Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Want Webcams

I want to install webcams in our classroom. I’ve sat down not once, but twice in recent days with the intention of writing about this abiding desire, but have gotten lost in the flow of the prose and wound up writing about something else entirely. (That’s one of the great joys and difficulties of no longer writing for hire.)

I want webcams installed around our classroom in such a way that every corner of the room can be observed remotely. And since I’m being wishful here, I’d also like microphones installed over each of our stations so that our conversations can be selectively overheard by those same internet observers.

Of course, re-reading the last paragraph, I can already see the problem I’ve had in writing about this. In my efforts to lead up to it gently, to work up to it in a way that won’t raise everyone’s Big-Brother-surveillance-state-no-privacy warning flag, I’ve wound up writing around it to the point of not writing about it at all.

That said, I would love for the parents and grandparents of Woodland Park students to have the ability, while in the midst of the drudgery of their morning at the office or of housework, or while miles away on business, or simply geographically separated for large chunks of the year by the accident of our mobile society (as many grandparents are), to have this ability to peek into and remotely share their treasured preschoolers’ lives.

There isn’t a teacher’s union out there that would agree to this, I’m sure. And I know there are many teachers who would freak out at the prospect of having remote parent eyes and ears upon them as they go about their work, but as a cooperative teacher, that’s already a condition of my employment. My every move is already observed by the kids’ parents because each of them is right there with me at least one day a week, working as assistant teachers.

I’ve written here before about how the cooperative model’s un-hierarchical nature – whereby the parents are my collective boss outside the classroom, while I’m their “boss” inside – leads to the kind of collaborative environment that is wonderfully conducive to educating young children. I’d like to think I’d still teach with as much energy and focus in a traditional setting, but it certainly doesn’t hurt knowing that the parents will know if I don’t give it my all every day.

But this post is about those webcams.

When my daughter Josephine attended Latona 3-5’s Cooperative Preschool, we moved into the North Seattle Community College laboratory preschool facility for her 4-year-old year. This classroom features a full wall of one-way mirror observation windows, microphones over every table, and a closed-circuit camera for observing the playground. Even before I’d started to think about becoming a teacher, I would grab a cup of coffee each morning that I wasn’t working in the classroom, and set up shop in the observation room. At first it was just to follow the adventures of my own child, but it wasn’t long before I began to follow those of the other children as well. When I’m in a roomful of children, I can’t help but drop to my knees to immerse myself in their world. This observation room gave me the chance to learn about preschoolers from a whole new perspective. It was particularly instructive, for instance, to observe how the presence or absence of an adult affected play, something I could never have learned by staying in the room. This experience made me not only a better teacher, but a better parent.

As I envision it, Woodland Park’s webcams would be installed in such a way that each of our major classroom areas could be observed, giving parents and other loved ones the opportunity to follow their child as he moves around the room. (Terry, one of our 3-5 dads, joked that maybe each of the kids should have tiny cameras embedded in their nametags to provide a first-person perspective of their daily experience.) If we could add the microphones, they could even choose to listen in to the wonderful things they say.

Yes, we would have security/privacy matters to think through and I don’t know how many stay-at-home parents would take advantage of the webcams – after all, preschool is a chance for a break – but I can imagine working parents keeping a window open on their computer screens as a way to stay connected, not to mention the opportunity these webcams would present for parents who travel for business. And I know that there are a lot of grandparents across the country who would schedule their lives around watching their grandchildren in preschool.

So now I’ve finally written the webcam post. Thanks for bearing with me.

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Jenny said...

I love this idea, both as a parent and as a teacher. I would love to be able to see my 2 year old's day every once in a while. She is at such a fabulous place (a home babysitter) I'm often wishing I could spend time there too.

As a teacher I would love for families to be able to 'be' in our classroom more. It would push me to be a better teacher too, which can't ever be a bad thing.

A friend in Fort Worth sent his son to a preschool that had webcams all over. I don't think they had mics, but I'm not sure. He loved it.

Deborah Stewart said...

Honestly Tom - I have mixed feelings about this idea.

As a parent, I would love to observe my own child and as a teacher, I would love to observe child interactions. But... yes, there is always a but...

There is something to be said about letting children have room to grow, expore, make mistakes, argue, play, laugh, cry, have potty accidents, spill their milk, pinch their neighbor, or say a naughty word without the world or people (other than the child's own parents) looking on. I would worry that as much as this would be appealing or even educational to adults - would it really respect the needs and privacy of the children?

But then again, Jenny talks about the positive feedback of others who have tried it.

Unknown said...

Tom, I know you are thinking of this with the best of intentions and love. I can see the benefit from a Teacher's perspective, probably the most benefit, and from a Parent's perspective who doesn't want more contact with their child in today's busy world.
From a child's eye this seems like a nightmare. I always love your analogy of preschool being like children playing in the communal backyards of our youth with the occasional parent checking in to make sure things are going ok. Humans need this freedom to develop and be. They need the freedom to be alone when needed or to be alone with others.
Certainly we are adults and need to supervise children and keep them safe but I can just see the Helicopters swooping in and deconstructing a conversation or an action taken earlier in the day. Now preschool is no longer their place it is just another space controlled by the "man". It's only a matter of time before the first preschooler flies the bird in front of the camera, I will applaud.
I am sure you will do the right thing, you have and always will be an inspiration to me as a teacher, you are the standard with which I judge my own teaching.

Caleb (ella's dad) said...

I would love the ability to peek into the classroom to see what Ella is up to when I don't have the opportunity to be there in person.

Being able to check in on what she was doing in school would be very valuable for me as a parent. I would be able to probe deeper into the "What did you do today at school?" question when I got home and have a deeper conversation because of it.

I think the negative that Deborah and Teacher Aaron notes is only a negative if the kids were aware of the webcams and felt vulnerable because of them. This is why I would not advocate for webcams in HS or in more advanced grades but do for PS/PK/K age kids. I think it's a great idea.

Eternal Lizdom said...

As a working mom, I'm torn on this issue.

1. I wouldn't leave my child in a place if I felt like I needed to be able to peek in via webcam. I know many parents who feel like cameras provide them security- I strongly disagree.

2. While I would love, love, love to be a fly on the wall to experience my child in her preschool environment or my son in his home daycare environment... and I would love to see them or hear them or just know what they were doing while we had to be apart...

3. I also wouldn't want to (trying to find the right words) mininterpret how the classroom is being handled... I wouldn't want to be so deeply involved that I question the teacher or director. Kind of goes back to #1.

To the point about deeper conversations and such- our school provides daily e-mails about what the kids did that day, the book that was read, activites, anything special that happened. Another school we considered actually had a little sheet of "car talk" ideas- conversation ideas for the car ride home based on what they'd done that day.

Launa Hall said...

Intriguing. I wonder if webcams would help debunk commonly held myths about preschool, and preschool teachers. I think preschools tend to be underfunded, and preschool teachers underpaid, because there's a general lack of awareness of how much learning and growth goes on in a good preschool. Webcams might shed some light. Yes, grandparents would LOVE it. I would value going back over footage of a particular difficult situation, to see if I can better help a child through it next time. Kind of like Vivian Gussin Paley did in ye olde tyme of cassette tapes.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

I think it's a great idea, in theory. However, with my "DO NOT TAKE MY PICTURE" issues, I would just DIE if I had to teach in a classroom with a camera. Not because I would worry what others would see, but because I wouldn't want my picture shown online. Seriously, I would DIE.

Jason, as himself said...

Yes, Pumpkin would die, I'll vouch for that. I like this idea, too, but what about the internet creeps out there? Maybe you would have to subscribe to get access, maybe? Or did you say that and I missed it?

kristin said...

i've always wanted them too. or a one-way window so families can peek in and not be seen.

however, now i am musing the concept of keeping preschool magical and private...the value in that.

maybe this is why i take so many photos: i want families to see the wonder of what i see.

susan said...

Ehh...I don't like it. Some people would be bored with it, others would be like those people in that bad Wym Wenders film where they learned to film their dreams, then woke up & spent all their times watching the dream films. Don't we all know what our kids looks like playing? And if I want to see Reid at school, I go & visit. And while security is a genuine concern, that's mostly not a fear there because you are a coop & let parents in. It would be a bigger concern in a place that didn't want visitors. And for sec, you could have cameras that snap a pic on demand. A still pic provides info but is so much less involving. I think kids need some of their experiences to be private. it gives them a chance to experience consequences & ponder over the results. If we know of every little lapse in perfect judgment & use it as a jumping off point for teaching or lecturing, then doesn't that erode their independence? And if we can discuss their entire day with them, even recounting conversations, when they didn't even know we were there, aren't we conditioning them to accept a big brother way of life? Is that what we want to condition them to?

Unknown said...

I wonder how good it would be for the children to know that they were always being watched.

It might be great. I don't know.

I have to think about this also. You always make me think.

allie said...

The other PreK teacher and I talked about webcams last year - we want to set up a laptop in each room with Skype installed (free internet video calling system) and the children would be able to call the other classroom, or we could just keep it on and make it a place where the children could watch the goings on in the other an observation window into the block area in the other classroom.

I'm torn on the streaming-classroom-doings-online thing. We share a lot of videos with the parents via our class website, which is password protected. Especially in the cooperative environment (which I used to work in), I think the parents see the classroom so much, and don't realize how much more they know about what their children are doing than most parents of preschoolers. And I think videos by teachers who are carefully documenting is great for "the other parent" and other family members.

What about using skype and video chatting with another coop class, in another school?

Thanks for getting us all thinking!