Cartoonist Taylor Dow on Recreating “In-Between Spaces” in the Virtual Classroom

Give them autonomy. Draw dogs. Encourage side conversations in the chat box. Embrace the garbage, love the trash.

Oct 29, 2020 · 6 min read
Zoom Whiteboard creation: Taylor Dow and students

Comic artist and educator Taylor Dow has been running youth arts programs for 13–18 year-olds over Zoom since the pandemic ended in-person after-school programs in the spring. During a recent Creative Virtual Teaching Solutions workshop at foundry10, Taylor shared good, bad, and beautifully awkward stories from teaching in the virtual classroom.

“We all have to see ourselves on Zoom. Imagine being a teenager and having a mirror in front of you while you talk. It’s brutal,” said Taylor.

Several foundry10 educators agreed with this sentiment over Zoom chat. Taylor paused the lecture to read the Zoom chat comments aloud and laughed, prompting more foundry10 team members to share idiosyncrasies of online teaching in the chat box:

“I’m always checking to make sure there’s no glare from my glasses,” wrote foundry10 Digital Audio educator Chelsi Gorzelsky.

“I can’t stop looking at my own mouth,” wrote foundry10 Artistic Design educator, Jon Garaizar.

Encouraging side conversations in the Zoom chat box is a core tenant of the unofficial Taylor Dow teaching philosophy.

“Those in-between spaces; the experience of looking at the back of someone’s head; the experience of wanting to make friends; the experience of being in a hallway; the experience of eating together — it’s all gone,” said Taylor. “Finding ways to fill those spaces is very important for students.”

Taylor designed a virtual classroom that lowers the stakes and tries to fill the social void left in the wake of COVID-19 by providing access to playful, engaging virtual learning experiences.

“It’s not so much about what they’re making, not even so much about what they’re learning, but more a question of — can this place be a respite?” said Taylor. “We’re all so worried about what’s coming next, what came before. Try to give your students some relief from that.”

Taylor recognizes that running an online after-school program that students elected to participate in is different from the daily challenges public school educators are reckoning with in the virtual space. Here are Taylor’s top tips for building a supportive, fun, and autonomous space to learn in the virtual classroom.

When you enter a Zoom meeting room, you’re just there all of the sudden. When you leave one-by-one, it can feel awkward, lonely and depressing. Doing the same thing every time can create a comforting routine and take the pressure off students who are already living through such uncertain times. A few ideas from Taylor:

  • Say hello to students by name as they enter (especially if cameras are turned off) to help override how the Zoom algorithm prioritizes “the loudest person in the room”.
  • Draw Dogs. It’s great to start any class with a low-stakes drawing game. Taylor’s students draw a dog based on a prompt in a short amount of time. (Examples: Draw a dog from the moon in 50 seconds, draw the longest dog ever in 30 seconds, draw a dog in 1 second.) Drawing the full body of the dog is encouraged. Bad drawing is also celebrated. Students then share their favorite dogs. “The point is to get you out of your thinking, critiquing yourself brain, and into whatever part of your brain contains infinite dogs,” says Taylor.
Alijah Benbrook draws a dog from the moon in Taylor Dow’s workshop
  • Try an unusual icebreaker: “If you could be part kangaroo, part bird or part fish which would you be and why?”
  • Have a closing ritual. Ending a Zoom meeting immediately cuts the energy of the room off. It can feel suddenly lonely. To leave on a good note, before hitting “end meeting for all” encourage a parting action. (Example: On the count of three everyone…clap your hands…strike a pose.)

In the virtual space there’s often a sense of, “I’m here on Zoom, stuff just happens to me.” Taylor recommends starting off class by letting students know that they can always turn their camera off, use the bathroom, or eat food. “The trade off for this is so worth it,” says Taylor. “The more autonomy you can give them, the better.”

  • Support Individuation. The school year is a time for kids to reinvent themselves and try on different identities. “This year I’m going to be different.” How can we recreate this online? Taylor suggests encouraging students to change their names, add their pronouns and a fun emoji in Zoom settings. Example: ⚡️Handa (she/her)⚡️🪐
  • Draw together. At the beginning of class, open a whiteboard, draw a welcome sign, and play music softly. Allow participants to draw on the board and change the name of the class. “People will draw terrible ridiculous things because its impossible to draw with a mouse and its funny,” said Taylor. “Get them into this place of, yes, this is my class, I have autonomy here.”
  • Managing the class troll. If a student is trolling or being inappropriate — just put them in a break out room and say “Hey what’s up? Do you want to be in this class? And if not, why don’t you come back tomorrow.”

Rather than expressing aggravation or embarrassment when the technology (inevitably) fails, Taylor recommends embracing the crappy tools and features we have to work with and finding the humor. “We all turn into little kids with these tools. They are so silly,” says Taylor.

Art: Alex Grey. Meme of art: Taylor Dow
  • The chat box is something you don’t have in a normal classroom. Cross talk during in-person class is very distracting. But chat in a Zoom class where students are hanging out and bonding, that’s really great, says Taylor. Let the chat box be the students’ domain for side chatter. “I think a lot of young people are on Twitch, Youtube streams. They’re really comfortable communicating that way.”
  • Take the temperature. This is a great activity for a mid-class break. Screen share a page of emoji animals or food items and have everyone use the annotate tool to circle which emoji represents them or which emoji they want to eat at this halfway point in the class. Try experimenting with unconventional combinations: what happens if you ask your class to pick an emoji that describes their emotional state, but have them choose from the tools & objects emoji page?
Favorite foods at foundry10
  • Foundry10 bonus activity: Have each student choose a medium (narrative, visual, sound, or movement). The narrative person quickly makes up a creature and descriptor. Then each member quickly (3mins) creates their interpretation of the creature in their designated medium. When time is up, everyone presents their interpretations (tells a story, makes sound effects, moves like the creature, etc) to perform the full creature on Zoom for the class.
Digital Audio educator Chelsi Gorzelsky playing the Owl

The Takeaway

Don’t fight against the reality of the Zoom classroom. Accept that the digital space will never be the in-person classroom. It’s hopelessly flawed, messy, and often ridiculous. But it’s what we’ve got. Encourage students to show up as themselves and take ownership of the class. Give them autonomy and moments to bond and chat with each other. Use icebreakers that are unrelated to the subject you’re teaching. Be playful.

“Our priorities as educators have to adjust to a climate where the basic needs of students are being met less and less often,” says Taylor. “I think the best possible outcome of a class is that your students will want to trade phone numbers when it’s over."

You can do this.

Learn more about Taylor Dow and their artwork here.

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