In the thick of July, my colleague Lia Wallace and I dipped our toes into the vast online learning world in order to create and run a virtual version of our in-person summer camp that we named #SHXCamp. It lasted three weeks, like “normal” camp, it culminated in a “performance,” and most importantly it brought together young people from California to Kuwait* to nerd out and bond over their mutual love of all things Shakespeare. Those three weeks—and the month leading up to them—in which we tried and failed to teach ourselves everything we might possibly need to know about online instruction and engagement were eye opening, to say the least. And although I would say without hesitation that our online venture was a resounding success, I was left emotionally and physically drained from the entire experience. I have no idea how our teachers all over this nation managed even part of the spring semester, let alone the fall semester now looming. You all are champions and I am emphatically and forever cheering for you.
As Camp Life Coordinator, it is my responsibility to create and maintain the infrastructure that supports our campers, staff, and guest artists as they navigate our programming. Not unlike my years as a classroom teacher, I have honed the ability to know what we need and when we need it through lived experience and educated guesswork. Over the years I have meticulously created, followed, and updated procedural lists for every activity, facility, and camp event; at this point I’ve got it down to a science, if not an art. But when we made the decision to pivot to an online experience, I had to start from scratch. I realized that the few elements that were once within my control—namely the learning environment and uniform access to ASC’s resources—were now entirely outside of it; the variables I could usually optimize through planning and forethought, like active camper participation and investment, become even further out of reach with distance learning. I had literally no way to mandate my campers’ environment or even to enforce their attendance at any event. Distance learning is utterly at the mercy of the participants’ intrinsic motivation to “play along.” What a terrifying notion.
Never again will I take the privilege of eye contact or body language for granted. Never again will I scoff at reading the “vibes” in a room. Seriously. Discerning what authentic engagement looks like in an online context is tricky, to say the least. “Resting Zoom Face” is an inscrutable mystery parfait wrapped in an enigma and topped with riddles. Chat threads might seem off topic at first glance, but can also reveal a deeper level of engagement than you thought possible. The only way to know for sure is to invite active participation as often as possible. If you want them to want to “play along,” you have to hand over some of your precious control and actually let them play.
I have found the “annotate” function in Zoom to be invaluable (and really fun!) for this purpose. Depending on what you want, students can add typed text, draw, or stamp directly onto whatever screen you’re currently sharing. This became quite useful when teaching our text workshops like Verse or Rhetoric to campers.
As you can see in the above screen grab from our Zoomed Verse workshop, campers used different colors to scan these sample lines from Romeo & Juliet on a Google Slide. This helped me differentiate between their markings and ask relevant questions of each annotator (“I see that the person using dark green was the only one who marked ‘Gallop’ with iambic stress – can you share your thinking behind that choice?”). The annotate function also allows them to physically practice marking scansion, which is a major objective of the workshop.
A little later in the workshop, I asked campers to go through their own texts and scan their lines, typing any line that was “weird” (irregular) into the chat. Once they did that, I was able to copy and paste their lines into a blank slide on my presentation, share it with everyone, and allow them to annotate each other’s lines. Not only did this activity help me gauge their understanding of scansion and engagement in the workshop, it generated thoughtful discussion from the campers as they essentially crowd-sourced scansion choices with one another. Here are some screenshots of how that turned out:
I highly encourage you to practice letting your students annotate and otherwise interact with you and each other during Zoom presentations. Yes, it looks like a hot mess. But it also shows me their thinking in real time and allows me to address questions as they occur. Besides, one little click of the “erase all” button “clears us of this deed” as it were and allows you to start over or move on. Our Road Ready resource this month is a Google slideshow I created as a companion to our Verse Workshop lesson plan. Let your students take the wheel for a while and have fun finding “the weird stuff” together!
*Yes, we had a Kuwaiti camper this year and he was an incredible addition to our ensemble!