How to Break Through Zoom Gloom

How to Break Through Zoom Gloom (Unsplash / Surface)

In “Smile for the Camera: Why Screen Time Has Us Seriously Self-Conscious,” YR Media's Olivia Ho describes the infinite array of digital distractions — YouTube rabbit holes, TikTok scrolls — that are all too familiar for students undergoing pandemic-era education. But lately Olivia has been struck by an aspect of her student experience that's received less attention.

"When you’re on Zoom, it feels like everyone, including yourself, is staring at you," she writes. It's like we're living in a constant state of selfie, which just dials up the pressure to lead a "flawless social media-worthy life." Adding to the pressure, students’ home life and school experience are smashed together into one unwalled virtual classroom, prone to disappear without warning anytime the wifi glitches out. 

Olivia's proposed remedy for Zoom gloom is a learning environment so authentically connected to young people's interests that, in her words, "I'm too busy listening to my peers to stare at my own face." In this resource, we've taken cues from young people like Olivia, combined with best practices in critical pedagogy, to highlight insights you can use to re-envision remote learning in a way that promotes deep engagement, despite that ever-present Zoom gaze.

OLIVIA SAYS: “A self-driven model of learning, in which students work on independently created projects, would be more motivating.”


This suggestion points to less lecturing and testing and more space for students to demonstrate what they have learned in a variety of ways. 

If you have any flexibility at all around curriculum and assessment, seize the opportunity to assign projects as a way to gauge student learning. Then, give your students a platform to share with their peers in a format of their choosing. Olivia is clued into the fact that not every student is showing up to the virtual class in the same way. So sharing a project doesn’t have to be limited to a presentation via a video conferencing platform. It can also be a custom site (you can use Wix and Squarespace for free), recorded audio, an image (or series of images), or a collection of resources, depending on the subject(s) you teach. 

OLIVIA SAYS: “Re-envisioning what remote learning looks like now could be as simple as working in more non-academic social time to rebuild (or create from scratch) the classroom camaraderie of in-person learning.”


In Teaching Community, bell hooks writes,“Teachers and professors cannot assume that because they hold valuable information that students need to know this will automatically lead to a feeling of community.” Olivia echoes this sentiment when she contrasts the engaged learning environment that has sprung up around her youth-led podcast, This Teenage Life, compared to some of her everyday classroom experiences. 

Something students say can make a big difference is incorporating a variety of ways for students to touch base with one another.  

Icebreaker questions at the beginning of each class (or session of class, if the school day is broken up) can help. And when you have students come up with those questions, they are the ones guiding how they are learning more about their peers. Don’t forget to mix up the way students answer the question. Maybe one day the question of the day is answered verbally (either as a whole class, small groups, or pairs) and another it’s an image, GIF or link. You can use a digital survey tool so students can see how their peers answered in a fancy chart.

Questions to consider in response to Olivia’s advice:

  • How are we building a “genuine community based on trust” in our classroom? (b. hooks)
  • How are we “making the class a democratic setting where everyone feels a responsibility to contribute”? (b. hooks)

OLIVIA SAYS:  “...allowing young people to be the creators, rather than consumers, of their education.”


Like most things, this one is a lot easier in theory than it is in action. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire refers to the "banking model" of education, where teachers deposit knowledge into the minds of students. This model is particularly attractive in pandemic times because it’s so much harder now to adapt your in-person curriculum than it is to power through modules and send out assignments. Olivia calls for more engagement than the banking model of education has to offer. 

Good news: this feedback means that your students will shoulder some of their learning responsibilities, as long as they have the room and support they need to exercise authentic agency. We know it can be awkward to solicit input from your students. Zoom silences are somehow more deafening that in-person silences. You might try sending out Google forms and incorporating “choose-your-own-adventure” type components into lessons and assignments. 

Questions to consider in response to Olivia’s advice:

  • Am I doing things that my students could be doing?
  • Am I providing opportunities for my students’ interests to guide their learning?

BONUS ADVICE: Embrace Imperfection 

Olivia and her peers aren't the only ones right now feeling tremendous pressure to live that "flawless social media-worthy life." Teachers feel it too. We are so grateful for the extraordinary ways that teachers are showing up for students in a school year like no other. We are hearing that your students feel the same way, even you can't always sense it through that all-too-inscrutable Zoom gaze.

This learning resource was produced by Nimah Gobir. Thanks to Clifford Lee, Kathleen Arada and Stephanie Stiede for expert feedback.

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