In this special guest episode from This Teenage Life, students talk about how it feels to do “school” on zoom, what’s working, what isn’t working, and why they want to be able to pursue their own passion projects.
You can find This Teenage Life on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts!
Just last week, on Friday, I had a check-in with some of my teachers, and they were just so tired. And one thing I said to them, I was like, I want all of you to know– and this goes for any teacher that’s doing distance learning right now– is that regardless of whether your students are actively being like, you can do it, you’re great, we’re so proud of you every second of the day, they do appreciate it and acknowledge that this isn’t what anyone signed up for and understand that this is a really hard task that’s going on for everyone right now.
This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton, and you just heard the voice of Taylor Paris. Taylor is in 12th grade at High Tech High, and she’s one of the hosts of the podcast, This Teenage Life. I wanted to know more about how remote learning was feeling for students, so I asked This Teenage Life if they could do an episode about it. That’s what you’re going to hear today. But first, I want you to know a little bit about This Teenage Life and how they make it. Here’s Taylor.
I would say as a whole, This Teenage Life is this ridiculously awesome podcast made by ridiculously awesome people. And it’s just a bunch of us teens and Molly talking about real life issues and talking about things that we’re inspired by or we have questions on.
The Molly who Taylor mentioned is Molly Josephs. This Teenage Life started when Molly was teaching at High Tech High. Now she lives in Manhattan and teaches at The Dalton School in New York City, but that hasn’t slowed the team down. It’s not like they’d be meeting in person anyway. Molly explained the process of recording This Teenage Life to me.
We record different conversations about topics that people pitch, whether it’s queerness or the importance of Black Lives Matter. We did a whole series about moving because a young woman who was moving because her mom was in the military, who’s a listener, e-mailed us. And so we did a whole series on moving because she was struggling with moving. And we did a series on being 13 because one of our listeners e-mailed us.
This Teenage Life is important to everyone working on it, that’s why they kept going after Molly moved across the country. It’s become even more important since the pandemic. Here’s Molly again.
Once the pandemic hit, we really started meeting at least three times a week for a while when we were all in quarantine. And it became a sort of social and creative lifeline for all of us. I was at home feeling really sad about the world and sad about the whole situation, and they were feeling similarly. And so to have this community where we could talk about how we were feeling, and we got emails from some listeners about how they were feeling, and so we just felt like this was one outlet by which we could be helpful.
Here’s the episode. This Teenage Life on what it’s like for students to learn remotely.
My name is Molly Josephs, and I’m the adult who works on This Teenage Life. When I’m not working on the podcast, I’m a teacher. And like many people these days, I’m going to be teaching remotely this year. And the teens who make This Teenage Life are also going to be doing school remotely.
And so we decided to make an episode about it– about our feelings, about being in a Zoom room and seeing our face on the screen all the time, about what we find awkward about it, about what we miss about in-person learning, and about what we would do if we were given the resources and the time to work on projects that were exciting to us. We decided to start with how we feel when we’re on Zoom.
It was always so awkward for me coming into a Zoom meeting because I would be early or right on time. And so you’re just in that period where kids are still showing up, nobody is talking, class hasn’t started yet. I just felt like our usual classroom dynamic was muted over Zoom.
And so I’d love to see a way where we could have some time to talk and catch up without that awkwardness of, oh, what have you been up to? Because that’s worse. It’s awful to be called out like, what have you been doing during quarantine? Because we’ve all been getting that question from family members, friends. So it would be nice to have other ways to bring back that classroom dynamic, that fun and jokingness before class, without making it weird or intruding.
Any time you’re talking, every single person in the class is paying attention to what you’re saying. You can’t just say something to one person, unless you text them. It’s very public and presentational every time you do anything.
Everything about the classroom culture is just gone. Because when you’re talking in a group for the breakout groups, it’s also different because it’s like you can’t force anyone to talk or to be there because they’re not in person. I feel like in person, you can stare someone down until they decide to talk. And for Zoom, you can’t really do that because everyone’s staring at everyone. So it’s just there’s no social cues. There’s no, oh, you go ahead, or I’m afraid of interrupting someone or just cutting someone off. So then it’s like, I don’t want to talk.
I really think that a lot of the awkwardness comes from trying to keep the same dynamic going over Zoom. And it’s like, no, that’s incredibly unrealistic to achieve. We don’t have hands-on stuff to keep us occupied anymore. It is impossible to keep the same dynamic, or expect your students to keep the same dynamic.
What type of dynamic do you think teachers should be going for?
Or, what does that look like? And what does that feel like, do you think?
I don’t know– this, where it’s more of like a– you can have a conversation. Or, smaller groups, I think, are always really great because then you could talk and not feel so like, everybody’s watching me.
It’s really hard to get other people to participate. And I think that that’s just something in classrooms, in general, that’s really annoying when teachers make groups for kids. And you have to convince other people to participate, and I think that’s even worse over Zoom.
There’s a lot less pressure and incentive to actually participate. So in a distance learning, I think teachers need to be really cognizant and purposeful with their groupings, making sure they’re going to put people in groups they’re already comfortable talking to.
For me, remote learning was just very tedious and tiring. I think because a lot of the motivation that we take for granted in in-person school, like talking to your friends and working with others, and meeting new people, and having the sort of casual camaraderie that is just how school works, a lot of that is gone.
I think, definitely, Zoom fatigue is a real thing, sort of the idea that you are constantly being watched and recorded. That’s really exhausting. And I think, because of the way that Zoom and remote learning works, there’s just a lot less interaction between students and teachers and students and students. And I think that is really unfortunate.
I think one way to account for that would be to really work in unstructured time with small groups. So with the podcast, we’ve been having studio time and recording time, which is just unstructured time where we get stuff done and do work, which is important, obviously, because that’s usually how school works. You have work time, and then you’re talking to your friends and hanging out and being productive at the same time. And I think that takes away a lot of the isolation and loneliness that many of us felt.
Ideally, when you’re in-person at school, there always seems to be an option for people who are interested in different things. With remote learning, a lot of the choice and individuality has gone away. We’re all sitting and staring at this Zoom screen. There’s really very little one-on-one interaction with a teacher where they could get to know you and get to understand what you’re struggling with or things that you’re interested in. And you’re all doing the same work, which is not interesting to everyone.
And so I think having opportunities for people to choose different things that they want to do, or hone different crafts, would be interesting. Some people could go collect samples of ocean water and compare it from different areas around the city, whereas some people could learn about en plein air painting and stuff like that. And both of those things would be more interesting than just staring at a Zoom screen and being like, this is my day.
The teens who work on This Teenage Life go to a project-based high school, which means that instead of having classes divided by subjects, their classes are integrated and they spend their time working on projects. And at the end of every semester, they share their work with their parents, their guardians, and their teachers through something called a POL, or a Presentation of Learning. Molly talked about how in the last four weeks of her semester; her teachers allowed for independent projects. Kids would pitch what they wanted to do, and then do it.
OK, it’s the last four weeks, we’ll still have some Zoom classes, and we’ll have conversations, and we’ll be here to support you. But you can do any project that you find interesting, as long as you pitch it to us and we work out somewhat of a plan. You can’t just be like, oh, I’m going to see how many video games I can play in this day or whatever. You had to get it checked off and have some objective by the end, and you’re to have some sort of plan for something that you were going to share at your POL.
I did woodworking stuff. So I made a record cabinet, and I made a video. I filmed the whole thing and narrated it. And so that was what was at my POL. Someone biked all around San Diego and got plants from all the places he biked to or something. Someone worked out of his dad’s fishing shop repairing a boat. Someone built a boat from wood from scratch.
It was cool because, obviously, you’re so in control of whatever you’re doing. There’s no room to be like, I didn’t know what the requirements were, so I didn’t do it, or I didn’t show up to Zoom class or whatever. You’re responsible for it, so either you’re going to do it or you’re not.
That’s true. I never really considered how there is a bigger level of accountability when you’re doing something that’s self-driven, both because you want to be accountable for it because it’s something that you are genuinely interested in, but also because when it’s self-driven, you get to make up the rules and the requirements.
I feel like a big part of distance learning in this quarantine for me is just feeling so cooped up. So if I had freedom to do whatever I wanted, I would try to go camping and experience what that is like. And then if it was a project, I would make it into some writing piece about the contrast between staying indoors all day and the Zoom learning as opposed being out in nature backpacking.
If I were to start a self-driven project, I would want to take classes with people. I think cooking classes are a ton of fun and you can learn a lot of skills from, and maybe a sewing class. Maybe I’m just thinking of a home ec class. But I wouldn’t want it to be a school and grade based thing, I’d want to more so do it for fun.
So I started learning how to crochet over the summer, and I would love to start a little business around that. So I would make different stuff, put them on an Etsy, promote it on Instagram. And I learn about marketing and statistics and all that. And I’d also learn about how to run a business and learn about making profits, how I should be paid for my labor costs. And then I would also use the USPS because of all of the things happening with them defunding the United States Postal Service.
Remote learning has been an adjustment for all of us. And while it’s a huge challenge, the opportunity comes in thinking about ways that we can empower teens to explore their interests and do projects around things that they care about. If you have any ideas for independent projects, or if you want to reach out, please email us at email@example.com.
Before we go, I want to share one other thing that Taylor said to me.
The best thing that my teachers have done for me is asked for help or asked me how I was doing. I know that seems like such a simple task and such a simple like, well, yeah, of course, our teachers are going to ask our students how they’re doing, and of course our teachers are going to check in with their students.
But I do think that the best thing for everyone right now is, instead of trying to guess and figure out, well, maybe if we do this, it’ll work, or maybe if we try this thing, or what if we just keep doing this thing, going directly to a student and saying, hey, what’s working with you and what isn’t, is going to give you the most clear and concise answer. And even if they’re like, I don’t know, this thing kind of feels good, but this thing also sort of doesn’t.
Honestly, kind of feels good but also sort of doesn’t is about as positive as a lot of things get right now. This is a tough time to be a 16-year-old, or a 39-year-old, or a 3-year-old for that matter. But reaching out, checking in, connecting with people you care about, that still feels good.
High Tech High Unboxed is written and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Herschel Huge thanks to the crew at This Teenage Life, who made this episode. You can find all their episodes, along with resources for educators, on their website, thisteenagelife.org. And if you’re wondering why I’m not shouting them out individually, here’s their deal.
We have this very collectivist mentality, where we generally just don’t do credits. I’ve tried to do credits before, but [redacted] often does the final edit. And whenever I do credits, she takes them out.
I just distorted somebody’s name there because I’m not trying to go against anybody’s wishes. Thanks for listening.