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This Is Your Class on Zoom: Videoconference Literacies During COVID Quarantine

By Christy Wessel-Powell and Julie Rust
 | Jul 17, 2020

Young girl at laptop“Hi! Hiiii!”
“Hi! Hi, Rylan!”
“Hi, Penny. Penny!”

A chorus of enthusiastic 6-year-olds wave and smile from the gridded squares of a Zoom conference. Multiple voices overlap and vie for attention from their friends to show off pets, toys, bedrooms, and new haircuts. Then the clock hits the predetermined class time, and the teacher begins morning meeting.

“Everyone, remember to hit mute,” she prompts, smiling. “It is so wonderful to see all of your faces this morning!”

It is day 15 of e-learning, and we have one eye on our professional role supporting current and future teachers and the other eye on our children, who are now learning remotely at home and navigating a host of new digital platforms and interactional norms during quarantine.

Across the world, committed K–12 teachers have been given the challenging task of managing virtual classes and have done so with incredible grace. As the parents of elementary-age children, we are in awe of how many new literacies our children and their teachers have learned in such a short time.

Virtual real-time (synchronous) class meetings in the midst of this crisis are not the norm in every school district or community. The fact that our children’s schools can support (and expect) families to have internet access and devices to attend class Zoom meetings regularly indicates immense privilege. Many other districts and families are focused on supporting children’s most important needs: access to food, mental health, and safety. However, working from home while our own children use Zoom has been an eye-opening opportunity to report on new literacies happening up close.

What kinds of literacies are required of young children and their teachers on Zoom or similar digital meeting platforms? There’s good old traditional literacy at work here: listening, speaking and, of course, read-alouds. But we have been privy to a peripheral view of other literacies that have unfurled during this crisis. Even when synchronous conferencing is frustrating or didn’t go smoothly (teachers’ words), meaning making manifests in many surprising forms, weaving together social, digital, and even artifactual literacies.

Social literacies

We have heard teachers confess how grateful they are that this instructional shift happened in the last quarter of the school year rather than the first largely because they already had established relationships face-to-face and procedures for being together. The move to online classes necessitated a host of new routines and procedures that promote social literacies (e.g., ways of communicating and connecting with others), but teachers were able to build off preestablished classroom procedures.

Now teachers are using videoconferencing for whole-class sessions as well as small reading groups and individual conferences. During videoconferences, students are adapting to new norms established by their teachers, like muting themselves to avoid background noise, leaving toys out of the picture during discussion, turning their video camera on, and sitting up in the frame.

Even informal socializing occurs on these platforms. For instance, it is not uncommon for a handful of students to stay on the video chat to connect after the official class is over.

Digital literacies

It doesn’t matter which platform they use, students and teachers are discovering how to communicate in countless ways using digital literacies.

Take, for example, the mere process of getting ready for a synchronous class meeting. We’ve watched our own young children set a digital alarm to remind them when it’s time for class. They choose the best lighting for visibility, turn on their device and find and click the meeting link, and frame their video so it avoids the messy pile in one corner and instead highlights the pretty view out of their window. Once they log in, they often participate in informal chat using the text-chat feature or spoken voice. Sometimes they may start muted, depending on the routine their teachers established.

Teachers, too, are making sense of these tools and how to best scaffold their use. For example, one kindergarten teacher played the song “Who Stole the Cookie From the Cookie Jar” so that the class could practice muting and unmuting themselves. Another teacher modeled for third-grade students an appropriate (and inappropriate) use of the chat function during remote learning.

Artifactual literacies

Just because students and teachers are engaging more through digital platforms doesn’t mean that physical artifacts and spaces have lost their significance. On the contrary, artifactual literacies often feature prominently in Zoom sessions. We have noticed teachers deliberately incorporating meaningful nontech objects and experiences into video classes. A common practice in elementary video meetings involves a digital version of show-and-tell, during which students take turns showing off something or someone special in their homes. Situating the learning community in toys, siblings, and home spaces undoubtedly serves to connect students and teachers in powerful ways and reinforces how our rootedness to things and places around us makes us human.

Even when synchronous video conferences don’t go smoothly, students (and their teachers) are still engaging in and developing important 21st-century literacies.

Christy Wessel-Powell ( is an assistant professor of teacher education at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, where she teaches elementary literacy methods. She is also a mother of two great kids, ages 6 and 8, who probably get too much screen time these days. She has just joined Twitter, so be sure to follower her at @cwesselpowell.

Julie Rust ( is an administrator and teaching/learning coach at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland, MS. Her three kids—ages 6, 8, and 11—have taught her pretty much everything she knows.Follow her on Twitter: @jurust.

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