Homeschool on Zoom – A Digital Ecology Class in the Age of COVID

By Jeffrey Mazur

This spring I was excited to teach Digital Ecology again. It was the class I taught to my Homeschool II group in 2016 when I first joined the Hitchcock Center. Over the winter I had revamped the curriculum to incorporate new ideas like using stationary wilderness cameras and having my students create iNaturalist accounts to contribute to citizen science data. I was excited to see how I would approach the content of the class differently with these new innovations. What I was not prepared for was the closing of the Hitchcock Center, the day after our first class on March 10th.

The week of March 17th, was a flurry of action and reaction at the Hitchcock Center. We wrestled with having to cancel all of our programming, and the ramifications of that decision for our community and staff. During that time, I wrestled with the idea of how to bring some normalcy to my world and that of my students. I wanted to give my students a chance to connect with each other. I felt lucky that the class I had planned to teach was Digital Ecology, which I thought would be possible to teach effectively over Zoom.

After putting out feelers to my homeschool families, I was happy to have eight out of the ten students express interest in joining the class. The next step was to figure out how to transform the curriculum to be effective and engaging for kids on Zoom. The idea of having kids on screen more, felt like the antithesis of the values of an environmental educator, but that’s what the times required, so I endeavored to create an experience for students that would remain engaging, meaningful, and provide a direct connection to nature.

Gallery of Digital Ecology Student Photography

I entered this teaching experience with an open mind, and began the first Zoom class listening to my students. We talked about what would work best for them – the length and frequency of our classes – which ended up being structured at 10-11am and 1-2pm, every other Tuesday.

Teaching is an iterative process, and in each class I checked back in with the class about what is working and what isn’t for them and made changes based on the feedback I had received. After a few weeks, we decided every week was too much. There were other challenges along the way, figuring out how to prevent students from annotating happy faces and drawing on each others photos, and dealing with the occasional Wi-Fi struggles, frozen screens, and audio mishaps that created strange unpleasant electronic sounds.

We journeyed through many topics together, beginning with photo composition, and how photography can be used to study and appreciate nature. We looked at processes and systems; change over time and perspective. The kids created and documented Andy Goldsworthy-inspired art projects, added their photos and data to iNaturalist, created field guides, and most importantly, in my mind, learned how to give each other constructive feedback and appreciations for the photos that they were sharing.

After nine weeks, we had come to a good balance: more games, less talking. Add a photo of the week for feedback, high-level home projects between classes, and this sounds intuitive, but…focusing on the fun!

During the last day of class, the students curated and presented a photo gallery slide show to their families on Zoom. Each student got to highlight their creative eye for photography and share some of themselves in the process. What was most satisfying and heartwarming to me, is the appreciation they shared for the class itself, for being able to be together with their friends, and to feel for a day every other week, that life was normal. Providing them with that feeling was even more important to me than the content they learned. I felt blessed and grateful at this odd time in history to be able to offer them this opportunity to be in a caring nature-based community while physically distant.

Feedback for Digital Ecology Homeschool

“In the midst of a less scheduled, but emotionally full time, Tuesday’s Hitchcock Zoom became a highlight and a sweet spot for my daughter and many others. In a few short hours, there was time for meeting together, intentional outdoor exploration, self critique and, of course, fun and humor: ingredients for joy that could easily have fallen by the wayside in these times. We are so grateful to Jeff and the Hitchcock Center for making them a priority!!” Allegra Haupt, Homeschool Parent

“I really enjoyed the class and how we could still do it during a time where people are connecting with friends and community less. I learned a lot about photography skills and improved my photos each class. It was fun to have things to work on and look forward to during the week!” Aria, Homeschool Digital Ecology Student

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