Using Videos to Reflect on Practice, Student Identity, and Agency

I hate watching myself on video. I squirm. I flinch. I last, I don’t know, a maximum of 9 seconds…?

And now I have to teach in an environment where a video of myself is running on my screen all day, every day. Painful. Exhausting!

One of the surprising advantages, however, of teaching on zoom is that it’s supremely easy to film lessons. There’s no fancy prep work. With a few quick keystrokes, or the click of a button, zoom starts recording. You would think I would hate it — and part of me truly does — but it’s been helpful. Using recordings from class, I am able to explore some questions I have about the learning environment in my different sections, without needing another teacher in the room. The more I review the clips, the more I am able to dig into some big issues around status, identity, and agency — issues of equity and social justice.

I do this thing that I mostly hate… in honor of my students.

Why I Share

It’s hard for me to watch these clips. I talk too much. My vocal tics seem to have become exaggerated over the years, and I cringe listening to some of the inelegant ways that I respond to students. (The students are, in contrast, brilliant! Seriously, these sixth graders are amazing.)

I feel vulnerable putting these out here. That said, this blog has been a wonderful vehicle for reflection for me over the years. Writing helps me process. So here goes nothing…

Who is sharing their ideas during class? And who isn’t?

As an instructional coach, I helped teachers collect data. Sometimes, this meant that I recorded who spoke during class discussions, and whose work we shared. I still try to record some of this data, in casual ways, but it’s hard. I want to be in the moment, and frequently I’m the only teacher in the ‘room.’

So now I hit ‘record,’ and I set all of the chat data to autosave.

At the beginning of every class, I remind students that we are here to learn with and from one another. We share and honor ‘rough draft’ thinking, and sometimes revise and change course midway through a sentence. I encourage students to participate in any way they feel comfortable. This includes unmuting themselves to share out loud, writing in the chat, collaborating in a breakout room, and listening. (Listening is a critical part of the process!)

In all of my classes, there are a few students who seem more likely to unmute themselves to contribute. I try to make certain that they do not overpower the conversation. The chat feature helps; some students are more comfortable writing their ideas down there, and I am able to amplify them by reading them out loud. Other students may also focus more on listening and then signally to indicate agreement or disagreement. Having now recorded a few sessions, I was able to track whether it’s always the same person to unmute first.

the start of a slow reveal graph with one class

Of course I want these students to continue sharing! I am grateful for their insightful contributions. These students are thoughtful, work well with others, and listen closely when others are speaking, too. (I adore them! How could I not?) But also: I wonder if a few students might defer to these vocal students, too. I wonder about ways to include other voices and opinions. How do other students want to participate on any given day/within any given activity? What might these participation trends say about status within the classroom? How can I disrupt patterns around status?

This brought me back to Deb Ball’s talk on discretionary spaces.

@Deborah_Ball/ (slide deck)

I do not think that ‘unmuting’ to speak out loud should be the gold standard for participation. However, it is the loudest one. When students type in the chat, students can read it, and I try to amplify their voice by reading it out loud, but it’s not holding the floor like speaking out loud. In one of my sections, the students most likely to unmute are Black and Latine. In another section, the students most likely to unmute are Asian. In another class, they’re white. What allows a student to feel comfort enough to take the risk to unmute? How can I monitor participation? How can I make certain that students of all backgrounds, but especially those coming from historically marginalized groups, feel comfortable.

How does the activity or the purpose of the activity influence who participates?

What impacts student participation? Are there certain times of class where students feel more welcome and engaged? For example, are there some students who like to participate in the warm ups, while others may prefer to participate in the closing discussions/synthesis after they’ve had more chance to wrestle with the ideas? Are there activities that feel more open and inviting?

One warm up that feels particularly invitational, and encourages underrepresented student voices to share, is “Notice & Wonder.” In this routine, I share an image or a prompt, and gives students time to think about what they notice and what they wonder.

Students who do not regularly participate in class discussions were writing up a storm in the chat! A few quieter students unmuted themselves, as well. (Of course, I talk too much in the video, and frequently ask leading questions, but there are some really lovely moments towards the end of the clip.)

How do I deal with negative student interactions?

My students are generally kind and amazing and honestly have me questioning whether this is real life. (The English teacher agrees with me: where did these magical kids come from?) That does not mean that they are without their sour days, or their negative interactions.

Sometimes, I even capture these on video. In fact, later on in the slow reveal graph video, there is an interaction between several students that I wish I had gone differently. I will not post it here. In the clip, one student — let’s call her Phoebe — says that she thinks that the orange line might represent the number of homeless veterans. (We had just discussed that we think the red line might represent that quantity.)

The students who respond to her start out gentle — “actually it says that homelessness fell.” Phoebe immediately backed off, sounding dejected. “Oh. Okay. Never mind, then.” I decided that we should unpack the word ‘fell’ there. “But what does it mean that it fell?” The students explained, and Phoebe listened. Phoebe then added, “honestly, maybe that describes the red line, then. Like red is going down…” I wanted to celebrate how Phoebe revised her thinking, but before I could say anything, another student said, “yeah, um, we already wrote all that in the chat. And talked about it. Like we’ve already figured this out.”

It was unnecessarily curt, and as frustrating as it can be to rehash ideas, it was an important learning moment for Phoebe. She was a little quieter after getting shut down. I did not stand up for her in any meaningful way. I wish I had used the name it, claim it, stop it framework to discuss how we interact with one another in that moment.

Phoebe has seemed at ease in class since then, but I know that these little microaggressions can have a much larger impact. I need to watch out for them.

What videos help me do

I wrote yesterday about how I use photos and screenshots from class to help me dig deeper into student thinking. This is essential work, and it helps me support students mathematically and in developing a strong mathematical identity.

And videos are 100 times more intense.

When I watch a recording from class, I’m able to notice some of the dynamics I may have missed in the moment. Then I’m able to pay close attention to the mathematical ideas, and the questions I asked. Then I am able to rewatch again, with a different focus. These videos force me to step outside of those generic, instinctual feelings we all have after a lesson: “that went well.” “Oof. That didn’t.”

Our instincts are the direct product of our biases. Was that class that had me glowing with Teacher’s High really as productive as I thought? What good things happened in that rough lesson fourth period? Sometimes, we need to break free from our intuition. We might even need to reprogram how we think about what happens during class.

Of course I want my students to develop strong mathematical understandings and fluencies — but it is also important that they develop agency and identity within mathematics. In spite of my fatigue from pandemic teaching, I continuously strive to find ways to counteract the biases that my students encounter on a daily basis. It’s one way that I can work towards a larger, societal goal of dismantling white supremacy and systematic racism.

“Too much activism without enough inner work, insight, or examination of conscience inevitably leads to violence—to the self, to the project at hand, and invariably to others.”

-Richard Rohr @RichardRohrOFM (c/o Lauren Baucom)

If I’m going to even pretend that this work matters, I need to be willing to put myself in an uncomfortable position. I need to be willing to ask myself hard questions and look for actual evidence.

So, as painful as it is, I will continue to record and later return to lessons. For them.


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