In Defense of The Black Zoom Screen Square

Sarah Duncan
Content Warnings
As a child, I could never sit still at my desk in school...
Dec 29, 2021 7:37 PM

Written by Sarah Duncan, blog contributor for Monstering

As a child, I could never sit still at my desk in school. I drew designs on my erasers, notebooks, homework assignments, and also the desk itself. When I wasn’t tapping my pencil, I was chewing on it. When I discovered I had dandruff (ah, genetics!), I started scraping my nails across my scalp in order to make it “snow” in the middle of class. And in what I now recognize as a telltale sign of neurodivergence, one of my legs was always, always jiggling up and down, despite how frequently my parents and teachers told me to stop. They would put their hands on my leg and say, “Sarah, stop.” Sometimes they’d ask, “Can you stop?” but I always knew that this was a rhetorical question. I had learned early that the only acceptable answer to the question “Could you please sit still?” was “yes,” even if the real answer was “no.”

Certainly, I could stop for a short time. But I would shortly start up again without noticing, and the whole sequence would repeat. In order for me to stop for a long time, I would have to focus solely on not jiggling my leg or tapping my foot. Or chewing on my pencil, or messing with my scalp, or picking my nose, or drawing on everything I could find, or going to the bathroom multiple times in order to daydream, or reading my book secretly under my desk, or playing with my baby blanket which I brought to school and hid in my desk, or writing a play or poem, or doing a crossword puzzle. I could do these things through mentally forcing myself to abstain from the impulses pushing me. But I could not simultaneously use my energy to abstain from these impulses and be able to listen to a lesson, do homework, or participate in a group project.

But I was expected to abstain. And the older I got, the more I was watched by adults to see if I could control these impulses, or, in their words, to “do what they said to do.” To behave. Being so closely monitored increased my sense of pressure to perform what I might call a “normative attentiveness” for a strange audience of peers, family members, teachers, and eventually, medical professions. In fifth grade, neuropsychologists diagnosed me with ADHD.

Almost three decades later, I find myself now in that same strange audience, reversing the dynamic I remember from my childhood. As a teacher working virtually with students K-12, I get to witness a staggering range of child development  and learning styles on a daily basis. Each day, I teach in a Zoom classroom, where I see small boxes full of faces. The younger the student the more likely the camera will be on. As the grades go up, more faces drop out of sight. And along with the faces, the voices or written responses of the students disappear, too.

This is certainly not a revelation. There is a lively debate in education right now about the “the dreaded black square” on Zoom. While I feel lucky to work at a school that, as of quite recently, is shifting away from enforcing a broad cameras-on approach, in the classrooms I visit, I still routinely hear the demand for students to “turn their cameras on, please.” My particular job is such that I spend a lot of time in different virtual classrooms. I’ve seen a domino effect happen as soon as one teacher utters it — suddenly, the students are being told to turn their cameras on every ten minutes, by two to three teachers. I’ve substituted for a few classes, too, and as I read the class slides or directives from their usual teacher, I always note a reminder for the students to keep their cameras on. Sometimes, this reminder includes instructing the students to remain fully turned towards the camera at all times. Despite the fact that my own pedagogy embraces allowing students to keep their cameras off, I am regularly surprised at how easy it is for me to lose these convictions when I’m tasked with enforcing the cameras-on policy. For the first few weeks of virtual teaching, I was torn between my desire to follow the teacher’s directions and my own firm belief that students should turn their cameras on or off at their discretion. Two months later, I am no longer torn, but resolute: I firmly believe that it is important to allow students to turn their cameras on and off as they desire.

This isn’t the party line, I know. Even those teachers who support allowing neurodivergent or other (dis)abled students (or students without access to consistent internet) to keep their cameras off don’t support allowing the rest of their students to learn off-camera. Excellent, smart, progressive educators regularly explain that for some students, who have certain issues, the cameras can remain off. Such assertions are regularly followed by another one: everyone else — “normal students” — don’t and shouldn’t have a choice.

These statements reflect a heavily coded language.

“Some students with certain issues” are usually (dis)abled students who have IEPS and/or 504s. Personally, I never had an IEP because they didn’t really exist when I was a child in the early 1990s. Had I been born later on, I would certainly have had one. Were I an elementary school student today, I would struggle immensely with the requirement to stay on camera for the exact same reasons I struggled (and still struggle) to perform normative attention. While I certainly cannot speak for all neurodivergent students, I can say that based on my own experiences, the requirement to stay in one spot, look one main direction, and prove engagement through acting a certain way visually on screen would not have been possible for me. Frankly, I’m in my early thirties, and whenever I take graduate school classes on Zoom, I still cannot do it.

When I have my camera on in a Zoom meeting, I feel just as scrutinized as I was in elementary school when the adults were closely watching me to see if I was behaving “normally.” As a student, for me to be able to listen to conversations or lectures, I have to be doing something else with my hands. Sometimes I have to be standing or walking around the house. Sometimes I need to play a video game while I’m listening. Sometimes, my brain is flitting from email task to email task, and I can’t slow it down. If I’m on camera during these times, I am working double time to pretend that I am present in the way that is expected while not being present at all. And this act of concentrated pretending often overrides my other senses, which means that I rarely absorb content in any lasting way.

All of this makes me one of “those students with certain issues.” But if the only students who get agency over their attention are (dis)abled students, this creates multiple dynamics that don’t serve the virtual classroom. For one thing, if a student chooses to keep their camera off and the teacher — even inadvertently — implies that this is only allowed because the student is (dis)abled, this takes away the student’s right to identify their own neurotype, learning style, and abilities on their own time. When  categorizations are imposed from structures and people outside of the groups they’re naming, these labels risk becoming merely broad generalizations that don’t allow for true relational connection, understanding, or privacy— and this ‘others’ (dis)abled students while claiming inclusivity. More simply: it is not inherently shameful to be neurodivergent or (dis)abled, but creating a divide between those who have enough “certain issues” to turn their cameras off and those who do not does more harm than good. Doing this strips the power away from students in either category to claim what they actually need.

Furthermore, why must students have a diagnosis to be able to turn their cameras off, anyway? Are there no other needs a student might have, needs that have nothing to do with (dis)ability? Can students simply… want a visual break? Not want to constantly look at their own face while they’re learning and talking?

Here’s a personal example: I have dealt with body dysmorphia, so regularly viewing my self on camera was difficult for me. But even without that, before entering an overwhelmingly virtual in the face of a global pandemic, humans did not regularly witness themselves in conversation. Can you imagine seeing your own reactions, or hat hair, or spinach in your teeth, while you had a conversation with someone on the street? Of course not. That would be simply bizarre. And so it is: viewing ourselves as we talk is bizarre. It’s extremely distracting, even for someone who is self-confident in their looks. On the days when I’m not feeling self-critical, my eyes are still drawn to looking at the little box with my face in it to see if my hair looks right, what my expression is, how effective my performance of attention looks, if my make-up is still good, etc.

Could we allow for the fact that this, in itself, might be distracting enough for a student to wish to be off-camera? Is it understandable that students might want to listen, or learn, or stretch, or whatever without their peers and teachers being able to see everything they do? Without their peers and teachers seeing into their bedrooms, their homes?

There are other considerations, too. There are a number of reasons why a student may not have the kind of diagnosis that would allow them past this strange “cameras-off” velvet rope, but this doesn’t mean they don’t experience a number of difficulties or conditions. For example, a common result of complex trauma is hypervigilance, and this can cause people to hyperfixate on people’s facial expressions, gestures, and tones in order to scan for any hint of threat. Unfortunately, in complex trauma, the brain sees threat in often innocuous tonal or facial shifts, but the traumatized person usually cannot distinguish this on their own, especially if they are young. A Zoom classroom of faces and responses could be extremely overwhelming for someone struggling with hypervigilance, but there is no guarantee that that student would know they are doing this (scanning) or have any kind of “official” label that would grant them the right to keep their camera off.

In an educators group on social media, someone wrote: “We wouldn’t let students turn their backs in the classroom, and that’s the same thing with the cameras.” But it’s actually the exact opposite. While students with different neurotypes and needs would still have these names in the live classroom environment, students are typically not facing the entire classroom when they speak, or react or listen to something. In my years of classroom experience, I only ever had a handful of students who were comfortable speaking to their peers at the front of the room. In effect, virtual classrooms position every single student at the front of a classroom. The odds that students hate this — even neurotypical students without any complex trauma — are very high.

I suspect that, for some readers, this might be the point where you start to think, “this is all conjecture, we can’t possibly know that students do or don’t have these various desires or reasons for turning their cameras off.” And if you’re thinking that, I agree with you. Because that is the entire point.

We can’t fully know. Students themselves may not fully understand why they occasionally, or even frequently, can’t bear to be on camera. But that is okay. The framework of (dis)ability justice reminds us that when we say access and liberation for all, we literally mean it. We literally mean “all,” because when the most oppressed groups of people have their needs met, this serves everyone else, too. We don’t want a continuation of a world where abled and otherwise privileged people in power grant people their needs as if they were wishes bestowed by a self-congratulatory entity who was in a good mood one day. We don’t want people to only be given accommodations if they can really show us they need it, forcing them to always identify with labels that are heavy with stigma and take scores and scores of tests in order to prove that they deserve help.

In other words: when teachers allow neurodiverse and (dis)abled students to turn their cameras off, the teachers are continuing to rely on the power dynamic of the abled world meeting needs based solely on certain, often oppressive, manufactured qualifications. The very word “allowing” has a power dynamic implicit within it, because it implies permission being given by whomever has the power to give it. Conversely, “if you need to turn your camera off, that’s fine,” communicates to students that we trust them to know what they need, regardless of what paperwork they do or don’t have. That we know, ultimately, that how they uniquely learn and think is not in our control, but that we are glad they are in the room, as they are.

I do understand why my fellow teachers are frustrated. Certainly, I also get frustrated, and I don’t think the frustration itself is wrong or invalid. It is extremely stressful when we can’t see our students' faces or even communicate with them at all. We feel at a loss of how to know how they are doing, whether they are keeping up with the material, and even, for certain situations, if they’re safe. It would be lazy for me to write these off as some kind of minor, peripheral issues; they aren’t.

So let me be very clear: I am not suggesting that giving students the agency over their cameras will magically solve these difficult issues. I am arguing that forcing students to turn their cameras on will make all of these issues exponentially more difficult.

In the podcast Invisibilia’s episode, “The Problem With the Solution,” hosts Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin discuss how so often, the desire to fix something comes from a place of control, and not acceptance. Worse, they demonstrate that this desire to fix can do the opposite, making situations far, far worse. Spiegel and Rosin remind us that no one responds well when viewed as a problem to be fixed. In the context of (dis)ability justice, (dis)abled people are constantly barraged with medical model narratives that they are broken, wrong, and in need of a cure. As teachers, we cannot risk communicating this to any of our students, regardless of neurotype.

In this time of virtual classrooms during a global pandemic, we owe it to ourselves and our students to offer grace, understanding, access without caveat, and creative problem solving that resists easy answers. For students who quite literally never respond in a classroom (in person or virtually), there does need to be some kind of strategy that honors the student’s authority and agency over their own needs, emotions, and wants. A strategy like this could involve multiple teachers, family members, the student(s), school counselors, doctors, and even friends or other significant people in the student’s life, all of whom support the student in getting creative about how to complete and attend to their work in a way that also honors what they need to learn. A strategy could also involve regular reminders that the student can make the choice that suits them. I have used this frequently. The more I tell my students they’re able to take a break when they need, the more likely they will absorb learning when they are back.

Another strategy that I use is something I call “yes, and” pedagogy (borrowed with respect from the world of improvisational comedy). A perfect example happened in a Kindergarten class earlier today, when I was working one on one with a child who was tasked with drawing an animal typically found in snowy climates. The child was allowed to pick an animal, so the child chose a dragon. Whether or not anyone believes in dragons, we can likely all agree that dragons aren’t necessarily known for thriving in snowy areas; dragons are mostly known for breathing fire. But instead of telling the student that he could not draw a dragon, I said yes, and. “A dragon sounds great!” I said. “And can you also tell me an animal that lives in very cold climates?” “A polar bear!” said the child. “Great,” I responded. “Can you draw a dragon AND a polar bear?” In the context of an older student with their camera off, I use “yes, and” as more of a negotiation: “Looks like you need your camera off right now, which is no problem. But can you send me an emoji or a word in the chat to let me know you understand the instructions I just gave?”

We can invite students to draw dragons on the same page as their polar bears. We can negotiate without abandoning structure and accountability. We can honor student’s boundaries while expecting them to honor ours in turn. We can accept that some students will never turn their cameras on, without viewing this as pathological, insulting, or even dangerous to learning. And the best part? We don’t have to like it. We can even hate it. But mandating a cameras-on policy only ostracizes and loses students, pitting them against their teachers in a war over agency while reifying historically oppressive narratives that anything outside a strict normative behavioral code and learning style is deviant, less, or broken. Instead, we have a chance to model profound trust and healthy risk to our students. We can get curious, instead of demanding. We can ask, “Can you, or do you feel comfortable, turning on your camera?” And we can accept — I dare us to accept — when the answer is “no.”