desks. Afternoon light from the courtyard filled the room so that I didn’t need to turn on the artificial lights. It felt like an old stage set that hadn’t been used in a long time. It smelled musty. But people had been here, I thought to myself. They laughed when my shoe fell off because they could see my shoe. I hadn’t noticed. It fell off because I sat cross legged on a desk when we had an intense discussion. Then another student took off her shoe. The student-desk I was sitting in was right next to the large poster on the wall of one of my favorite films, Cinema Paradiso, the 1988 Italian film by Giuseppe Tornatore. I was a senior in high school when the film came out. In the poster, the young couple, Salvatore and Elena, kiss passionately in the rain, while above, the younger Salvatore looks up and smiles at Alfredo, the film projectionist who becomes a mentor to him. Last February at parent/teacher conferences — how quickly the world has changed since that night when the school was packed with families until 9:00 pm — a father walked in, saw the Cinema Paradiso poster, and asked me why I had it in my room. I became self-conscious at his question. I answered, feigning a nervous smile, “Because it’s my favorite film.” He didn’t say anything, and I felt my face get warm, then turn red — grateful, in retrospect, that I couldn’t see myself! — but I proceeded with the conference and talked with him about how his son was performing in English class.
Once our parent-teacher conference was over, on his way out, just as he was leaving the room, the father turned around and looked at me. “You know,” he said, “Cinema Paradiso is my favorite film, too.” I don’t know why he waited to tell me. But just like that, I felt myself very small, a kid again, in fact, still hungry, it seemed, for recognition from an adult — to not feel self-conscious or shame — though that dad was probably around my age. This year, parent-teacher conferences will be conducted virtually. I’ve made videos for parents showing them my website, our Google Classroom, and many of the software platforms I’m using to help move through the curriculum virtually.
Last week, we read about The Iron Age, the most violent of the Four Ages. The day we read it in English class on Zoom, I shared my screen with students and highlighted each line with my cursor as we read:
The rich Earth,
Good giver of all the bounty of the harvest,
Was asked for more; they dug into her vitals,
Pried out the wealth a kinder lord had hidden
In Stygian shadow, all that precious metal,
The root of evil. They found the guilt of iron,
And gold, more guilty still. And War came forth
That uses both to fight with; bloody hands
Brandished the clashing weapons.
Rather than use Padlet as our virtual whiteboard like we did for the Golden Age, I decided to share a Google Slide with students and told them to write words and upload images to express a visual understanding of the Iron Age. In live time, images started appearing on their slides: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, pictures of fires out west, Black Lives Matter signs, images of fracking, the word “greed” and “materialism” in bold blocked letters, pictures of ice caps melting, polar bears clutching their mothers on tiny pieces of ice, protests in the street. Several students uploaded images of Trump. One student posted an image of a coronavirus particle so big it looked like the red, round crunch berries in the Captain Crunch cereal I ate as a child.
As an exit quiz the day we finished the Four Ages, I asked students to answer the question I dropped into the Google Question section of our Google Classroom: Explain which age you think we are in today. Most of them wrote that we’re in the Iron Age. A few felt that we are in between Bronze and Iron. One said Silver, “because I still have hope.” “Ask me after November 3,” another student wrote. After each class, I stay on Zoom in case students have any questions, or just want to chat. I keep my video and audio on, often sitting alone. In a matter of seconds, the 24 screens disappear quickly, one by one like bubbles popping into pixelated air.
That day, though, one student remained, and our boxes were equally sized and next to each other on the screen in Zoom’s gallery view. “What’s up?” I asked him. He didn’t answer. I wondered if he was there. I called his name again, thinking about how dark and obscure things have become. Finally, he spoke. “We’re definitely in the Iron Age,” he said. But by the time I could respond, he had already left the Zoom meeting. As his box disappeared, mine got bigger, leaving me, at the end of class, to face myself. •