Confusing and Messy: A Brief Return to Zoom Teaching and What Happened Next

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Confusing and Messy: A Brief Return to Zoom Teaching and What Happened Next

Neurodivergent Teaching

Author Susan Bernstein on a walk after class during a recent snowfall.png

Before pivoting back to a "snow day" spent teaching on Zoom, I took a brief morning walk. 

Photo by Susan Bernstein 13 February 2024


Recently, weather forecasters predicted that my city was about to receive a nor’easter with high winds and 5-8 inches of snow. The afternoon before the storm, public schools announced that they were pivoting to remote learning, and the university system that I teach for made the same announcement shortly thereafter. Back to Zoom, we were told. 

I told myself that it’s only for one day, not the rest of the semester. Our previously scheduled in-class Discovery Draft would readily adapt to Zoom. For the lab hour, students would write reflections, which grew out of field notes I wrote as students were composing their Discovery Drafts (see the end of this post for reflection questions).   

My field notes reflected previous Bits posts about teaching in social isolation and  my earlier frustrations with Zoom, the space of muted mics, blank screens, and occasional chat questions. After my return to in-person learning a year ago, Zoom seemed even more jarringly inadequate. I missed the instantaneous feedback of the classroom, the facial expressions, body language, sighs and groans perceptible in person, but not on Zoom. 

When I read the students’ remote classroom writing this time around, the frustration really hit home. I had miscalculated the amount of writing that students would be able to complete on Zoom, even as I had remained on camera, offered guidance, and encouraged the use of chat for questions and concerns. 

The discovery draft submissions were shorter than I had expected, and the reflections suggested that students needed more time to complete the prompt. So I planned a second day of in-class writing, in the hope that students would have an opportunity to complete their drafts in person. This way, I would have more writing to assess and students would have more opportunity to practice critical thinking to complete the discovery draft assignment.

What followed was messiness and confusion that I should have anticipated. Where, students asked, was the instructor's feedback? Why didn’t the class offer a peer review session? I replied that these processes would take place after the discovery drafts were completed. But how, the students asked, could they possibly complete the drafts on their own without further guidance from someone else? 


An important part of the writing process, I offered, is struggling with the writing process. Besides, you should have an opportunity to see what you can do on your own before comments or assessment from anyone else. Perhaps it’s an unfamiliar strategy, but it’s an important aim of the course–to learn new practices to grow your own writing for a variety of situations, not only for English writing assignments.

All the same, class ended–at least for me–with messiness and confusion. Moreover, much of the city received little more than 3 inches of snow.  I remembered in-person classes on days much worse than this, and, yes, even a day in elementary school when I walked home a mile in a blizzard because the buses couldn’t navigate the roads home from school. 

But that long-ago blizzard was not this brief February snowfall. “It Was a Mess,” the New York Times suggested, recounting later that same day how  the public school system’s remote learning system (different from Zoom) proved inaccessible. Due to a technical glitch, many students and teachers were unable to login, and some parents who were privileged to have a day off took their children sledding.

The unplanned switch back to remote learning felt more like an unnecessary throwback to the traumatic days of pandemic lockdown. Yet, in remembering the seemingly endless trauma of lockdown, I gained a new perspective on my struggles with anxiety. Those struggles felt deeply rooted in my inability to adapt to the new conditions of online teaching. But after a one-day pivot backward, I felt something shift in my brain.

The real problem, I thought, is Zoom. Or rather, the problem is an assumption about accessibility: if a large system is in fact inaccessible, the burden of creating accommodations is left with individuals who are struggling. In the midst of the pandemic’s social isolation, I wrote often about the struggles with online learning that are left unspoken and documented years before the Covid-19 pandemic by Beth Hewlett, including insufficient privacy for staying on camera, inadequate access to Wifi, and inaccessible platforms for neurodivergent and other disabled learners. Zoom exacerbated these problems, as well as the stigma and embarrassment of  not conforming to the current status quo in the wake of the pandemic.

In other words: Education, at best, remains messy and complicated. There is no one-size-fits-all method or methodology for any teaching and learning, in or out of the classroom. 

Nevertheless, that insight also applied to how I planned the lesson the day after we returned to the classroom. I had assumed everyone would adapt to drafting on their own for two class periods. That clearly wasn’t the case. In the midst of the pandemic, I made a video slideshow to explain grading criteria, and to offer suggestions to alleviate frustration with the writing process: Don’t worry if the process is messy and confusing, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I would need to revisit that lesson now, and to work on adapting it for new perspectives and ever-shifting circumstances–inside and outside the classroom. 


In a grading criteria video I made for remote learning, 

a masked dinosaur shares suggestions on the writing process.

Screenshot by Susan Bernstein, February 16, 2024; video circa 2021.

In a grading criteria video I made for remote learning, a masked dinoraur shares suggestions on the writing process.jpg

 In a grading criteria video I made for remote learning, 

a masked dinosaur shares suggestions on the writing process.

Screenshot by Susan Bernstein, February 16, 2024; video circa 2021.


3 Questions for Reflection (class assignment):

  1. In reviewing your in-class draft, what gives you the most joy? What do you think your audience will like about your draft? Why?
  2. Take a look at the University of Toronto document The Transition to University Writing. What questions do you have about this document? Based on this document and what you already know about writing, what would be your most important focus for revision? What do you want to learn about revision to better grow your writing?
  3. What feedback, questions, or support do you need from me for revising your draft by the due date? Where should I concentrate my attention?
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  1. Technical Glitches: Starting the return to Zoom teaching was akin to a car breakdown; technical issues such as connectivity problems, software updates, and hardware failures stalled the process.

  2. Adaptation Period: Teachers and students had to quickly re-learn Zoom’s interface and functionalities, like a driver reacquainting themselves with vehicle controls after a long hiatus.

  3. Student Engagement: Keeping students engaged was challenging, much like trying to steer a car through a crowded, narrow alley without losing focus.

  4. Classroom Management: Managing a Zoom classroom felt like juggling multiple tasks while driving, ensuring everyone was on the right track and following the lesson.

  5. Resource Accessibility: Ensuring all students had access to the necessary resources was crucial, akin to ensuring a car has enough fuel for a long journey.

  6. Distractions: The home environment introduced numerous distractions, similar to trying to drive through a bustling market full of unexpected obstacles.

  7. Communication Barriers: Miscommunications were frequent, resembling the difficulty of navigating with a faulty GPS, leading to confusion and delays.

  8. Fatigue: Zoom fatigue set in quickly for both teachers and students, comparable to the exhaustion felt after a long, arduous drive.

  9. Parental Involvement: Increased parental involvement in the learning process was necessary, like needing a co-driver to navigate unfamiliar terrain.

  10. Assessment Challenges: Conducting fair and effective assessments over Zoom was complex, much like performing car maintenance with limited tools.

  11. Technological Dependency: The entire process highlighted the dependency on technology, similar to the reliance on a car’s engine and vital components.

  12. Improvement and Adaptation: Over time, both teachers and students adapted, improving their Zoom skills and finding ways to make the best of the situation, akin to a car recovery service getting a stalled vehicle back on the road.